I’m not okay
I was five years old when I received my beloved cat, Micheal (not a typo, five-year-old me liked that spelling). He was there for me when life got hard — through my parents’ divorce, changing school after school after school, breakups, and more — his gentle purr and soft snuggles bringing peace. When I felt the most alone in the world, he was there for me, always. For 20 years he remained by my side, until cancer took from me my closest companion, my kindest friend. The day he left this Earth was the hardest day of my life; it’s been six years and I’m still having trouble adjusting to his absence. I’ve never known a love so pure as his, and to this day I often find myself awake at night missing his warm cuddles to help me drift to sleep.
Why do I bring this up?
Because Waking made me visualize him as part of a storytelling exercise — going as far as to describe his physical appearance — then provided a cutscene where his meow could be heard in the distance, his tiny frame running towards me, then against me as I held him in a tight embrace.
I put down my controller, I took off my glasses, held my face in my hands, and just… wept. The tears came quietly, then subsided, only to come again in waves as I replayed the scene in my mind. I’ve never wept like this in a video game before. I would easily give up all my worldly possessions to be able to do this again in real life — to call his name like I did every night for decades and have him come home, meowing every step of the way — so seeing this happen in a virtual one pretty much killed me. I’m sobbing as I write this now.
Waking promised it would get personal, but I wasn’t prepared for the real, raw pain I would feel.
I suppose that’s to be expected from a game that describes itself as “an emotional adventure through your dying mind.”
Developed by Jason Oda and published by tinyBuild, Waking, available on Steam, GOG, and Xbox One, follows the story of you — in a coma — fighting for your right to live. A game that gets as personal as possible, Waking will challenge not only your reflexes but your ability for self-reflection, blurring the line between fantasy and reality as you battle your inner demons with the aid of cherished memories. Will you emerge victorious and return to the waking world?
Although Waking warns you that the game gets personal and not to play if you’re suffering from depression or suicidal, it’s easy enough to dismiss this thinking it’ll be like other games that do the same and don’t live up to the hype. Rest assured that Waking puts its money where its mouth is, so let me reiterate for those who took that warning with a grain of salt: PLEASE do not play if you are currently suffering from depression or are suicidal. Even those recovering from depression/suicidal thoughts should be forewarned.
Waking opens up in an otherworldly courtyard; the air is palpable, the mood is eerie, tense, and uneasy. A series of gates will become available to you, and you’ll have to choose among them your life’s greatest desires and pains. Without knowing what I was getting into, it was extremely unnerving to watch my life’s greatest desires — peace and freedom — be wrenched away from me. It was equally unnerving to watch my greatest pains be crushed as well. What is this feeling? Fear? I’m not sure.
As this narrative continues — watching yourself begin to let go of everything that defined you in life — you start recognizing what’s happening: you’re dying. Oh fuck — I’m actually dying. If I wasn’t sure before, I’m sure now — this feeling is indeed fear, but of the existential, cerebral sort. No jumpscares here, just the actual fears that keep me up at night. I started taking a look at what happened in my life up until that point and realized that, despite how “ready” I felt with the idea of dying, maybe I wasn’t all that prepared after all. I always put it far into the future in my mind, after a life well lived. Waking made me confront the notion that I was dying right now, and I had to be ready to leave a whole lot of unfinished business, hopes, dreams, failures, pains, sorrows, joys, and loved ones behind.
Just as I had warmed up to the idea that virtual me was okay with dying, a voice echoed inside my head, asking me if I wanted a second chance. I decided to turn away from the literal light at the end of the tunnel and fight to extend my mortality, challenging death’s grip on my existence. With the help of meditation guided by that mysterious voice, I channeled my innermost memories and found the strength in them that allowed me to defeat those who would seek to end me.
The aesthetics are absolutely mesmerizing. As a psych major, I feel the exploration of the mind is such an underutilized setting in video games, so to see this visualization of it in such a way felt strangely vindicating. I can’t describe how uncomfortable — how fearful — I felt when I was presented with the idea that I was dying, the environment one full of beast men toiling away at so-called “death machines.” Juxtaposed to the map of levels laid out in a way that looked like neurons that needed connecting, I was supremely satisfied on a spiritual level. It just looked and felt right to see the mind presented in this manner. Everything clicked. Everything flowed. Everything was perfect.
So much about Waking betrays the love that the developer had for the project. It’s clear players are meant to take their time with each level, breathing in the music, the landscape, the details, the light. In Waking, you not only arm yourself with your memories, but also your beliefs, your feelings, and your knowledge. Key moments have you using these things to charge your attacks or to shield you from those who would do you harm. The ability for the developer to take abstract things and make them virtually tangible objects is a feat in and of itself, and the fact that it’s all housed in an atmosphere serving as a mind that just feels right is incredible.
In concept, Waking is phenomenal — I cannot stress enough how personal this game can get. It’s legitimately a one of a kind experience that is a true exercise in emotional endurance. I found myself only able to play Waking in small bursts, as answering each question honestly made for moments of intense reflection; of profound personal epiphanies that I wasn’t truly prepared for. I understood the warnings about not playing with depression, but it’s not like it explicitly stated I’d be in for a virtual reunion with my most beloved friend who had passed six years ago.
Where Waking deserves GOTY status for emotional depth, I find myself struggling to reconcile how I felt about the battle mechanics in practice. I went from cradling my most cherished childhood pet — my constant companion for 20 years — to launching him directly at a giant with a deer head during a boss battle. When I read “use your memories to fight against your inner demons,” it sounds awesome, but actually watching my cat, who I wept over only minutes prior, charge at a giant monster was… odd.
In fact, that’s how I felt during most of Waking’s battles. The emotional aspect was so incredibly profound that I felt beyond bare, but the battles didn’t quite sync in that sense. Using an avatar to melee enemies, use telekinesis on crates and boxes to hurl at floating metallic/crystalline objects, and collecting various energy types to be able to launch your cat at beast men worked well enough as a mechanic, but somewhat deflated the powerful emotions felt during cutscenes. I hate to say it, but had the gameplay been more linear, I think the message would have been more effective; instead, I found myself focusing less on the emotional aspects than anticipated and more on getting the hang of a weird control scheme.
Speaking of control scheme, Waking requires a controller. On the game’s Steam page it suggests partial controller support, but that’s not entirely true — players are flat out warned not to play with a keyboard. No problem for XBox One players, who I am sure had a better experience than I did with my Steam controller; I sorely wished for keyboard support, but found myself unable to switch to one during gameplay. Additionally, the game stuttered a bit before boss battles or loading a new scene, which was often. In some cases it would freeze for a second or so before resuming play; luckily, this meant enemies also paused, so there was no threat of dying — it was just a noticeable performance issue that I hope the developers are aware of.
It pains me to speak negatively at all about this game, because Waking is deserving of the highest of praises. There is not a game on this green Earth that possesses the emotional power that Waking does. Where some games make you feel empathy for a character’s dire position or challenges you to reflect on a particular issue, Waking serves as an intense, unprompted therapy session that will absolutely exhaust even the strongest among us. Keep tissues nearby, practice lying in the fetal position, and consider taking melatonin before bed so you don’t lay awake at night contemplating the emotional baggage Waking may have unearthed (I’m serious). You may scoff at such a warning, but I only give it because I wish I had received one like this before going into Waking. Proceed with caution.
As gamers, we’ve long argued that video games are more than mindless entertainment; typically, we’re quick to point out that they can be seen as an art form — an interactive medium. If we’re lucky, they can make us feel as if we’ve traveled to faraway lands or feel connected to people we may never meet.
And then, there are those that simply make us feel.
Those that present us with our memories and confront us with our emotions. That make us reflect on everything that makes us who we are and asks us if we really understand the individual pieces that create our puzzling existence.
Waking takes every loved one, every trauma, every pain, and every happy thought, and turns them into tangible objects. Those objects then unfold in front of our eyes in such a way that forces us to interact with our actual lives in video game format. For some, this might be a uniquely interesting encounter that ends when the game does; for others, this might be considered one of the most powerfully moving experiences in gaming, pulling back the curtains on a crumbling facade that barely covers a broken past. I don’t think Waking is meant to be used in lieu of therapy, but it’s sure to serve as a wake up call for those of us who have held onto traumas to the point where they begin to define us. After Waking, I feel naked, I feel exhausted, I feel lonely, I feel important, I feel scared, I feel loved.
As long as you are entirely truthful and lay bare your soul to the title, Waking is by far the most deeply personal, deeply moving experience in video game history. It goes beyond other emotional games and explores tailor-made themes that are most important to each individual. Words do the experience no justice, and watching someone else’s let’s play means little to viewers. Waking is a game that must be experienced firsthand, so long as you are emotionally strong enough to handle everything it throws at you. If you are not currently depressed or suicidal, please play Waking.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: XBox One, PC (reviewed); Publisher: tinyBuild; Developer: Jason Oda; Players: 1; Released: June 18, 2020; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Waking provided by the publisher.