A Space for the Unbound review - a slice of life, and all its pain
Plenty of indie games deal with anxiety and depression, but few contain such raw and mighty anguish as A Space for the Unbound. Following a group of teenagers through the difficulties of school life and beyond - beyond in space as much as time - it's appropriately awkward at times, rushing over-eagerly in some areas, dawdling for far too long in others and frequently figuring it out as it goes. With that teenage earnestness comes buckets of charm though and, more importantly, a genuine, raw sincerity. A Space for the Unbound feels a lot, and it feels hard, and it's intoxicating as a result.
After a big and frankly traumatic prologue, which concludes with one of the most memorably upsetting first-person sequences I've experienced, A Space for the Unbound settles in as a kind of slice-of-life narrative adventure following Atma, a teenage boy at school in 90s Indonesia. Its setting is a blessing. The rural town you jog around is both quaint and otherworldly, a handful of connected roads featuring the nostalgic everyday - food carts, convenience stalls, a couple of strolling locals - but standing up isolated against the bubblegum pixel-art skyboxes like old Western movie sets, two-dimensional and out of time.
To many players the familiar waypoints of adolescence - first dates, school reports, Game Boys, parents - will anchor you in a place so specific that it likely feels refreshingly unfamiliar. For Indonesian players specifically there seem to be references aplenty - to traditional music, comfort food, historic festivals - while its more explicitly paranormal elements, of which there are plenty, do the work in unbinding. This is really the heart of it in A Space for the Unbound: familiarity and unreality mixing together, throwing you off, bamboozling you into dropping guard. The way developer Mojiken has managed that across cultures is quite something, making something so specific to one place and time feel so universal, with such panache.
At times the mundanity, while it serves a purpose in bedding you into the world and lulling you into a kind of dreamlike comfort, can drag. A good chunk of A Space for the Unbound, namely the couple of hours after the prologue, are what you might call storyless. You go to school but your girlfriend wants to bunk off, so you have to complete a few little tasks to find a way off campus. A guy's runaway dog is in the way, chasing a cat up a tree, so you have to complete a few tasks to rescue the cat and catch the dog. You need to bake a cake but there are no ingredients, and on and on. For a little while it can feel directionless, a series of short-term objectives put off by menial tasks, which invariably come in groups of three. Eventually, though, it clicks.
A Space for the Unbound's trick is something called Spacedive, a mechanic where Atma, with a magic book, can dive into the minds, or 'hearts', of obstinate people who contrive to get in your way, rearranging thoughts in order to change their mind. Again, this often involves excruciatingly simple puzzles rigorously bound to the rule of three, but gradually they become, if not sophisticated, at least more complex. You'll be diving in and out of people's minds, into minds within minds, into timelines within timelines, collecting objects from the past to put them into sockets into a mind. At its best it's wonderfully playful, too, with combat referencing Street Fighter - you learn it from an arcade cabinet and a wizened, if downtrodden sensei who can't pull himself away - and more Spacedive puzzles having you collect evidence for Ace Attorney-aping courtroom melodramas.
Along with this you'll collect bottle caps, fill out pages of a mysterious storybook-cum-prophecy, work through a nightmarish obsession with cats, and laugh, if you're much like me. A Space for the Unbound is quietly funny when it wants to be, with dry little one-liners from townsfolk peppering humour at you when least expected. And in many cases you will be deeply, maybe profoundly moved, not least by a shattering climax near A Space for the Unbound's end. This is a desperately sad story, you'll discover - the story itself, I mean, regardless of an ending I won't spoil. It's simply the nature of A Space for the Unbound's world, its gradually swelling, unbearable claustrophobia, the sense of panic, inevitability, resistance, the playing off of comfort and existential danger, the blur of real and unreal. This game is messy, and it gets no less messy as you dive deeper and deeper into it. The mess is the point. This is not tidy subject matter, and there are no tidy answers. But step back to view it as a whole, and it's magic.