2016 has been a rough year. Britain voted to leave the EU, cities around the world were hit by terrorist attacks, major news publications wrote puff pieces about white nationalists, and a sexist, corrupt businessman (and potential child molester) was elected president of the United States. Not to mention a seemingly endless stream of celebrity deaths! More than anything, this year taught me that our cultural narrative of slow and steady progress–that if we each do our part and help others for another year, things will shift in a more just direction–can never be assumed, and must be fought for every minute of our lives. But I won’t deny that in these times, one of the highest compliments I could give a piece of media is that it snatched my attention away completely from current events. One of these experiences this year was the cult visual novel The House in Fata Morgana. It’s not a game I can recommend to everyone, and in fact (like other games of its kind) it plays its cards close enough to its chest that I’m hesitant to spoil them for you ahead of time. That said, I’ll do my best to explain why this 12+ hour, somewhat convoluted thing hit me as hard as it did. Feel free to listen to the music as you read.
Taken at face value, The House in Fata Morgana is an elaborate gothic pastiche set in a haunted house. Your character is taken back in time to witness four tragedies, guided along the path by a mysterious maid. Right from the start, the atmosphere is immediately different from what you’d find in most visual novels: the cast are drawn as hollow-eyed Victorian goths rather than perky anime teenagers, and the music consists of sinister choral pieces and orchestra rather than synths. I think what surprised me the most, though, is that one of the threads running through all four stories is the danger of male entitlement. Our first hero ignores his sister’s troubles to hang out with a girl he met, to disastrous results; the second turns against his own fiance to protect the woman living in his house; the third is led by his own insecurity and hubris to starve his wife of happiness and comfort. Visual novels have played with the notion that obtaining the “best” ending means realizing the world of the game does not revolve around you, but this is only the starting place for Fata Morgana.
What the game is doing is teaching you with each chapter to dig deeper. The true story of the second and third chapters is obscured by the narrator, sometimes to such a degree that it reads as cheating. So when the fourth comes along and seems unusually straightforward, you might blink at the computer screen. After incest, cannibalism, revenge and all-consuming guilt, why is the fourth tale a fairy-tale romance? The moment at which I realized exactly what was going on might stand as one of the scariest, most unsettling moments I’ve ever experienced in a game. Other visual novels have pulled similar tricks by changing perspective, unlocking a hidden route or hitting you with a difficult choice. Without spoiling anything, Fata Morgana demands that you engage with the material as a reader, reading between the lines of what’s happening to find the truth. I imagine you could play through the fourth chapter and miss whole chunks of what is happening, but the game does not care.
Piecing together the truth of The House in Fata Morgana as a reader leads directly into the struggle for self-actualization of its (previously unnamed) central character. I’ve seen criticism in some corners of the internet that the story is nothing more than a series of flashbacks, and if you were being ungenerous I can imagine that you could make that claim. But that, to me, misses that the narrative is less about revealing The Truth behind what is happening than it is about how those trapped inside the House come to terms with their own pasts. Each inhabitant has been wronged, most notably the central trio: the maid who narrates the story, the amnesiac ghost she guides and the witch who haunts the mansion’s interiors. Their three stories make up the second half of the game, and total some of the most harrowing material I’ve read this year. But while the crux of each chapter is tragic, the central question is not of revenge but of letting go. It’s notable that absolution in this case does not mean forgiveness. There are characters in the story whose crimes go unpunished, and others who are made to face up to the fact that regardless of their intentions, they ruined somebody’s life. But as the protagonists of the story come to realize, coming to terms with your own suffering means understanding that others were suffering with you, and that your worst enemy and harshest critic can be yourself. To live in the House means being haunted by your own ghost, and escape means purging yourself of it. Even if that means pain, or acknowledging there are some things you can never fix.
To end on a more critical note, I thought the last chapter of the game verged a little too close to typical visual novel bullshit for my comfort, switching gears from harrowing psychological journey to what felt at times an awful lot like a victory lap. But overall, as someone who’s fought depression and anxiety in the past, who’s fought to cope with his own assumed difference and relationships with others, The House in Fata Morgana hit far closer to home for me than I expected going in. Despite the tragedy, the outrageous violence, the melodrama, at the root of the story are ordinary people in a bad situation who find ways to make life just a little better for each other. In a year when it felt like everyone on the planet went stark raving mad, that’s exactly what I needed.
And the music is excellent. But that goes without saying.