Indie games truly are great. I think it’s so easy to pass right over them for the bigger spectacle or nicer graphics, but creativity often comes from necessity. Without huge budgets or teams, they are forced to think outside the cardboard box or entirely destroy to return to the roots in which it came from.
Sarawak is a callback to the roots of gaming itself. Taking inspiration from Lucas Arts, Double Fine and all those creative adventure games from yesteryear, it rejuvenates them with an incredibly pleasing lick of paint.
That lick of paint is bright and vibrant with plenty of pastel colours. This love of the literature and art Sarawak holds flourishes with its Matissean cut out art style, many literary references, and its genuine charm. The issue with charm like Sarawak’s is that it relies on the subtle build of its world rather than punching you in the gut with creativity. It envelopes you slowly as you get accustomed to it.
I should much rather have a heart
There is something rather underwhelming to the start of Sarawak. I clicked “New game” and “1. Dreaming Spires Hotel” popped up in front of me. Like most game players needlessly handheld by the comfort of tutorials, I was surprised to find nothing happening – that was until I clicked and dragged the page. Sarawak is a story told through you manually making your way through scripts, pages, letters and much more. The world started to introduce itself; colours flashed across the screen, music filled my ears. It is simplistic in design but oh so effective. That’s the thing about flashy design and the triple-A. Once that curtain is pulled back, the game reveals the duct tape holding up that facade – “Oz, both Great and terrible.” Indie games tend to foster this almost parasocial relationship with their designer, clueing you into their thoughts, their ideas, their world for a brief time.
Sarawak’s story isn’t quite as satisfying as I’d like it to be, but it kept a consistent smile on my face as it unfurled.
The world of Sarawak is explored very briefly. Taking just under an hour for my first run through and discovering most of the main objectives and branching paths, this is a game that won’t last you very long. This being said, it left an impression on me far greater than the sum of its parts. Those parts fade in, leave and swap around at will to shape the story. As far as gameplay is concerned, all you need is a mouse (or a trackpad, I guess) to get the full experience out of it. It is one part novel and another part a puzzle game. You are often left reading chunks of text and picking responses before you are greeted with a funny sight, a strange clue or some odd way of solving the path ahead. It almost feels reminiscent of WarioWare in its fast-moving puzzles and creativity. You might have to flip around a sign, do a crossword puzzle, search around a house using blueprints or something that’s not worth spoiling for a review.
You are often left to casually explore the accompanying pictures around you to flip the perspective and tackle it from another angle. The same could be applied to the story itself. You are dropped into the deep end after your mother is caught up in a murder case, and you have to track down what involvement your family has. It plays into this noir style with minimalist designs accentuating the background and clothing whilst entirely removing the faces of the characters you meet. The same is not said for pictures and things like this, putting the storytelling perspective directly in the hands of our main character. It has you following hunches sneaking into buildings, investigating literature and much more.
But one is never so pretty after being mended, you know
These hunches let you make decisions to an extent that shape a bit of the future of the game, but it never pushes that so far as to feel like a full-blown visual novel or something like the old school ZORK. It is fundamentally an adventure puzzle game with a defined start and end. This means the hour, or so it takes you to finish may likely be your only run at Sarawak. The story is intriguing and unfurls in an interesting way but fails to come together to provide something new. The story itself doesn’t seem to be the full focus of Sarawak. The focus is on the adventure and not the end. “If we walk far enough… We shall sometime come to someplace.”
It helps that the journey itself is one worth taking. As the pleasant music floated into my ears, the lovely visuals ran by; I found something comforting, something wholly indie. Sarawak is a short game; its story isn’t quite as satisfying as I’d like it to be, but it kept a consistent smile on my face as it unfurled, the crumpled pieces of paper folding out into something really special, despite its creases. As a sign of what this team could achieve in the future, I’m very hopeful. As an experience itself, it’s lovely despite its flaws.
“People would rather live in homes regardless of its greyness. There is no place like home.”