Waking by Jason Oda is a game that attempts this balancing act of catharsis and entertainment. Released on Steam on the 18th of June 2020, it blends combat with existential themes and attempts to induce a self-introspective experience. This review of Waking will explore the success of this experiment.
There have been a few video games that have deliberately attempted to be both entertaining and cathartic by merging play with subject matters that would normally be too troubling to face head-on. Examples include Spiritfarer and That Dragon, Cancer which deals with the difficulty of coping with the reality of cancer and death. Such games reveal the ability for play to serve a psychologically healing role. Waking attempts to do the same by merging gameplay and guided meditation.
Waking attempts to explore the mind of someone stuck in a coma. That person is you. In your comatose mind, you come across strange humanoid figures that represent different aspects of your psyche.
The game attempts to make this story a personal one by encouraging players to self-insert. This is done by requesting you input your real name and gender and give your real height. Furthermore, there are moments of ‘guided meditation’ where Waking requests you close your eyes and go through the thought exercises that are narrated. These segments involve deep introspection and recollection of important memories.
The story is also made personal by allowing personal factors in the player’s life to affect what ability their character has. For example, a childhood pet can be summoned.
Storytelling in video games provides the opportunity to fuse gameplay and narrative to provide an immersive experience that no other medium can. However, in the instance of Waking, gameplay sometimes works against the game’s narrative, which is its strongest aspect.
Gameplay in Waking involves exploration and combat. Fighting enemies involves picking up ‘clutter’ and throwing it at enemies using telekinesis. Some enemies must be knocked down using thrown objects before you can beat them up using melee attacks. Using telekinesis is not new to video games and has been explored in other games such as Gravity Rush and Control. Though it was not innovative, once I got into the rhythm of things the gameplay was quite addictive and rewarding.
Pyramids known as ‘feelings’ can be collected and used to charge melee moves. Weaker melee weapons are replaced by better ones if they are found. Some enemies need to be stunned before melee attacks can be used on them. This melee system is unique but can be tedious at times.
The gameplay shows potential but is let down by a few key issues. First, it is possible to sometimes get caught in invisible geometry that prevents you from moving. I thought this may be a personal problem at first, until I did research and found that this issue had also been pointed out in a different review of Waking. It can be particularly frustrating when this happens during combat, as it can result in an unfair loss.
Audio and Visuals
The visual presentation of this game is stunning and is filled with immersive fantasy environments. Though variety may be lacking, what is there does a good job of setting up the mood of the game. There are outdoor fields where grass sways in the wind and metallic dungeons where strange creatures are battled.
The music featured in the game is also good. I was particularly impressed by the music during combat. It was upbeat and ‘hip’ which is a nice break from the usual orchestral swell that video games slap onto enemy encounters. Waking also offers the option to switch to a royalty free soundtrack which is useful for review streamers who wish to avoid copyright strikes.
During my review, it became clear to me that while Waking does a good job at many of its individual elements, a problem arises when these different parts are put together into a single game. The introspective, meditative aspects of the game directly clash with the gameplay that can, at times, be as intense as dedicated combat games.
The hardest difficulty being labelled ‘Souls’ makes obvious allusions to Dark Souls games and their notorious difficulty. In many ways, Waking is comparable to Dark Souls. Both games could be interpreted as a metaphor for fighting through internal darkness. However, while combat in Dark Souls further emphasizes its themes of fighting against becoming ‘hollow’, the combat in Waking does the opposite. It draws away from the introspective experience the game attempts to offer, instead turning Waking into yet another ‘soulslike’ clone. Merely labeling throw-able objects ‘knowledge’ or having the ability to summon your childhood cat does not stop the combat from drawing you out of the introspective state that the rest of the game desperately tries to get you in.
Waking is a special game that feels like it has the potential to be a psychologically healing tool as much as it is a piece of entertainment. It reveals a direction that video games could go, and it is a direction that many might have never considered. For gamers looking for a novel gaming experience, and are willing to forgive a few flaws, Waking is certainly worth playing. For those looking for a good combat game, Waking will also keep you entertained. It would have benefited, and been more impactful, as a shorter and more focused experience rather than a jack of all trades because, well, you know the rest of the phrase.