by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Sometimes people fail despite noble intentions, and, if nothing else, I commend Shadows and Dust for taking a novel approach to an important subject matter. Dealing with issues of depression, anxiety, and suicide is an incredibly delicate task and while I ultimately disliked most of what the game had to offer, itís clear that its heart is in the right place. Part walking simulator, part visual novel (briefly?), the game tells a 30-minute story of a father suffering from mental illness as he tries to reconcile his past decisions with his adolescent son.
Thereís not much to actually do in Shadows and Dust. Bouncing back and forth between a bedroom and disembodied conversations with your son, there are only a few feet to move and conversation responses to click. What becomes immediately clear is that the entire game is a horribly awful sensory experience. When speaking to your son, the screen is black with a strangely, unpleasantly partial image of a face that appears to have been run through some ďfind edgesĒ and ďouter glowĒ filters on photoshop, and constant, overwhelmingly loud static loops on repeat. While in the bedroom thereís a constant assault of loud, repetitive effects, an unappealingly mish-mashed art style and carnivalesque music.
Good Idea, Bad Execution
The tricky part about lambasting the aggressiveness of the sensory experience is that I understand it was done on purpose. With the narrative being about a man falling deeper and deeper into anxiety and depression, I understand the artistic intention behind imparting the uncomfortableness and drive towards isolation that can come with those mental illnesses. I just donít like the way that theyíre implemented. The ringing of the phone and knocking on the door never stop while in the bedroom. Perhaps having them start out sparingly and slowly increase them would be better? There is an increase in distortion and effect, but the dial is already turned up to 9 from the start. It may also have helped if there had been more to do, as even in 30 minutes the cycle of ďget yelled at on the phone, get yelled at by the door, go to bed and hear a few lines from your sonĒ becomes monotonous and dull (which, again, I understand may have been done on purpose, but that doesnít make it any more engaging).
Towards the end of the experience, which Iíll only partially spoil narratively, things get weird. As the player-character is faced with the climax of their and their sonís decisions, the game attempts a pseudo-abstract jump into intentional glitches. Iíll give the game credit here - while Iíve seen lots of games artificially create the mirage of glitches, as far as I could tell, Shadows and Dust really does trigger them. I found myself clipping through walls and floors, facing screen-freeze, and jumping between different sizes and locations. Again, unfortunately, it wasnít fun to play through. I was stuck in a room with a table and a cake, and, when I just started glitching out, there didnít seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why. I was in that room, snapping around until the game decided to move me on, which instantly dropped my right back off at the beginning of the game.
Now, I see how looping an ending back into the beginning could have been used to narrative effect (and there are a number of games that have done so), it just doesnít seem to carry any meaningful significance here. I actually didnít know if I was back at the beginning at first since the game takes place in only one physical location. I played a bit through the game again wondering if I was supposed to for some reason. Some games bring you back to the beginning, but the second run has changes caused by your first ďrunĒ (see: Doki Doki Literature Club or Nier Automata), but that isnít the case here from what I can tell. I tried to look up gameplay videos to see if I had experienced a legitimate glitch. Well, itís not a glitch, but I canít help but feel that having an ending would have better served the experience.
I really wanted to like Shadows and Dust, but I didnít. While I find it noble to bring attention to mental illness and attempt to help the audience sympathize with the difficulties and frustrations that many people suffer, it doesnít come together in a way that I found entertaining, moving, or particularly interesting. With such a short run time (and the game being free-to-play) it might be worth jumping in and checking for yourself, but, for me, the experience just didnít click.
Deals with the worthwhile issue of better understanding mental illness, takes risks with its presentation.
Those risks donít pay off, gameplay and presentation are frustrating.