Thanks to game creation tools becoming simpler and readily available, the size of a typical indie development team has significantly reduced over the years. This has allowed for smaller, more personal, experiences usually handled by teams barely into double figures. Heck, we’ve even seen some indie releases created by one-man teams.
Polygonal Wolf’s Drowning is, without doubt, the most personal indie release we’ve played. It’s a very simple and straightforward walking simulator, for want of a better description, that tells the story of a nameless high school student’s battle with depression. There are no puzzles, NPCs, or even means of failure – it’s a simple case of strolling through forests and other symbolic environments while short, often truncated, sentences appear along the path ahead.
The story lasts around 40 minutes, spread across the four years of high school. Each year is set in a different location, intended to be evocative of the protagonist’s feelings at the time.
It begins with a brisk walk through two different leafy forests, complete with purposely low poly rivers and picturesque waterfalls. It’s here the game looks its best, even if it is incredibly obvious that many assets are endlessly recycled. It also comes to light that English isn’t the developer’s native tongue – typos and grammatical errors are frequent, and we should also note that the story is told in a very basic, childlike, fashion. Given the subject matter, this was perhaps intentional.
As depression starts to take its toll, things become far bleaker. A sequence set underwater successfully conveys the sensation of drowning. There’s also a trek across a precariously narrow bridge; a stage no more linear than those that preceded it due to the constant use of invisible walls.
From start to bitter end, distractions are few. There’s a small number of collectables to look out for, as well as trophies to gain by attempting to break free of the path ahead, and that’s your lot. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how Drowning could be any simpler.
It isn’t until year 11 – towards the end of the story – that it becomes possible to influence the outcome by taking optional, and peculiarly hidden, paths. These lead to “secret endings”, none of which are particularly fulfilling.
Long before the story’s end was in sight, the intrigue behind the premise had almost entirely lost its lustre. The settings start to become less symbolic, and far less interesting. To make matters worse, the chapter focusing on inner monologues fails to expand the story to any extent, feeling like mere filler. Nonsensical filler, at that.
After the first playthrough, Drowning delivers its most significant blow – if you wish to see all outcomes, you must play through the whole thing four times in total. Bear in mind here that this is a slow, sedate experience and that the optional paths only emerge as things come to a close. The developers presumably omitted a stage select screen in favour of bulking out the overall length. If the story featured more interactive elements, we may have gladly jumped straight back in instead of hesitating.
Even though Drowning’s slapdash presentation is easy to overlook – and it’s certainly hard to dislike something with the potential to help someone currently entangled with their own personal struggles – it’s still an acquired taste.
This is less of a game and more of a tool for reflection, being the gaming equivalent of finding a teenager’s diary and realising that not everyone’s childhood was a belly full of laughs. That quiet kid at school was probably going through more than you could ever realise.
With a touch more effort, and a bit more depth to the storytelling, Drowning could’ve catered for a far wider audience. As unpretentious as it may be, it’s too restrictive and to earn an outright recommendation. There’s nothing to suggest Polygonal Wolf wanted to go that extra mile and reach out to as many gamers as possible, and maybe – just maybe – that’s the real travesty here.