Cody Crumley –
The genre of narrative adventure games is known for its exploration of weighty subjects, such as mental health, that are often shied away from in other games. The growth of independent publishers has paved the way for more games to tackle these subjects.
A Space for the Unbound, is a shining example of these trends.
Set in 1990’s Indonesia, A Space for the Unbound is a coming-of-age story that effectively tackles these themes of mental health, self-discovery, and familial trauma, weaving them together to form an effective narrative, incorporating them throughout the game, all the way from gameplay, through to the effecting soundtrack. The game encourages you to reflect on your own mental well-being and aims to provide a greater understanding of oneself.
It starts with a simple premise, but as the game progresses, it delves deeper. The protagonist, Atma, is a charming but distant high school senior who is uncertain about his future. Atma is scolded by his teacher for sleeping through class and being asked to fill out his future consideration form. Instead, he joins his girlfriend, Raya, on a journey to complete their bucket list of fun activities, such as watching a movie or eating a Black Forest gâteau. However, things take a turn for the supernatural when they both discover they have otherworldly powers after leaving the movie theater, where Raya transports them to another location. As the game advances, heavier topics emerge, not shying away from exploring mental health and trauma. Issues such as domestic abuse, self-discovery, and a realistic depiction of depression are tackled with sensitivity.
This game uses gameplay as the main vehicle for discussing those topics. The ability that Atma gains at the beginning is called “Spacedive”, which allows him to jump into people’s inner headspace and look into their feelings. This is where the game introduces its main gameplay loop using puzzle solving. Most of the “Spacedives” that Atma performs follow a similar cadence: you discover what a person’s issue is, for example there is a kid that has an obsession with chocolate, then the game introduces a puzzle to help resolve the issue. The chocolate kid, for example, has a scale with different food and Atma has to balance different food made by his mother with the chocolate on the other side. Helping the puzzles not feel monotonous, the game also has quick time event combat, and mini-games, like a Street Fighter clone in an arcade. I was impressed with the variety of the puzzles, only having one instance of an event repeating, while also having a natural progression of difficulty from chapter to chapter. It did a marvelous job of expanding on the base mechanic while avoiding becoming overly difficult to the point of frustration.
In a narrative game, the setting plays a crucial role in shaping the story and experience. A Space for the Unbound excels in this aspect, delivering a rich and vibrant setting that brings the game to life. The game takes place in the fictional Indonesian town of Loka, and the developers have done an excellent job of capturing the essence of the country while showing off different cultural elements like Cimol (Indonesian street food) or Keroncong (ukulele music). The town is filled with life and personality, and the attention to detail makes exploring it a delightful experience, even during the backtracking typical of adventure games. The setting is integral to the character’s journey, adding depth and dimension to the story.
Helping give the town of Loka life is the game’s art style. The pixel art helps this be one of the most striking games I have seen in a while. One instance that stood out to me was running across the town’s bridge as Atma and the interplay between shadows and light as the clouds passed overhead, it was visually stunning. The art is dense and full of intricate details, from the people walking around town to cars that just drive past in the background as Atma goes on his adventure.
The game’s soundtrack greatly enhances the atmosphere. The music is used effectively to reflect the mood and tone of each scene, adding depth and emotion to the player’s experience. When you are sneaking around the school to cut class and go watch a movie with Raya, the music dynamically changes to heighten the suspense. The music also serves as a tool to enhance the storytelling for primary characters, each of whom has their unique musical theme that plays during pivotal moments.
The game does have a few minor issues, particularly in regard to pacing. There is a segment in chapter three where you have to collect evidence to reveal someone’s true identity. This involves repeatedly diving into their mind, leaving to perform various errands to gather clues, and then re-entering their mind to go through each clue one by one. This repetition can make this part of the game feel meandering and padded out.
Using it’s beautiful, hand-drawn art, a setting that feels alive, and an empathetic story, A Space for the Unbound was able to draw me into its world and create a meaningful personal connection to its characters. It provides a unique and thought-provoking experience that highlights the diverse and challenging issues many have around mental health, encouraging you to reflect on your own experiences and emotions. Despite some minor pacing issues in the later half, the heartfelt and emotional narrative, mixed with engaging puzzle-based gameplay, creates an unforgettable, rewarding journey that I think that everyone should take the time to experience. Whether you are a fan of narrative-driven games or simply looking for something new, this game will challenge and captivate you.
Daniel Clotilda –
A Space for the Unbound is a coming-of-age, narrative-driven game about the struggles of everyday people. The story is told from the point of view of Atma, a young Indonesian boy who just arrived in a brand-new city along with Nirmala, a young girl with creative wits but a terrible family. The story has the classic themes of moving forward from grief, escapism versus reality, and finding your own voice.
I first played the demo in late 2021 and had a solid impression of the game due to its themes and art and storytelling. The pixel art is gorgeous, the flow of the conversations between characters feels natural, and their attention to detail with environmental storytelling help with making the general vibe of the game feel right.
I was excited to try out the full version, but the hype didn’t last long. Throughout playing the game, I just couldn’t shake off the feeling that the game was too “normal”, for whatever reason, the game never had made me emotionally invested, even right up until the end.
I think the conventionality in its gameplay mechanics is one of the main reasons why I felt this way. It features an explorable city with tasks to do that slowly unveil the life of each citizen in the town. Mechanics of Stealth, Quicktime Events, and classic adventure game puzzles where you look for items all layer into the overall feel. Sadly, though, each puzzle felt very simplistic and never goes beyond the rudimentary basics. That is okay for the most part because I perceived that the purpose was to enhance the overall feel of the narrative.
One of the cooler mechanics in this game is the ability to “Spacedive”, where you travel into the minds of other people to better“understand” them. There is real potential with this concept, but I wasn’t a fan of the way it was executed. This is because I felt that the worlds were a little too shallow. Even after the character development through Spacedive, the side characters, and even some of the main characters, have somewhat shallow personalities that can easily be described in a few words.
Spacedive also seems to follow a simplistic formula of “this character has a life problem, solve this puzzle to solve their life problem”, and this contributed to the feeling of “normality”. One of the cool things narrative games typically do is to force the players into hard situations where right and wrong can feel morally challenging, but it can feel a bit dry here. I never felt that my values were being challenged by any of the choices I had to make.
When the gameplay mechanics are simple and conventional, I feel that the story has to be more impactful to draw you in. With so much time spent running around helping out uninteresting side characters and working on puzzles, there was not really enough time given to developing the main story. The gameplay ends up being less interesting as similar titles like Omori, while the story lacks the depth that a typical Visual Novel or similar game such as Beacon Pines has.
A Space for the Unbound still does a few things well. It takes a mature and realistic approach when it comes to solving the difficulties in life. The game feels very natural, it had some nice plot twists, and everything felt narratively cohesive from start to finish. Towards its later stages, I felt that the characters’ internal worlds became much more interesting and “weird” in a good way, but it took far too long for the game to truly feel immersive.
A Space for the Unbound, unfortunately, never reached or inspired me as emotionally as I believe it aimed to, being too conservative in its storytelling and mechanics. However, I do think some other people might enjoy this work with its beautiful art, relatable cast of characters, and good vibes.
If you played the game, what did you think? Do you agree with one review or the other? Are there things we missed during our playthroughs? Let us know in the comments below, and consider joining the conversation on our discord over at https://discord.gg/7rwcAGJGfP
- Daniel - The game is polished and technically well-made.
- Daniel - A cohesive piece of work that is good all around
- Cody - Does a great job of handling serious mental health themes
- Cody - Puzzles have great variety and never become frustrating trying to solve them
- Cody - The setting and art do an excellent job of capturing the culture of Indonesia
- Daniel - The gameplay mechanic and the story feel too conventional
- Daniel - Lacks the “wow” factor that other games have
- Cody - Chapter three has minor pacing issues that make the game lose some of its momentum