Stylish isometric visuals, venerable point-and-click puzzle design and a brooding tale of family tragedy are hitched more than a little awkwardly together in The Almost Gone, a new morsel of misery from Belgian developer Happy Volcano. Fragmentary explorations of memory and loss are fashionable these days, but Kentucky Route Zero this ain't.
That is, perhaps, an unfair comparison. The games have different roots; Cardboard Computer's rambling, surreal slice of Americana is a gorgeously illustrated text adventure, a purely narrative experience. The Almost Gone is fundamentally a puzzle game, a work of graphic design and logic chains, with a tale of trauma written over and around it. (The game's official site features a statement from writer Joost Vandecasteele admitting that his job was to "inject" a story into the atmosphere conjured by Happy Volcano's art.) And that's the problem; the pathos it lunges for, often clumsily, is unearned.
The Almost Gone is narrated by a disembodied voice, apparently of a young girl, as you and she explore her surroundings: a detailed but imperfect reconstruction of the house she grew up in, the street she lived on, and other locations from her family history. The illusion is broken and incomplete; tree branches grow through rooms, the pages of books are blank and some houses are just empty façades, like movie sets.
These locations are divided up into small, tidy isometric portions which you can flick between, rotate and prod at with a pointer. (Navigating the game on Switch was fiddly and laggy; I suspect it plays more naturally in its Steam and mobile versions.) The art is the most striking and successful thing about the game - the way it disrupts the clean, undisturbed lines of an architect's drawing to expose the unease and subjective human messiness beneath. Sometimes - not as often as I would like - solving the puzzles involves rotating the scene until you can see behind the curtain, as it were, and pry into hidden aspects of the world.
I can't say I warmed as much to the puzzles themselves, which seemed a rather clunky throwback to the cause-and-effect chains of the LucasArts adventures of the late 80s and early 90s. Occasionally, they depend on total non-sequiturs (presumably explained away by the game's dream logic) and too often devolve into mindless clicking around and trying every permutation of lock and key. When the designers try to dovetail them with the miserable beats of Vandecasteele's story, the results are so on the nose as to be unintentionally hilarious - like the wedding cake that divides neatly in half, splitting the the figures of the couple that top it, and revealing a pregnancy test inside. What could it mean?
Worse, though, is the script itself. Perhaps something has been lost in translation to English, but the way this dark personal history has been expressed is clod-hopping and clichéd. With so much tragedy and trauma loaded into such a short game, it feels not so much like a story that Vanecasteele or Happy Volcano really felt the need to tell, as like a grim use of personal trauma as a selling point.
Moreover, I just don't think this kind of writerly intervention is necessary. Happy Volcano should have the confidence that puzzle games can tell stories innately - whether it's the gentle, meaningful reassemblies of UsTwo's Assemble With Care or the dense thought experiment of Jonathan Blow's extraordinary The Witness. Let the puzzles speak for themselves; you might be surprised at how much they have to say.