Waking Review

Ludonarrative dissonance

In one minute and thirty seconds, Google’s “Loretta” ad for the Super Bowl earlier this year had reduced a good bulk of the American population into a quivering mess. A heartbreaking portrait of dementia, it’s about an elderly man’s attempts to remember the quirks that make up his memories of his late wife: her beautiful handwriting, her disdain for his moustache, their favourite movie. It’s a kind of despair that’s as universal as it’s painful; you don’t have to personally experience the agony of holding onto the memories of someone you don’t want to forget, as a degenerative illness slowly robs you of these, to empathise with the sufferer.

Putting aside the ethical concerns behind giving Google, a creepy technology behemoth, free reign over our intimate moments, for now, this ad is compelling because stories like these are central to our existence. We subsist on them, and through these tales, we make sense of our universe and commiserate together. This is the premise with which Waking, a meditative action-adventure that promises players ample opportunities for introspection, is built upon. On paper, it seems to make perfect sense: what better way to anchor the audience to your story than to thrust them right into the heart of your tale? What if you can play a game that’s meticulously crafted around the very trials and tribulations in your life? What if there’s a game that’s astute enough to let you contemplate your real-life actions, rather than some fictional other’s decisions?

A bold premise

Videogames have been trying to do that for aeons now, with many offering players a blank slate of a protagonist they could project their identities and motivations onto. To some extent, we latched onto this with relative ease; discussions around games usually have an emphasis on the “I”, rather than what the protagonist did. “I attacked a mudcrab the other day,” you may say, rather than “trugamer69 attacked a mudcrab the other day.” We identify with the character. We eventually become our avatars. Waking, however, seeks to be even more literal than that. The game begins with a paragraph that cautions players with a history of depression, anxiety and self-harm that Waking is based on events in their lives, and thus may be triggering. While I have mild anxiety, it’s also my job to review the game, so I wisely ignored that warning. Then it asks me for my first name, my height and my gender. Make no mistake; Waking is so sincere about getting deep under my skin that it wants to put my pasty skin on as a skinsuit.

Except that when it comes to gender, Waking merely offers a binary choice: male or female. What’s a non-binary individual like myself going to choose? It’s questions like these, which are posed with startling frequency throughout the game, that will later pile up to be a reminder of its persistent sense of dissonance. While such questions can inspire thoughtful self-reflection at times–such as when it questions your motivations in life–at its worst, it can feel almost patronising, like an attempt to patch together a sketchy facsimile of your identity. When Waking is so dependent on crafting a deeply intimate experience, such mishaps can sound the death knell for the game.

But of course, painting a comprehensive picture of your identity is ultimately a fool’s errand. Whatever attempts at doing so will only succeed at conjuring mere shadows of your personality. Yet Waking persists nonetheless; it doggedly demands your immersion and meditation on it. Against my will, I find myself marvelling at its sheer conviction to succeed in this vision, and gosh, I really desperately wanted it to. Waking puts you through laborious levels of fending off adversaries with weapons named after your emotions (“glee”, “anger”, “joy”) and desires (“creativity”, “companionship”, “affluence”). It models itself after the Souls series–one of the difficulty levels is even described as a “Souls-like experience”–and takes pride in its punishing combat. Enemies will chase and tower over you, keen to fling projectiles towards you as they are wont to whisper foreboding thoughts about your bitter, melancholic existence. “Khee Hoon,” they address you by name, “What were the great struggles of your life? Why are you so unwilling to let go?” And after you’re done slaughtering these macabre figures, you’re invited to close your eyes and meditate on the events of your life with a winged angel.

I didn’t.

Incessant questions

When this cycle is done, Waking will insist for more details into your life. More, more and more. “What is the name of your pet?” I don’t have any. “What was your favourite childhood toy?” Well, Chinese kids like myself don’t receive toys, only books to study. “Who’s the person you cherished the most in your life?” To the last question, I answered with my partner’s name, and they became an apparition I can summon to fight alongside me. It’s an earnest gesture, but it’s also an oddly tactless one.

As a game that chiefly sells itself on its introspective qualities, Waking also tries to tap on the Souls series’ language of gruelling combat to inspire meditation–a feature probably rooted in the fact that many Souls players have found the series to be meditative. In a piece by Kotaku’s Mark Serrels, he noted that playing Dark Souls demands your absolute attention, an exercise to being in the moment. “You can’t be playing Dark Souls and thinking about what you ate for breakfast, or your plans for the weekend. You sure as hell can’t play and have a conversation. When you play Dark Souls, you need to be thinking about Dark Souls.”

One of the many ways to meditate is to immerse yourself in a series of repetitive movements, and artfully side-stepping the ten-millionth projectile while nailing the cadence of combat in Waking is just that. Performing such stunts against foes like a hulking, anthropomorphised hawk demands your utmost concentration, after all. But it’s also a rhythm that quickly gets hackneyed and tedious. Everything in this universe looks the same, sounds the same, feels the same. It doesn’t quite sustain your interest the way it’s supposed to, because you’ll never need to connect the dots in this story. You’re wielding weapons named after your emotions and connections in your life, using them to battle treacherous enemies that are wrestling in your dreams. With metaphors this obvious, you can probably bludgeon the same foes with them.

An impossible story to tell

We are all hard-wired to see stories even when these are not explicitly told, but these gaps are what draws us even closer to them. In theory, Waking sounds like a fascinating project, with the game showing hints of delivering a highly tailored, personal and transformative experience. But what begins as an exercise for intimate self-reflection wound up becoming an increasingly detached experience for the player. By putting them into the game in the most literal sense, Waking fell short when it was unable to capture all the nuances of its impossible protagonist: yourself. While I admire the boldness of its vision, I simply couldn’t connect with the extent of its execution.

[Reviewed on PC]