Xbox One, PC
June 19, 2020
I’ve played quite a fair few video games that explore mental illness or death. Fractured Minds offers a realistic and unique way to experience death. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice allowed me to understand further what it’s like to live with psychosis. Hell, even upcoming game Spiritfarer explores these themes in an emotional and heartfelt way that has me excited. However, none have asked me to be okay with and acknowledge my inevitable demise more than recent indie game Waking. Bit bleak, I’m twenty-two. I surely still have a bit in me, right?
In the opening, players are asked their name, height, gender (alas, only binary options here) and weight type (a slider with the iffy choices of “thin,” “middle” and “extra”). I obeyed; no silly names or incorrect answers here. It’s important to do so too because in Waking, players play as themselves, in a coma and at death’s door. Thankfully, you’ll still have some fight in you. The player’s goal is to (hopefully) break out of their comatose state, keeping the “machines,” hellbent on pulling you completely under, at bay.
When exploring the world of Waking, it’ll all take place in the player’s fragmented, slowly dying mind. Imagery here is unordinary and, at the best of times, quite a varied look at some of the talent indie artists can produce. You’ll wander through palace halls and even find a courtyard featuring a gigantic dead tree with red energies glowing from the root. In the not so great, you’ll trudge through ethereal environments too incomprehensible for their own good, with dungeons as dull and empty as the gameplay often feels. Due to its narrative, the game warrants such environments, but they don’t function and are a slog to experience.
“The entire point of Waking is that it’s a personalised experience.”
The entire point of Waking is that it’s a personalised experience. Players control a hooded figure where the character’s face is deliberately obscured, intending for them to envision that as themselves. Further questions after the introductions are also asked to help deliver the game in different ways. One big question asks players what their life’s greatest desires are. From an assortment of choices, I opted with safety and belonging. It didn’t translate in huge ways except for the fact that they became fun ways to name your (soon to be covered) abilities and attacks. They’re inconsequential, sure, but it still felt nice that my two important wishes in life were, somehow, used to aid me.
Metaphors and similes are aplenty in Waking. “Beliefs” is a conjured magical shield to protect yourself from projectiles, “Knowledge” are items thrown at oppressors while “feelings” are a true strength; an actual melee weapon to be used. Yes, it’s all quite literal. There are a large variety of anecdotes about death and life throughout the game too. It’s how a lot of the narrative is explored. Clear a room, complete the objective, and a weird figure gives you some lines about mortality. Then repeat. It doesn’t all work, but it’s still nice to see untraditional ways to think about death in games.
Though magical shields and abilities sounds promising, it’s unfortunately without a doubt the dullest part of the game. Whether it’s unoriginal monster designs such as a creature with a human torso and Moose head, or a random glowing orb entity you fight, it’s quite uninspired. Telekinesis is also on offer, blasting barrels, pallets and the likes into your foes to weaken them. Though, don’t expect it to play as fun as 2019’s Control. Often, I found myself just awkwardly circle-strafing enemies in small arenas, dodging when I can and firing projectiles in the little openings I got. Boring.
Waking has promising ideas that only manage to go so far
Perhaps my favourite part of the game is the times an angelic figure would visit you at your bedside. She serves as a meditative break from big moments, asking to close one’s eyes and just tune into her beautiful voice. On one occasion, she’ll ask to think back to a beloved and dearly departed childhood pet. When it was over, I went with my previous dog’s name, Bubbles, and picked a silhouetted image that fit closest to him. Stepping outside, and bounding across a field towards me was none other than Bubbles. I got to scoop him up, hug him, and then he became my companion in the game, fighting alongside me. This no doubt will be the most special moment for anyone that plays the game. Waking is quite manipulative in that way, heavily relying on one’s own emotional, personal stories to reflect on. When it works, it really works.
Waking also could’ve improved by shortening its scope. It runs near twenty hours long and honestly, it could’ve made for a better product if its length was halved. Already, three or so hours in, it began feeling like a slog. It’ll no doubt leave players feeling at ends with Waking. A lot of passion, great ideas and moments are there, but they’re hurt desperately by the game’s overambitious length as well as the torturous ‘going through the motions’ nature.
- Waking is a game great at tugging on the ol' heart strings.
- Great ideas and some pretty words to be said about death.
- Very effective in its meditative moments.
- Gameplay, whether it's combat or exploring, is clunky and a slog.
- Way overstays its welcome, making it quite literally a pain to finish.
- When environments don't work, they really don't work
I wanted to like Waking. It’ll, for many, be one of the most slow and painful games to play this year. It’s a bummer too, its concept is quite fresh and original, but isn’t always explored to perfection. At least I’ll always have those fond memories of my dearly departed childhood pet, something stronger than ever thanks to Waking. If only that was enough for the game’s sake.