Warning: The article contains discussion on the subjects of mental illness, depression, and suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.
Shadows and Dust is a change of pace for Australian developer Moloch Media. The first title by the company released earlier this year, Mars Underground, is a wonderfully bizarre, time-looping adventure with some creepy undertones. Shadows and Dust, on the other hand, is more of a grounded look into the real-life horror of mental illness. The game is a short but brutally perceptive depiction of life with the disease. Ideally, this game should be played blind, as minor spoilers are discussed below, but be aware, the content of the game may be triggering for those suffering from similar issues.
Shadows and Dust is essentially a visual novel, with the protagonist trapped in a small room. The phone is constantly ringing, an irritating clamouring of people asking when the player will return to work. Someone is banging on the door, trying to draw the player outside. Respite comes only in the form of sleep, where the protagonist dreams of talking to their son. As time progresses, however, the conversations with the various characters become twisted, tainted by the protagonist’s stress and regret. Walled up within their self-made prison, the protagonist spirals further and further into darkness.
Gameplay in Shadows and Dust is primarily broken down into two phases: conversations with the dream child, which occur with every second birthday they have, and the bedroom, which the player can move freely around in. The bedroom contains two other entities to interact with: the voice on the phone and the person at the door. In each conversation, the player can choose different dialogue options, but they tend to make little difference.
A lot of Shadows and Dust is built around the protagonist’s lack of agency; they cannot get rid of the constant phone calls, or bring themselves to leave the room, thus making falling asleep the most appealing option in any given situation. As a severely depressed character, this impression of having no control over their life makes sense. The outside world is too overwhelming, the illness too difficult to make others understand. Well-meaning words sting, causing one to feel worse for not being able to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” or the classic “try thinking happy thoughts.” After a time, the well-meaning voices leave the phone and door altogether, replaced by the warped accusations the protagonist believes they are hearing. “You are not good enough.” “We never liked you anyway.” “I will kill you for what you have done.”
The dream sequences are seemingly kinder but contain a different type of sadness. The child is rapidly growing up without the protagonist. Within each dream, the kid is happy to see their father but is struggling in their own life. As a nighttime apparition, the protagonist can do little but watch in regret as their son slowly succumbs to the same issues they face.
Masterful sound design and dark visuals add to the tense atmosphere Shadows and Dust creates. The bedroom is a veritable cacophony with the constant phone ringing and door thumping. The backing track is made up of everyday sounds remixed into an unsettling rhythm: the clang of a spoon creating a metallic heartbeat, steady footsteps keeping the beat, a soda can opening for dramatic effect. These sound effects blend flawlessly into a carnival-like tune when speaking with the child and become more distorted as the game progresses. These sounds creates a stressful environment, like waiting for a jump scare that never occurs. Misophonia, a heightened negative response to outside noise, is a fairly common condition in depression sufferers, and this sound design emulates the unpleasant experience perfectly.
Visually, the game is rather simple but uses subtle changes to keep the player off-centre. The text of the dialogue is clear to read, but not quite right: letter size and spacing are all scrambled. The dream sequences are dark, near-black screens punctuated by the child’s slightly inhuman eyes. Dark grey flickers on black around the edges of the screen, creating a static effect. The bedroom is rather barren of decoration, featuring the bed, windows, an old-fashioned phone, and the door. Going to bed, however, has the player fall through the floor, seeing the guts of the level underneath. Upon awakening, something small will have changed every time, like the windows opening, the edges of the character’s vision blurring, or light switches mysteriously disappearing. The ending sequence also uses the flaws of the game engine for dramatic effect, different parts of the level flickering in and out of existence in colourful glitchiness.
The combination of the creepy writing, off-kilter visuals, and intense soundtrack creates a sense of sensory overload, which, when the intensity reaches its peak, portrays a staggeringly accurate depiction of suicidal depression. The highly stressful atmosphere, lack of agency in dialogue choices, and intense feelings of guilt and shame all capture a state of being that mere words cannot express. Shadows and Dust’s campaign only has a run time of roughly half an hour, but considering the intensity of emotion the game evokes, the brief length feels right. With such a high level of distress expressed, some tiny spark of hope could be a nice addition, but the lack of a happy resolution is understandable. Recovering from such an event is a long, hard slog, and no clever turn of phrase would make it any easier.
Shadows and Dust is not a fun game to play. The title takes a long, hard look at mental illness in an unnervingly realistic way and is a challenging topic at the best of times. However, the show of empathy and understanding to sufferers of the condition is expressed beautifully, a depiction that shows exactly what standing on that precipice feels like. Paired with the excellent visual and aural design, this horror of the real world will be difficult to forget.
Reviewed on PC.