Video games have been trying to tackle mental health more and more lately. Games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice not only did the research to get it right, but was able to carry the subject matter carefully while pairing it with a compelling story, wicked visuals, and pretty satisfying combat. I mention Hellblade because it’s the gold standard, though other games are certainly making a stab at it like Debris, and The Thin Silence—among a half dozen others. And while all of these games make an earnest attempt at tackling mental health stigma, even if they fall flat they take the subject matter and handle it carefully. And then along comes a game like Waking.
Waking bills itself as a “third-person action and guided meditation.” I remember thinking, “wow, that’s great– a game that guides you through personal issues and has souls-like gameplay.” It’s not great. In fact, I could even go so far as to say that Waking is almost antithetical to a happy, healthy mind, and its “guided meditation” is hokey at best, and offensive most of the time. And while games like Debris and Hellblade went out of their way to carefully research such a sensitive subject, there is no indication that developer Jason Oda did the same. Most of the “guided meditation” can easily be a script that someone pulled out of their ass because it sounded close enough to real meditative practices.
But Waking isn’t just a guided meditation experience. It’s also a game. A soulslike—you know, the most meditative of game types–and it’s even a notably bad take on the genre. You play as a person who is dying. Inside their dying mind you must struggle against your failing body, while confronting your demons, to (presumably) wake up. Now, I usually try to play a game to “completion.” And “completion” looks different for many games (and is impossible for some, like MMOs, etc.) but I didn’t finish Waking. I couldn’t. It was made by someone who can’t grasp the concept of fun.
The gameplay is horrible—clunky, ill-inspired, and head scratching in its set-up. You don’t really ever attack anything directly. Instead, you need to pick up clutter, and fling it at your enemies to stun them. Then you might be able to pick up objects that allow you to power your melee abilities. Now, some games punish you for dying too often, but Waking punishes you for even getting hit. If you get hit too many times, your fear level goes up, and enemies are faster and harder to kill. That doesn’t sound very meditative.
And that’s just the thing. The “meditation” part and the gameplay bits are so disconnected; it’s literally absurd to the point of hilarity. The fact that someone thought “hey, let’s take punishing gameplay and add a meditation aspect” makes me laugh out loud. What’s worse is that when you die, you lose all level progress and have to start at the very beginning. To play through that horrible combat, and those crap levels again would drive me to need to meditate.
Oh yeah, and there are bosses. But the boss encounters tend to be just as absurd as the rest of it. I don’t know if it’s because I played in “streamer” mode, but each boss fight was accompanied by music that I can only describe as being more appropriate in front of a 90’s anime intro than during a boss fight.
Waking makes attempts at personalizing the game in a way that no game I’ve played has done before and fails hilariously. You are given choices to make the game line up with your life. You lived near a beach, in a city, with a cat, or a dog. Inane questions that do nothing more than fill in the story mad-lib style while a voice tries to sound authoritatively soothing. The whole thing feels like a scam, like someone is phishing for personal info. I thought that I’d be asked for my social security number at some point. And it’s all for the dumbest, most thin attempt at personalization I’ve encountered in a video game.
Items in the game, mostly spells and attacks, adopt the names of your personal life. This does not, at all, invoke any personal feelings, but helps make the whole experience feel even more absurd. It was strange having to hurl “dirt of Round Lake Beach” at my enemies. It’s just clunky, and does nothing to make me feel connected to the world beyond having the words on the screen.
Progression through the game is linear. You do things in one area, and return to the hub, and continue out to do more things. You do it all while fighting across landscapes that are uninteresting. Exploration yields secrets and challenge rooms—but finding these did nothing to evoke a sense of satisfaction, and only prolonged my suffering. Levels are uninteresting, and do nothing to expand the meditative aspect or the lore. Levels are mostly featureless stone temples, or strange outside areas—all littered with clutter that shouldn’t exist in such a place. I’m in a literal temple of my mind, but there are bits of pipe laying around to toss at this crystal thing shooting at me. Yeah.
Not only is the gameplay bad, and the guided meditation aspect an absolute joke, the presentation is abysmal as well. The whole game looks like it has had Vaseline smeared on the lens in an effort to provide a dreamlike quality. It just looks like foggy garbage. Most enemies are crystalline structures, but occasionally, you’ll have a half-naked humanoid with an animal head to, uh, see.
Don’t play Waking. Calling it “guided mediation” is technically accurate, but its effectiveness is highly questionable, and sometimes Calling it a “game” is also technically accurate, but it shouldn’t be described as such without “shit” or “poorly executed” somehow being involved. I really think that Waking is so significant, it should be taught in schools—as an example of what not to do when designing a video game.
Waking is available now on Windows.
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