In a game about depression, recovery should feel rewarding. But this game makes being depressed feel more fun.
Unwording is a narrative puzzle game from Frostwood Studios. It takes you through the mind of Tom, an ordinary office worker, who’s struggling with depression. By solving word puzzles, you help him overcome his negative thoughts and look at life from a new perspective.
Thick Grey Sludge
Games as varied as Depression Quest, Omori, and Celeste all portray what depression does to a person and how someone can break free. But there’s a subgenre of Indie Games About Depression. Games with a black-and-white aesthetic, a bunch of early-game options that are Greyed Out and Unselectable, and a protagonist who’s so mired in despair that you just want to send the poor guy back to bed.
When done well, a Depression Game can help people who’ve never been depressed understand what it feels like, and help people who are struggling with depression feel less alone. When done badly, a Depression Game feels like a mass of grey sludge. If playing the game feels pointless, it’s unlikely you’ll want to keep going, even if you want catharsis for the main character. So when playing a Depression Game, the first question is “does this stand out from the billion other grey sludgey Depression Games?”
At first glance…. and second… and third… Unwording is definitely An Indie Depression Game. Black and white, sketchy art style? Check. Greyed-out options at the beginning of the game? Check. A protagonist who is so mired in despair that you just want to send the poor guy back to bed? Check. But the gameplay’s engaging enough to make the early parts of the story interesting.
In the first half of the game, you play as Tom’s negative thoughts. Tom will offer a short thought about any item you pass–for example, “wake up” when walking past his bed. When you select the item, you get sent into a puzzle.
Each letter is part of a cube or rectangular prism. By rotating the cubes, you can see different letters. Find the correct letters, plug them into a Wordle-style grid, and turn Tom’s neutral thought into a negative one. Once you’ve changed Tom’s thought, every time he walks past the item, he’ll think the negative thing. “Wake up” becomes “give up”, thoughts about a car on the street become misery about how Tom is poor, and thoughts about a restaurant morph into despair about Tom’s lack of a social life.
I thought these early puzzles were engaging. I like word games, and these puzzles were in the sweet spot. The difficulty curve was a little much — before you understand how the game wants you to engage with the blocks, it can be tricky to figure out what your options are. But once you get the hang of it, it gets much easier.
I also liked this mechanic from a story perspective. It’s rare for a Depression Game to make you the source of the protagonist’s pain, rather than its victim. The game makes you walk past every thing you’ve made Tom think negative things about, multiple times, and you get a sense of how much these thoughts are getting to him. You start to feel a little guilty — you did this to him. You made him think these awful things about the world and his place in it. You made him procrastinate at work, wallow in self-pity, and go back to bed instead of exploring the world.
Up until the turning point of the game, Unwording’s presentation is great. The art style’s charming — it brings to mind a less lavish Over the Garden Wall. The animation is simple, deliberately wobbly, and limited, but it looks deliberate rather than choppy. I also have to praise the cutscene cinematography — throughout the game, it’s fantastic. Every shot feels deliberate and well-composed.
Unfortunately… there is a major shift in both art style and gameplay about a third of the way through Unwording. This shift affects every part of the game, and it does not do so for the better.
As I mentioned before, the team at Frostwood Interactive clearly were working with limited resources. They were also very clearly trying to use the Depression Game trope where the world becomes less limited, bigger, and more colourful the more the main character recovers. It’s a trope for a reason, and in a lot of games where it’s used, it works. Unfortunately, in Unwording, it doesn’t work because it’s not executed very well. The developers made the choice to have the world become 3-D as the game progresses. And while I can see what they were going for, it’s a big miss.
3D is hard to execute well. A scribbly, sketchy style can look good in 2-D; your mind fills in the gaps. It’s much, much harder to make loosely-done 3D look good. The screen captures I got don’t capture the full problem — there’s a ton of clipping on environmental objects and a ton of times where the shaders do not look the way they’re supposed to look. And the camera is one of the worst game cameras I’ve ever seen outside of the N64. The camera gets stuck on the walls, shows you the void between rooms, and slips around like it’s been slathered in butter. At times the game becomes borderline unplayable because of just how janky the camera is. The camera work in cutscenes continues to be excellent, but the game camera is unbelievably bad.
The game’s narrative can get a bit sentimental, but it’s not overwhelmingly maudlin. I loved that the thing that pulls Tom out of his overwhelming depression isn’t anything twee or inspirational — our little yellow bird friend gets into his room and poops on his bed. So he has to change the sheets, which means that he has to clean up, which means that he has to start moving. And then a human friend shows up with delivery food, and Tom’s life starts to get brighter.
I wish the devs had done something more interesting with the fact that you start the game by playing as Tom’s negative thoughts. I get that they’re trying to tell a simple, inspirational story; not every game has to be Pony Island or The Longing. Sometimes a game mechanic is just a game mechanic. But they set up a compelling tension between the main character and the player on Day One, and then…. on Day Two, you’re playing as Tom sorting out his feelings. The tension is gone, and I feel like the gameplay becomes less interesting because of it. That’s a personal gripe, though; other players might be relieved that it’s over.
I wanted to enjoy the story the devs were trying to tell. It’s charming, and if I wasn’t tearing my hair out with the camera and the gameplay, I would have enjoyed it. But strap in, folks- the gameplay is a doozy.
It’s pretty common for a game’s level design and mechanics to get worse the further into a game you go. Developers will focus on polishing the stuff that players are most likely to see and interact with early on, and if they’re not careful, their late-game content will suffer.Unwording isn’t uniquely bad… but boy, oh boy, does it have this problem.
See, the game takes place over three “days”. On Day One, you’ve got what you’re promised when you turn on the game: simple 2D exploration, combined with some pretty engaging Wordle-style cube puzzles. But the gameplay changes from day to day.
On Day Two, your bird friend helps you begin to overcome your negative thoughts. Which, naturally, takes the form of more word puzzles. However. The gameplay fundamentally changes here, in a way that makes the experience much less fun.
Day Two’s puzzles are just as 3D as the gameplay. You’re turning around the blocks, but instead of trying to find the right letters to make a word, you’re trying to find the right vantage point to see a word. Instead of rotating the blocks on a 2D plane, you’re floating around a jumbled set of blocks in 3D, playing a game of hot-and-cold to find the word the devs want you to find. Some of these words, you need near-pixel-perfect precision to “see”, even if you found them a long time ago- I spent fifteen minutes trying to get one of them to line up correctly, even though I figured it out two minutes in. There’s a hint system, but it feels more like a band-aid on a broken mechanic than a tool to help you understand it.
Day Three is, if you can believe it, even more infuriating. After a (compelling, if corny) cutscene where the blocks from the word puzzle fall out of the sky and surround our protagonist, the game becomes a parser-based adventure game. You can interact with certain objects in the environment; after you interact with them, you’re given a text prompt, and you type in what you want to do. The game only gives you enough space to write a single verb, and sometimes, it doesn’t understand you. None of the “puzzles” you solve are particularly complicated- get through a work day, invite a colleague to lunch, have a nice cup of tea while looking out the window — but you still might struggle with them.
I love adventure games. But this was absolutely the wrong direction for Unwording to take. Adventure games require a special kind of design, a dedicated manual, and a lot of signposting for the player. You have to do a lot of work to either set up puzzles that are immediately understandable, or convey to the player that in this game, you learn by failing. Unwording doesn’t let you fail, so you’re sometimes wandering around looking for something, anything, to interact with. And sometimes, there are things to interact with that are just there for flavour — a wonderful decision in theory. But because the game doesn’t signpost what’s important and what’s not, they feel like a confusing detour rather than a nice, light moment.
The worst example of this comes in the game’s final sequence. You’re supposed to gather up dinner and a Nice Cup Of Tea and have a lovely time watching your Bird Friend fly around while the music swells with Hope. You are Free! You have Beaten your Depression! It’s supposed to be a peaceful, emotional scene. But instead, it’s an absolutely infuriating mess, because the game does not signpost to you what Tom wants in any meaningful way. You have to wander around interacting with objects until you find the one that the game wants you to use.
At one point, I got stuck, because the only object left to interact with was locked, and I thought I’d need to find a key. Nope — you just select it and type “unlock”. That’s… not how these things tend to work in games, and so I legitimately had to ask the developer for help solving the last puzzle. As the credits rolled, I didn’t feel the peace and satisfaction the devs wanted me to feel. I felt frustrated, annoyed, and stupid.
A game about depression should make you struggle with the early game mechanics and blossom as life becomes easier. In Unwording, the game’s designed to do the exact opposite. Unwording isn’t a sludgy grey Depression Game. It’s charming, sweet, and heartfelt. But its design flaws hurt what it’s trying to say. The world may open up — it may become bigger, more colorful, and less limiting — but because of the way the game’s built, it also becomes more confusing and frustrating to navigate.
The team behind Unwording clearly worked hard on this one, and I appreciate what they’re going for — but they didn’t stick the landing. Hopefully, Frostwood Studio’s next game will help us see their work from a new perspective.
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Malcolm Schmitz is a freelance writer from the United States. He loves life sims, JRPGs, and strategy games, and loves modding games even more than he loves playing them.