Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Despair in Life and Death: Wither

What's this? More GameBoy graphics on the almighty PC? Surely a modern PC can handle better graphics than the 1989 portable gaming brick, right? Well, yes, they can, but this is a design choice called style. I guess.

Wither is a free RPG Maker game by Rastek. It's a short adventure game where your only goal is to collect 12 flowers to place on your recently-deceased brother's gravestone. There's no combat or any other tricky nonsense, you just explore the small town, talk to people, find clues, and collect flowers. The game design is intelligent, with sufficient clues to guide you through without obvious solutions, but the story (or premise, perhaps the better term) is the real hook as you try to figure out what happened and what's going on.

This one is open to interpretation, meaning that a lot of its meaning comes from your own thoughts and reactions. These kinds of games have a tendency to come off as pretentious, but I don't get that vibe from Wither: it's a solid game with enough cranial stimulation to make it worth recommending. (It takes about 30 minutes to play.) My own analysis comes after the jump.

Wither is a game that's best played without any knowledge going into it, so my advice is that if you trust my recommendation, just go ahead and play it because you'll appreciate the game more discovering things for yourself. The following doesn't contain any major spoilers (there's big text where you should stop reading), but read at your own risk.

The game opens with a single line of text:

That's all you get. Who is "him," and why would I be promising him flowers? Who am "I," even, in this situation? This is the kind of in media res introduction that will either make you curious about the back-story, or make it harder for you to care about what's going on. But since it's literally the very beginning of the game (and because you're a sensible person who always plays at least a few minutes of a game before quitting) you keep playing, hoping or expecting things to come together.

And so you start out next to a graveyard with one person standing near the entrance. You talk to him and, after a brief introduction, he says ". . . oh, yes of course, he was buried today." He tells you which headstone is "his," and when you inspect it, a dialogue pops open that says "How can I forgive you, if you can't even fulfill your own promise? I think it'd be better if you leave now."

This confused me at first, because it sounds like it's your own character talking to the gravestone (since there's no one else around), but that second sentence doesn't make much sense, since you can't tell a headstone to leave.

With that enigmatic introduction out of the way, your only option is to walk right and begin exploring the town and talking to its denizens. For the most part, the NPCs just talk about themselves or about the environment. Someone says he's having nightmares and so he's going to sleep at the hotel. Another person hints at a hidden treasure in the library. Another person says she's waiting for a birthday package to arrive in the mail.

Almost every NPC is actually telling you something important that you need to know, so it's important to talk to everyone. They're the ones who give you clues about where to find flowers and reveal things about the backstory. I'm not going to narrate the whole game for you (you'll just have to play it for yourself), but certain bits of dialogue start to suggest that things aren't quite right:

 Click these images for full size

This is where the spoilers really start, so if you haven't played the game yet I'd recommend you stop reading and play it

Other incidents that come to light: you apparently live in a house with two beds, but you're now sleeping in the local hotel because the woman in your house (is she your girlfriend?) won't forgive you for something. The front end of your car has been smashed. Someone has been hospitalized because they were hit by drunk drivers. You have nightmares about a sea of islands connected by giant bones. Someone hung himself in the hotel over the death of his own brother.

Anyway, once you've collected all of the flowers, you can bring them back to your brother's gravestone, at which point a voice says "I see. Come inside, then." The headstone then moves back and a hole opens for you to enter. Descending into your brother's grave eventually brings you to a river where a ferryman charges two coins for you to cross. Venturing into caves, you can find two coins and bring them back to him. He then takes you back to the boneyards from your nightmares, where you meet someone (presumably your brother) who only says "Let's go."

That's it. No clear resolution, no explanation as to what happened. If you weren't paying attention, you might have missed it and felt let-down by the ending, but there are some good hints along the way.

The backstory seems to be that you and your brother were drunk driving one day and had an accident with another driver that killed your brother and sent you and the other driver to the hospital. The nurses in the hospital comment "How are your wounds healing?" suggesting that you were in the hospital at some point, and when you look in a mirror you see cuts on your face. When you interact with your car parked outside of your house, the front end wrecks itself before your very eyes, and one of the hospital visitors remarks "A friend of mine was a victim of a hit and run. Goddamned drunks! They should be the ones in the hospital."

I'm not sure about the woman in your house. There are two beds there, and one of them is definitely yours. She might be your girlfriend who kicked you out of the house for driving under the influence, or maybe she's your brother's girlfriend and she won't forgive you for getting him killed. Apparently your brother gave her a flower at some time, so that might suggest they were a couple at one point.

From here my guess is that you've already committed suicide by the start of the game, and that you're just walking around as a ghost of your former self whom everyone recognizes and can talk with. There's the man who hung himself in the hotel where you were sleeping; they don't identify him, but it's clear that it was a suicide. He died with a flower on his person (you're trying to collect flowers), and left a note that says he's killing himself because of the death of his brother (your brother just died). Even the guy in the woods mentions that people go there to get lost and kill themselves (and you intentionally get lost in there, yourself).

The voice that you hear from the gravestone at the beginning ("How can I forgive you, if you can't even fulfill your own promise?") seems to be the voice of your own brother talking to you. Apparently he knows about your promise to give him the 12 flowers, and him saying that you couldn't keep that promise might suggest that you killed yourself before doing so.

Entering your brother's grave and crossing a river (much like crossing the river Styx in Greek mythology, the passageway between Earth and the Underworld) is symbolic of joining your brother in the after-life. This is further hinted at when you meet him in the place of your nightmares and he says "Let's go," walking together off the screen. Another interesting thing to take note of in your brother's grave is a small spot with a wrecked car and two piles of skeleton bones:

The wrecked car looks just like the one outside your house. One of the corpses could represent your brother's death, while the second one could be your own (if you're already dead) or maybe the other driver (if you're still alive). You can't actually get to these spots in the grave, it's just there as a visual symbol, which only serves to reinforce the "drunk driving" backstory.

Or perhaps your character's not dead at the start of the game, and he's just so distressed that he projects his own guilty conscience onto the world around him. Maybe the guy in the hotel didn't actually kill himself over the death of his brother, and maybe your character is just reading too much into it and seeing it the way he wants to see it. After all, there is a note in your hotel room that says "Maybe she'll forgive me if I show her what I'm doing," which doesn't quite sound like something that someone who's about to kill himself would say. And one of the characters in your nightmare (the same boneland where you meet your brother) says:

This might mean that you're only dreaming about this land of death, and that because you're still alive you "shouldn't even be here." Maybe you're still alive the whole time and only kill yourself at the very end, when you join your brother. Or maybe the whole game is just a nightmare.


This is why I really like Wither; it tells a story in a way that requires the player to use your own brain matter to put the pieces together yourself. That kind of story always feels more interactive and more engaging to me, because you're not just passively being told everything. A lot of games are intentionally vague in order to seem more artistic, but Wither balances the line of avoiding pretentiousness by actually giving you solid clues and details to piece together a sensible story. There's still room for your own interpretations of things, but there is an actual, concrete story here, and it's really satisfying to figure things out for yourself.

One more thing that stands out to me is when one of the NPCs says this to you:

To me, this is the game's strongest message.You do this throughout the game: you keep the detectives company during their investigation, you keep a mortician company while she's examining corpses, you keep a fisherman company while he fishes, and so on. You might even say that joining your brother at the end of the game is an act of keeping him company. (Although I'm sure the game isn't advocating suicide to keep your deceased loved-ones company.) It's a very simple point that just being there for people you love can be powerful and healing, that sometimes that's all you need to do. Which is a nice theme to take out of this slightly morbid, stifling game.


  1. Awesome review... explained a lot I hadn't thought about the game before.

  2. I thought I had the whole thing covered, but the idea about "keeping everyone company" I didn't realize. Throughout the game you were keeping people company, and I didn't even realize at the time.

    All grieving people need sometimes is company of another.