Mental health disorders are a tricky subject. They’re hard to convey correctly in any medium, but video games are an opportunity for people to experience simulated mental health issues first hand, and with new perspectives. When done correctly, the experience can be enlightening, poignant, and even terrifying. But there’s a fine line between shock and shlock, and it’s easy to go too far into the clichéd, or ham-fisted. The Shattering makes an earnest attempt to show mental health from the perspective of someone suffering from the affliction—specifically, from inside their mind.
In The Shattering you play as a patient named John Evans. You’re being guided by a doctor who is helping you cope with deep-seated traumas. Throughout the game, you’ll be visiting crucial moments in John’s life—where he suffered the most. You must relive them as John, suffer, and ultimately persevere. John is an unreliable narrator, though, and eventually you’ll learn the truth about him. But that’s not before you get a sense of how terrible his childhood was and about his struggles as a writer.
The Shattering isn’t exactly a puzzle game. The closest genre I can put it in is a sort of first person adventure meets escape-the-room type game. But instead of puzzles as you might recognize them, you’ll often run into objects and barriers that defy logical progression. In fact, the majority of the time I spent in The Shattering, I spent looking for the proper thing to click on. It feels like most of the time I would find the way forward purely through chance interaction—and by sheer brute force, by clicking everything I could. While there is a logic that is followed in some cases, progression in The Shattering is often determined by interacting with the correct object to continue. Most of the time I spent playing The Shattering was looking for the way forward—not puzzle solving, but mindlessly clicking, hoping to find the object I hadn’t clicked before.
There are some interesting scenes in The Shattering, but you’re often not interacting with them, and merely observing them. Any time furniture flies, the landscape changes, or the wall shatters apart; it has little to do with gameplay, and just signals that it’s time to move to the next part. You’re just an observer, a stranger in this character’s mind, grasping at a way to escape.
John Evans had to deal with a lot of torment in his life, and the torment exists for the player as well, translated through lack of clear motivation and direction. I controlled John from one location to the next not even driven by curiosity, but to discover if there was even a point to these vignettes about this poor man’s life, and endless monochrome environments. By the end of it, I found no revelations, no catharsis, and no greater truth about myself or John. Instead, I found myself wondering why the hell I just wasted several hours of my time.
Production wise, The Shattering is pretty well put together. The graphics range from mundane to interesting, and there are a few scenes that played out that made me feel slightly entertained. The voice acting is okay sometimes, bad other times, and flat-out annoying on occasion. But so many things in The Shattering seem designed not to discombobulate, or frighten—but to taunt, and irritate. Too bad they didn’t focus on making it entertaining.
The Shattering just isn’t a fun game. I found no satisfaction playing it whatsoever. The puzzles aren’t really puzzles, and I found no gratification in progression, only relief that I’d finally found the right object to click on.
It’s rare that I write such a negative review for any game. I love video games, and I feel like most have redeeming values. I’m just not sure what The Shattering was trying to be. It’s not scary, it’s not difficult, it’s tedious and often uncomfortable to play, and it does nothing to further knowledge of mental health issues in any way beyond the usual clichés. If there is a greater redeeming value beyond its few interesting set pieces, I can’t think of one. If you don’t play The Shattering, you’re not missing out. It’s really too bad, because it’s obviously been made by a talented team–this game just missed the mark.
The Shattering is available on 4/21 on Steam, but you should probably play Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice or Gone Home instead.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR