Those familiar with my reviews have probably caught on to the fact that I have a lot of issues with visual novels. Despite this, I keep coming back for more. Why? Well, I can’t deny that I’m a glutton for punishment, but the main reason I continue to return to this format is that I know it is one with an incredible amount of potential. To me, a good visual novel is one that wastes no time immersing the reader in its narrative — and by “immersing,” I mean building an atmosphere that is appropriate and relevant to the plot at large, rather than trudging through the usual day-to-day high school fantasy for hours before something happens.
I’m pleased to say The House in Fata Morgana is a good visual novel. In fact, it’s very good, and this is no doubt in part because it breaks free of the genre’s expected trappings to deliver a wholly original piece of interactive fiction — one more akin to the works of Edgar Allan Poe than those of Jun Maeda.
The story begins with you, a disembodied spirit, wandering aimlessly through a vortex. Eventually, you see a stately manor rise out of the swirling chaos. With nowhere else to go, you enter to find a once opulent estate that has fallen into disrepair after years of abandonment. However, the house is not empty. It is watched over by The Maid: a tall, beautiful woman who, bizarrely, recognizes you as the Master of the house. Clearly knowing more than she’s letting on, she takes you by the hand to tour the grounds in an effort to restore your memories, and eventually, your humanity.
How would a tour of a dusty old mansion get your body back? Well, not unlike Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (from which this game no doubt borrows its share of elements), The House in Fata Morgana is no ordinary house. Each door in this structure leads not to a room, but into the past. This past manifests not as a form of time travel, but more as theatre — you may watch, though you may not interact. This soon becomes tragic, as you learn each door holds a different story of a White-Haired Girl who came to live within the house’s halls. Seemingly doomed to an eternal recurrence of cruelty, each door is something of a Beauty and the Beast tale. Over the course of eight hundred years, we see her taken in off the streets, only to be cruelly cast out again; we see her as the blind caretaker for a ferocious monster, before the terrified townsfolk storm the gates; we see her as an abused wife, locked in a shed by her jealous mafioso husband; we see her branded a witch and pay the ultimate price for a bill that is not hers. By her side in each of these chapters is the Maid, though unlike the White-Haired Girl, she appears to have supreme knowledge of all events past and future, just as she does as your humble guide. Surely this must mean something…but what?
As you can imagine, the history of the White-Haired Girl makes for a heavy and unrelenting experience. Since you are but a spectral spectator, you are impotent to intervene — there would be no tragedy if you could shout “cut” and swoop in to save the girl, and The House in Fata Morgana would be a much lesser experience if this were possible. In practice, you really need to be in the mood for long periods of emotionally exhausting non-interactivity. The only choices you make lay in the bookends of these stories, in the form of vague, quiz-like enquiries from the Maid to ensure you’ve understood what you’ve witnessed. It’s just about the only way this story could play out, as the goal you chase is yourself, although it makes for a very linear narrative (outside of a few bad endings depending on how you exercise your “understanding”).
Though consistently gloomy and doomy, The House in Fata Morgana is never exploitative; it carries its Gothic tragedy with an uncommon amount of dignity and grace for a visual novel. Its characters are illustrated elegantly, appearing both majestic and ethereal. The White-Haired Girl and The Maid in particular boast an alluring beauty without veering into misplaced fetishism. The music is luscious too, consisting primarily of haunting vocal pieces sung in a made-up language. It’s comparable to Keiichi Okabe’s work on the NieR series, which is high praise; unfortunately, the game’s length coupled with each track’s short duration means you hear all of these songs loop endlessly, which eventually began to grate on my nerves until I muted the sound.
By the time I reached The House in Fata Morgana’s conclusion, I was tired, weary, and depressed. I tend to feel this way when I finish many visual novels, though this time it wasn’t because of a poor experience: this narrative sets out to exhaust, and succeeds wonderfully at doing so. Describing The House in Fata Morgana as “entertaining” isn’t exactly accurate, as it’s a much more introspective experience than its contemporaries. In that regard, more visual novels should take a page from Novectacle’s book — The House in Fata Morgana eschews genre tropes in favor of a style of experimentation that is deeply literary, and the result is incredibly refreshing.