199X - Review
Waking up in a hospital she has no recollection of being admitted to, Clara discovers she is no longer alone in her head. You, the player, are now in control, and it’s all she can do not to mentally collapse under the realization that her body is no longer hers to command. 199X constantly borders on an epiphany it can see but not touch. Through its bold obliteration of the fourth wall it attempts to question not only how we view the agency we hold over our video game avatars, but also how we fit into the larger social system that often has more power over what we do and how we act than we ourselves. The boldness with which 199X asserts itself grants it a lot of leeway in arriving at what it wishes to say and how, but through these possibilities it fails to hold on to any of the ideas which have been hastily unpacked and mixed together.
The problem is not so much the number of parallel narratives vying for attention as it is their incompatibility with one another. One of 199X’s most disturbing plot points involves the violating procedures being forced on women who exhibit symptoms of “female hysteria” (which effectively means anything that makes them human and more than happy-go-lucky sex machines), but despite the obvious correlations between discussions of agency and the lack thereof of women living in an extremely sexist society, these lines are never drawn or given time to develop beyond a gross aspect of this otherwise fairly ordinary world.
This is the case with every character and plotline 199X introduces, which in the absence of a binding central narrative all float uncomfortably somewhere between here and there, trying to get a word in before the curtain call. It doesn’t completely rob the narrative of its humanity, but it does make it difficult to comprehend and even harder to swallow given its often horrifically grim nature and minimal ability to justify it. The only thing holding 199X back from the abyss is its flawed and terrified lead, Clara, incapable of acting for herself and yet the most honest and affecting character here. She feels authentic and relatable in a way that’s atypical of video game characters, as ultimately she’s talking directly to you as much as anyone in the game, which created a bond that made me want to help her despite how much harder I was finding it to connect to her world.
Perhaps most responsible for pulling 199X apart is its design and basic function. Level designs are plodding and tediously large, often failing to properly account for scale (rooms are often bigger than the entire building that houses them) and feeling contextually disruptive through a consistent juxtaposition of styles for narrative’s sake. It’s just too easy to see through the 199X’s seams, with minimal animation, static characters, and a lifeless color palate making it an onerous task to be drawn into the experience when it keeps reminding you of its superficiality. Perhaps that could have been turned around as an intentional reminder that you’re playing a game and thus feeding back into the premise, but it doesn’t succeed well enough to feel like anything but engine restraints and developer inexperience.
For all its failings 199X is always just on the verge of a breakthrough, and in very isolated moments it feels like it’s even arrived at it. 199X isn’t a complete loss, but it can’t maintain itself, and with such a volatile instability I don’t know if I could say it’s worth the journey. But there are great things happening here. They’re small and they’re unrecognized, but I hope they’ll be picked up again at some point. 199X could have been something exceptional, if only it could bring itself into focus.