There are two ways to develop a game narrative: branching paths based on player choice or a linear path for the player to sit back and experience. Die Gute Fabrik’s Mutazione (pronounced moo-tat-seona) tries for a middle-of-the-road approach, but ultimately, it’s a perfect example of the latter. A game with no platforming, no combat, no voice acting, no way to lose, and no real need to even touch the keyboard if you don’t want to hinges on the success of its narrative, and Mutazione delivers on every level.
What exactly is the difference between the branching and linear paths? It seems obvious, doesn’t it? However, from a writing standpoint, the differences reach further than just a matter of choice. Whenever the player has control over the events of the story, the characters require more flexibility in order to give weight to the decisions made. This means the plot elements need to shoulder extra responsibility in terms of carrying the experience for the player; when we can’t expect consistent characters, we often need more fantastical and interesting plots. In linear storytelling, writers flip the script. If we have no true control over the characters, it becomes the writer’s job to create a bond between the characters and the players in order to keep eyes on the screen. This is how we all look back fondly on games like The Last of Us, Uncharted, Firewatch, etc.
For the same reason, the indie circle of gaming will look back fondly on Mutazione. As a young girl, Kai, trying to heal your grandfather back to health, you become enthralled with the mystery of the small island of mutants that he lives on. This means falling head over heels for the characters who all bring unique perspectives to the various plots of the town. While the story largely belongs to creative director Nils Deneken, Hannah Nicklin was the sole writer credited for the game, and her brilliance shines through in a mountainous way. Every character reads beautifully and plays an important role in the dynamic of the town in different ways. This creates a complex narrative that looks much like a stereotypical cork board in a police station with dozens of pieces of string crossing over each other and connecting the various elements of an investigation.
The complexity of each character on an emotional level elevates Mutazione to one of the best indie titles to come out of 2019. According to my almighty Steam library, I completed everything there is to do in the game in seven hours, yet somehow, the characters and story were able to touch on an army of subjects, small and large, in a meaningful and complete way, including adultery, love, murder, loss, depression, guilt, escapism, fear, peace, and emotional strength. On a personal note, I greatly appreciate a game that can make a statement without defaulting to gender, race, sexuality, and religion. Instead, Mutazione takes issues that are more inward and less societal to spin a compelling tale of a young girl and her grandfather. My only complaint on this matter is that Kai feels a little too one-dimensional at times. Over the grand scheme of the game, she, of course, is the most dynamic character, but you miss that in the moment-to-moment dialogue; she often comes off as a way to move the plot forward as opposed to a fully realized character. Even if Kai gets overshadowed by her supporting cast, she still takes charge of the events of the game and is responsible for the grandest revelations.
While I talk big about the density of the narrative, the gameplay is about as dense as the air on a summer day in Egypt (ah, yes, chemistry jokes). This is a walking simulator if there ever was one. While I typically don’t have issues playing a walking simulator, Die Gute Fabrik just couldn’t get the pacing of one down in Mutazione. The world contains stretches of landscape where there’s nothing but artwork to look at. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this, but problems arise after five or six hours through when you realize you aren’t interested in seeing all of the artwork anymore because it hasn’t changed. A 3D space gives an extra dimension to everything: gameplay, landscape, artwork, vegetation, etc. The 2D space of Mutazione means you easily get tired slowly going from right to left, and vice versa, across the same painting too many times. It’s an odd critique because all of the elements of this issue — two dimensions, walking simulator, slow movement — are perfectly fine on their own, but when they’re combined, it can be an irritation in a game that otherwise boasts a captivating experience.
Granted, this isn’t meant to be a game that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Nils Deneken intended for this game to be a “relaxing” game; you’re intended to lean back in your chair, let go, and just go with the flow of the experience. Deneken discusses this in the PAX West interview I had with him about the game back in September. However, the monotony can be a bit tiresome.
Thankfully, the audio design curbs some of the monotony. The intricately-placed, small noises of the world set the mood and atmosphere perfectly. Even while you mindlessly walk through places in the game with little to do, you are accompanied by a symphony of crickets, footsteps, frogs, a fireplace, or something else. No moment is without sound, and no sound is wasted. In fact, each character has a unique voice. No, there’s no voice acting. However, each character has been given a fitting sound that plays as their text dances across the screen. What an ingenious detail that truly brings the characters to life. The entirety of the game, coupling the audio design with the music, is a vacation for your ears.
Particularly important, the music feels like an invisible force driving you towards emotions throughout Mutazione. Besides the characters, this game truly is about music. As you try to heal your grandfather and discover the true nature of his illness, you must erect musical gardens to find a better connection to the town. Each plant has a mood, each mood grows a garden that plays a tune, and each tune envelops you and makes you feel exactly the right way, whether you like the tune or not. Outside of the gardens, music is the backdrop to the entire experience. It doesn’t distract, it doesn’t steal the show, it doesn’t feel unnecessary; it just enhances the experience.
If you’re looking for interesting characters, a unique premise, and a thematically important story, you found it. Simply go to Steam and pick this bad boy up for $19.99. It’s well worth your time.
This review of Mutazione is based on the PC version of the game. A review code was provided by the publisher.
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