Survival horror gets personal in The Piano

Mental illness is a major topic in Mistaken Visions’ debut, out next week.

Mistaken Visions’ debut project, The Piano, releases on Monday 4th June – and it’s made with fans of the survival horror genre, as well as of noir tales and psychological thrillers, in mind. It’s a fusion of traditional survival horror, adventure game puzzling, edge-of-seat stealth sections, and a deep and personal story. With mental health as a pivotal subject for its narrative, this dark tale set in 1940s Paris packs a profound punch as we journey through its protagonist’s mind.

The Piano tells the story of John Barnerway, one of four sons born to an American father and a French mother, who’s accused of being responsible for his brothers’ deaths. As we learn more about his past and relationship with his siblings and parents, we’ll join John on a surreal journey through the streets of Paris in search for answers, aided by his psychiatrist’s notes and interpretations.

With a media witch-hunt against John and his own mental illness in the way, this labyrinthine psychological puzzle thriller reflects a unique approach on these genres, as well as some engaging storytelling.

“There’s something about the atmosphere of European cities in the early-to-mid 1900s that really appeals to me, and it seemed to match well with the low-saturated, noir feel that had started to emerge early in development,” says Jonathan Stemmildt, a.k.a. Mistaken Visions, the Hamburg-based developer who’s been working on The Piano for more than five years.

Indeed, exploring The Piano’s setting proves to be a creepy and dark experience, the game beginning in the narrow alleys of 1940s Paris, as we search for clues and memories to progress in John’s search for answers. It’s immediately clear that John is mentally ill – and, as Stemmildt explains, “writing about these issues is never easy.”

The Piano

“It’s a big issue in our society and people are suffering this very moment. Almost all my friends and family have had at least some mental health problems,” he says, “and I myself had mental health issues in the past. So mental health for me is an everyday topic.”

The Piano seeks to portray this internal struggle in a way that feels real – and Stemmildt hopes it proves relevant in a day and age where stigma is lifting, and such topics are surfacing through many narrative forms.

In terms of the game’s style, though, The Piano hits on the supernatural detective vibe of Alan Wake and Murdered: Soul Suspect, but is mainly reminiscent of classic psychological horror titles such as Silent Hill, Siren, and Alone in the Dark. “Silent Hill is a particularly important influence,” says Stemmildt. “It’s a big franchise, and it was one of the first games I played when I was young that was darker than the usual. I feel like we need more games like these, and I remember the older survival horror games fondly. This is why The Piano is a third-person game, and I think it really works.”

But as The Piano unfolds, its atmosphere suggests some inspiration of other narrative mediums than video games. As well as film noir – which Stemmildt says was a key early influence in getting the “tone” right – Sherlock Holmes, and French silent surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou also receive a namecheck. Plus, The Piano features a ‘sanity’ meter, which John must keep filled lest he become overwhelmed and faint – reminiscent of certain Lovecraftian-overtoned indie horror games of recent years.

With five years of development now over, Stemmildt is getting prepared to see his first title reach players all around the world on June 4th. “This has been a humble, grassroots, low-budget project,” he says, “but I am very happy with the result. I’ve learned so much during development. The Piano will always be a very special project for me and letting it go is bittersweet. Now, I’m ready for future projects. And I can’t wait to see what people think about the game, both positive and negative.”

The Piano will be available for PC on June 4th. It will retail for $9.99 (or just $7.49 during launch week) and you can add it to your wishlist now via its Steam page.

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