Surprisingly, or maybe it’s not surprising at all because we now live in an era when you can’t look left or right without something free being dangled before your hazy, consume hungry-limned eyes, there are quite a number of free adventure games on Steam to try out. I’ve already played The Old Tree, but there’s also Emily is Away, Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist (that’s one game name, by the way, starting at the doctor part, which I ended up playing in the time it took me to finish this post, whoops), Only If, and Missing Translation to look forward to in my ever-growing pipeline of even free things I don’t have time to play right now. Le sigh.
For the moment, I’m giving Absent from FNGames a go. I saw some posts about it over at the Adventure Game Studios forums, which I like to frequent now and then to see what people are working on and what’s out in the wild, especially since many of those titles don’t get a ton of coverage from the major websites. It was originally released in 2013, but made its cost-effective debut on Steam in 2015. Other than that, I went into it fairly blind, other than obviously seeing a screenshot or two to confirm it was, in fact, a point-and-click adventure game of the traditional sense.
Absent stars the determined if somewhat aloof Murray Schull, a young man attending college and who walks as if he has a permanent wedgie that he is internally debating on picking in public. One day, his best friend Steve’s girlfriend, Crystal, disappears, an event that spirals out of control and puts Murray on a path of danger, disillusionment, and death. Also, time travel, but that really only comes into play towards the very end. Oh, and Murray is haunted by visions of both the past and future, which factor into the puzzles and his decisions on what to do next to find answers as to Crystal’s disappearance.
To say I was taken aback by Absent is being kind. This game really surprised me, for good and for bad. First, a lot of adventure games I snag from the AGS forums are short, tiny little experiences. Snippets of an idea, a few screens to explore. Like A Landlord’s Dream. Absent features plenty of unique animations, is fully voice acted from beginning to end, and took me over six hours to see its credits roll due to the amount of story, puzzles, and, this is not a plus, backtracking involved. Sure, sure. Visually, it is not going to win any awards or even get my eyes to dilate with pleasure, but the graphics take a backseat for an admittedly overambitious story and dense amount of content to poke at.
Let me get more specific here, before I bring up the parts of Absent I found extremely lackluster, as there are many. Though the story is too big for its britches, I give FNGames credit for going big or going home. Since time travel is the deus ex machina to solve everything come the end events, there had to be some careful planning into setting it for that outcome, and I can appreciate details like how the first Reaper was made and that crack behind the canteen appeared. There’s a good amount of dialogue options to go through with many of the NPCs, as well as numerous unique responses for trying items on items that clearly won’t work with it. Showing everyone Murray’s homework assignment was amusing. Lastly, I dig the look of the ghastly, otherworldly Reapers, even if I don’t fully understand their motives.
Alas, Absent is fairly rough around the edges. Also in its middle area. From a technical stance, sometimes the cursor icon would automatically change to “use” when you hovered over a door or exit to a new area, and sometimes it wouldn’t. The inconsistency varied from screen to screen. There were plenty of times I also didn’t want the icon to change, forcing me to have to left click several times back to my preferred option. A few screens, like in front of the college and the swamp, are a wee bit larger than what you can actually see, so you are constantly changing to the “walk” icon to move a foot to the right or left and find the exit. It’s annoying. More times than not, the subtitles and voice-over work do not match up, and there were a number of typos spotted along the way, which, as an editor, I simply can’t not see.
One of my biggest critiques of Absent revolves around logic. Almost immediately, characters are shown to jump to the wildest conclusions without any rationalizing. For example, within minutes of learning that his girlfriend is missing, Steve is absolutely convinced that she was murdered by so-and-so and will hear no other arguments. Missing equals murdered in this world, and then once he finds out that Crystal was cheating on him, he no longer mourns for her. Like, not even a little bit, claiming she got her just desserts. I think at this point in the timeline, it’s been one day since she vanished. Granted, once the speculative fiction elements really start taking shape, a lot of logic-based decisions can be tossed out the window, but for the early part of Absent, I was hoping to see some more believable reactions out of the cast, especially Murray, who seems to simply be a dude we use to click around on things and cause events to happen. I’m still not sure why he’s the main character we play as.
Lastly, in terms of diversity, Absent is absent. This is a world of white people and only white people. Considering the size of the cast, it is a shame to see it so one-sided, and hopefully this is something that can be addressed in the forthcoming Absent II. I mean, it takes place at a college, for goodness sake, where all shapes, sizes, and color of people from everywhere in the world come together to learn, make mistakes, and learn some more. At least the female characters are voiced by women and not men pitching their voices up.
Still, all that said, I’d recommend checking Absent out. You might not be impressed with the story and safe way it wraps everything up, nor the difficulty of the majority of puzzles, which mostly require item on item interaction save for one involving a sliding ladder, but there’s still something interesting going on here, especially from a small team. Plus, if you like British accents, this game has them and then some. I personally think Steve sounds like Jim Sterling, but that’s just me. Maybe every angry British man does.