"The marriage between narrative, gameplay, visuals, and music is fantastic and probably the best I've seen in a game since Celeste."
Sometimes, to move on, we need to forget, erase and start again. That's the moral of If Found..., a powerful visual novel written by Dreamfeel Games, an Irish game studio headed up by artist Llaura McGee. It's a beautifully presented story where, instead of writing the narrative, you are handed an eraser, and asked to erase a story that's already happened to enable one woman to rebuild and start again.
In the game, you follow Kasio as she returns to her family home in Ireland in December 1993. This is framed by a second story about an astronaut named Cassiopeia, who is trying to save Earth from being swallowed up by a black hole. This framing device is deliberate. One is of a girl's struggle to find acceptance, and the other is of the end of the world. In the moment, our issues can feel like a black hole attempting to swallow up our lives, and the world. But If Found... wants you to dig deeper, to face those issues head-on, and to learn to erase and move on from them.
It's an extremely difficult game to play mentally, or at least I found it to be. I've always found it difficult to forget and move on, and If Found... makes you feel the weight of every decision, but it also makes it feel cathartic. You can take as long as you like erasing each diary page, or each image, on the screen. Sometimes, I lingered on the more difficult moments, where Kasio attempts to come out as a trans woman to her mother. Other times, I refused to erase away a happy scene between Kasio and her friends, a group of queer twenty-somethings who love rock music and don't fit into societal norms. The act of me physically erasing the pages in Kasio's diary, or the memories on the screen, is what's helping Kasio move on. For me, erasing these memories was also evocative of all of the old friendships I'd lost, and all of those times I spent reflecting on the good and the bad.
The marriage between narrative, gameplay, visuals and music is fantastic, and probably the best I've seen in a game since Celeste. As Kasio panics or struggles, the music replicates this feeling, and the colours on the screen get darker and more muted. The illustrations on the page are rougher and the lines are even less clean. Sometimes, a single word is just scrawled across the screen repeatedly. Other times, there's no music at all until you move the eraser to put a splash of colour on the screen. It creates some truly vivid and beautiful moments.
As well as all of these components work together, it took time to get used to using the eraser with a mouse. On a phone screen, I imagine using your thumb to erase is pretty easy, so I'd recommend the iOS version over the Steam release if you're able to. The eraser also gets smaller the further through the story you get, but you can adjust the size of this in the game's settings. There are also a few instances where you don't erase and simply drag text across a screen, but this also feels awkward.
Between the two stories, Kasio's is much stronger. Presented through diary entries, it's a deeply personal coming-of-age story that handles queer identity perfectly, from showing the struggle of coming out to your family to the warmth of your friends accepting you without question. Kasio's tale is hugely relatable, and necessary for many people. It's beautifully written: the dialogue between characters feels natural, and the diary writing feels raw, especially where you have to uncover hidden words or images that have been scribbled out. The text is dripping with emotion, so much so that a single world evoked a more emotional response in me than most other games.
Unfortunately, I do think Cassiopeia's story isn't as effective. While it does manage to emphasise the magnitude of Kasio's decisions, it feels very fantastical in comparison to Kasio's very real story. The game jumps between the two stories frequently, and sometimes the stylistic shift is jarring. The difference in writing styles clashes, and as the game hurtles towards its conclusion, it shifts more dramatically between the two characters, and things begin to unravel. It's still an uplifting and emotional ending, but the last few minutes feel unnecessarily chaotic. The final section also allows you to find out what happened to other characters in the story, but you can only select a few, meaning you have to replay the final section multiple times to find out what happened to everyone.
None of this changes the fact that If Found... is a beautifully moving game that teaches a very important lesson. Not many games manage to weave all of their elements together to create something like If Found..., and while it stumbles along the way, it tells a hugely important story that, whether you identify as queer or not, you will be able to relate to.