The Shattering is an inconsistent exploration of mental health, with enough memorable and unique ideas to be worth a tentative recommendation.
The title of The Shattering, perhaps unsurprisingly for a first-person narrative game, refers to a shattering of the mind; most of the game takes place in the tattered one of John Evans, who is undergoing regression therapy. The insistent, encouraging voice of his therapist guides him – and by extension the player – through various portions of his life, most of which are defined by trauma of one kind or another. Each stark-white vignette assembles gradually, with splashes of colour put to often clever effect, even if neither John nor his doctor are characters in the traditional sense. Both are avatars through which the game explores some ideas about mental health, some memorable and unique, others familiar, and a couple scarcely worth having.
This detached and abstract approach to character makes The Shattering impersonal and as emotionally sterile as its aesthetic. I never got a sense of who John was beyond a collection of self-destructive impulses; his mind and memories are both fraught with cliché, and that lack of specificity makes a traipse through recollections of brutal schooling, for instance, played-out rather than insightful or haunting.
The Shattering is full of moments like this, and its narrative contains a lot of deliberate ambiguity. There isn’t enough of a dramatic throughline to really pull players through John’s memories, so the appeal becomes the occasionally novel ways in which the game frames these ideas of a reconstructing psyche. That aforementioned school section has some effective moments in how it depicts, through interaction, the immense pressure of being a child surrounded by callous peers and domineering authority. A later section during which John writes a short story by veering between the computers in identikit office cubicles, each idea adding more colour and imagination to the scene, is a stand-out example of creativity breaching the monotony of the everyday rat race.
These are the game’s good ideas. But much of its gameplay, which consists entirely of walking (or running) and interacting with specific items or opening doors, gives itself over to the tedium that its visuals do a good enough job of evoking on their own. Almost every environment in The Shattering is a small area around which you potter until you prod the right object to progress. A particularly egregious misstep comes during a late sequence in which John is unpacking his belongings in a new home. The player roams from one room to the next, clicking on boxes of furnishings and crockery so that they occupy their rightful place. The metaphor is obvious, and not entirely ineffective, but the thoughtless way it’s navigated by the player only results in boredom and frustration.
This section, like most of The Shattering, is entirely linear. Occasionally the player is asked to make choices in the form of dialogue responses or John’s interpretation of inkblot tests, though I can’t really say that your decisions amount to anything. The game feels at its best when it’s developing along predetermined lines anyway; its highlights, at least aesthetically, are when its spaces live up to the game’s title, breaking apart and coming back together in new compositions. These stark shifts can be really affecting in expressing the feeling of being yanked from comfort and familiarity to a scenario more alien and hostile, but they’d undeniably work better if we also had an incline of how they related specifically to John.
This remains the game’s most significant underlying problem; it’s a narrative experience without much of a narrative. But as an abstract audio-visual experiment there are, I think, enough clever ideas and impactful touches in The Shattering to make it worth a recommendation. Almost every element – from the visuals to the voice acting to the progression – is a mixed bag, but each is successful often enough that the game is never actively unpleasant to play through, even if it can occasionally become dull or too full of itself to be liked. At only a few hours long, the experience is fleeting, and how much of it sticks with you will probably vary from player to player. But I’m confident that The Shattering will leave some kind of debris in the minds of most, which I suppose is fitting enough.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.