Session Seven is an unusual mixture of genres. Point-and-click adventure games of the 90s were usually cheery affairs, tales of pirates or aliens or princesses. A few notable exceptions exist, such as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, but for the most part the genre was one designed for rollicking adventure. To have a verb interface paired with a creeping horror atmosphere, then, is unnerving. Punctuated with visual novel-style flashbacks, this slowly unfolding mystery is captivating from start to finish. Light spoilers follow, so if this sounds like your thing, I recommend playing the game first before reading on.
Protagonist Ryan awakens in his family’s locked cellar. Beaten and bruised, he cannot remember how he got there. All that remains in his shaken brain is the sense that something has gone terribly wrong. Searching through the cellar for a way to get out, the mementos he finds triggers flashbacks of talking with his psychologist, sessions that hint at a sordid past. With each clue bringing him closer to the truth, the journey to remember what happened to him becomes just as urgent as his need to escape.
Gameplay in Session Seven is divided into two distinct sections: the point-and-click adventure of escaping the locked room, and story choices within the therapy sessions. The interface for exploring the cellar is clearly influenced by early LucasArts games such as Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island, utilising a large range of verb commands to interact with the world, such as pick up, look at, push, open, and close. A step between the text parser of the 80s and the mouse-only point-and-clicks of the late 90s, the interface invokes nostalgia for people like me who grew up with these games, but confusion for a player without such a background. A brief tutorial on how the gameplay works would be a good idea. That being said, the interface works well, and is a little more forgiving than its 90s inspirations. Ryan will automatically pick up an item from an opened box, and the system is not too picky if several verbs would suit the action the player is trying to undertake, like using either push or pull for turning around a painting.
Adventure game puzzles can range from the obvious to utter moon logic, with no way of knowing the answer without looking up a guide or trial and error. Session Seven strikes a good balance of not too easy without going outlandishly hard either. A good variety of puzzles are incorporated too, impressive with the small amount of space the game has to work with. Within the basement, Ryan will need to lure a rat out of its hole, fly a drone to knock down a box, triangulate the position of a hidden cache with RFID sensors, and more. Only once during my play session did I get stuck, and it was for a rather annoying reason: I needed a second battery to power the aforementioned drone, and it was hidden in a box I had already searched in. This box needed to be searched three times to progress the game—once where Ryan finds nothing, a second time to trigger a flashback, and a third to obtain the battery. An implicit understanding exists in adventure games that if an item is examined, it has been done so completely, unless a mitigating circumstance arises such as the need for more light or something is out of reach. Since the rest of the game is so fair on the player, this outlier was a disappointment. An in-game hint system would also be appreciated—with the whole cellar open from the start, players may face difficulty knowing what needs to be done to progress.
The other side of the game is the flashback sequences, triggered when Ryan finds something belonging to his wife or son. Ryan’s relationship with his family is strained, which is told beautifully environmentally in the cellar along with the exposition—yearly scrapbooks that have tapered off, discarded rugs from compulsive redecorating huddled in a corner, a favourite toy left gathering dust. In the therapy sessions, Ryan is recounting the family’s issues, with the player able to choose his responses to the psychologist’s questions. These responses determine just how strained the relationship with his wife is, and how Ryan handles the events that resulted in him being locked in the cellar. These options also determine which ending you get. I liked the branching endings, but felt like the idea could have been pushed further. I got the ‘happiest’ ending initially, but when viewing the other ones later on, the ‘unhappy’ ending makes more narrative sense. I think the endings diverging further would add incentive to play through again, which does not take long once one knows the puzzles.
With conversations with a psychologist comprising a decent chunk of the game, the topic of mental illness comes up frequently. Ryan’s anxiety issues are portrayed quite well, but some other aspects miss the mark. Autism is incorrectly associated with psychopathy, and some remarks on depression do not ring true. I think the short length of the game might be why some of these issues come up—the character could have initially been misdiagnosed as autistic, and then some time later on diagnosed as psychopathic, but since the game is about 1–2 hours long, these moments occur close together in a playthrough. Ideally, the conversations could be a bit more fleshed out, but I understand that balancing providing more information on these illnesses without also giving away plot points too early would be difficult.
Session Seven‘s two areas are rendered beautifully with some extremely detailed pixel art, taking a realistic approach with proper proportions for the human characters and a down-to-earth colour palette. All the items were easily identifiable, saving the player from pixel-hunting for the gear they need. Music is used sparingly, but what is present creates an appropriately creepy atmosphere, reminiscent of the Zero Escape games. The presentation is incredibly polished all round, especially considering the game was created by a four-person team with each member in a different country.
Overall, Session Seven really impressed me. I enjoyed the old-school interface, the fractured storytelling, fair puzzles, and beautiful artwork. The game has a level of professionalism that one would expect to see in a paid retail game. I hope developer Session Seven Team stick together to create more lovely adventures in the years to come.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at HRDINA, a minimalist music platformer. The game can be picked up from Steam here. You can get in touch with your thoughts via Facebook, Twitter, or through our community Discord server, or you can email me here.