To Leave

A game by Freaky Creations for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, and Vita, originally released in 2018.
To Leave is something of a free-flying obstacle-dodging actioner in which the lead character rides a flying door through a psychedelic fantasy world in a drug-induced dream that contains metaphorical elements from his real life. Now, that might sound like some kind of whimsical and carefree adventure, but nothing could be further from the truth. You see, the protagonist is a guy named Harm, a manic-depressive fellow who has experienced more than his share of tragedy of late, which has spurred him toward injurious action.

Harm steps through a magical doorway each day and passes into another world so that he may complete The Plan. He has detailed The Plan in scrawled journal entries between bouts of nausea within the confines of his dank and decrepit room, in hopes that someone will read and understand his thoughts after he has passed on. Harm is not well… he is not well at all.

Mental illness has proven a difficult subject to grasp, both within popular media and in the world at large. Common language is often designed around drawing a solid line between a perceived “normal” state and what is labeled as “crazy” or “insane”, despite the fact that mental illness in all its sundry forms and severities is actually quite common. When an appalling act is committed, the language that describes it often focuses on how the person “seemed” prior to the act. Did she keep mostly to herself? Was he a “quiet man”?

People move to establish that there is something fundamentally different between themselves and someone with a mental illness, and they want assurances that those who are “normal” are elevated above those who do not fit this definition. As such, individuals with mental illness are often labeled as somehow less valuable, or even less human.

Even in the wealthiest nation in the world, the United States, mental health has not been made a priority in government spending. A high percentage of the country’s homeless citizens suffer from mental illness, and without treatment, the likelihood is low that these individuals will be able to better their lives, hold down a regular job, or even access the basic services that are required to ensure that they remain physically healthy. They are essentially left to fend for themselves.

Mainstream portrayals of mental illness have done little to increase society’s understanding of these disorders, or to engender empathy toward those who suffer from them. Television and film tend to emphasize dramatic and profound mental illness that manifests itself in relentless compulsions, nonsensical jabbering, acutely antisocial behaviors, and murderous actions. Mainstream portrayals often sell mental illness for laughs, or use it as a stepping stone to villainize the actions of their antagonists. Rarely is the audience meant to empathize with a mentally ill character, or understand the world from their perspective.

That is not to say there are no examples in media that offer representative portrayals of characters with mental illness or traumatic brain injuries, but the road is longer ahead than it is behind… and To Leave offers itself as a step forward.

Players should be aware at the outset that this game features themes of severe clinical depression, narcotic self-medication, social anxiety, bullying, prostitution, and suicide. The developer has included links to some resources that may offer assistance to those suffering with related issues. The game itself is not therapeutic, but it offers a window into the mind of a very troubled individual, and all of the events are portrayed from his point of view.

In the early going, there is more story than game, with several short chapters interspersed with quite a bit of text. After you finish the prologue and complete the first chapter, you gain access to Harm’s journals. Reading them is entirely optional, but doing so will give you a much greater sense of what Harm is going through personally and provide context to some of the game's metaphorical elements, and it will also help you to understand what has brought him to this point in his life.

Moving chronologically through the letters, you learn that Harm’s girlfriend, Fay, committed suicide about a year ago. From here, Harm writes a lot about the aspects of his life that have been driven by his manic-depressive illness and the mental trauma he suffered as a result of Fay’s suicide. He describes this as being the event that pushed him over the brink, and that he is simply “going through the motions” of life while he works toward enacting The Plan. The Plan, he hopes, will eventually allow him to reunite with Fay “on the other side”.

In the meantime, Harm has been taking a lot of drugs, both prescription medications and illegal narcotics (and sometimes forgoing his dosage so he can focus enough to write his letters), occasionally prostituting himself to men and women alike in order to afford them. He then finds himself slipping between his psychedelic dreams and a nausea-filled reality where he can barely bring himself to move around his room or prepare his own meals. His room is one of many in a giant stack of haphazardly-placed ramshackle blocks extending into the sky, and his only window is constantly lit by the false yellow glow of manmade light.

His journal entries also go into great detail about the Origin Gate, Harvesting Temples, and the Spiraling Stars, along with other odd terms like Yana-Sagra culture, The Cartographer, and the Ascension-Battery. In any other fantasy-themed game, this would be the kind of stuff you would slowly wade through on your path to delving into the story. But here, the writings point to a person who is in serious need of help. This is even more apparent as the notes veer from vague terms and into specificities like sending 94.75% of the population to heaven (including himself), while 0.25% are consumed for fuel in the process.

The letters are presented in an unedited stream of consciousness, and what’s more, Harm states that he burned his previous notes, consisting of more than 700 entries. Without any additional context, it’s difficult to tell how much of what Harm is writing is real, how much of it is a product of his mind, and what – if anything – is based in reality.

The entire experience is told through Harm’s lens, and he is unreliable narrator, making it impossible to establish an objective reality. Harm appears to live in an impossibly-constructed building that exists on the back of a giant exploded skull and chunks of vertebrae that are floating through space in the year 4159, or so we're told. Harm takes drugs and is able to pass through a magical glowing door that appears in his room, which allows him to enter a fantasy world where he holds onto the door as it flies around the environment.

Even though the player is unable to discern what is fantasy and what is truly real – not unlike Harm himself – there are clear corollaries to Harm’s life in the world. For one, the fantasy world has an angelic fairy who guides Harm forward on his path. Harm’s girlfriend’s name was Fay, and Fae is another term for fairy (faerie). In one area, Harm enters a suburban house party, and all around him are blue blocks containing faces that are laughing and carrying on. But, when Harm gets close to these blocks, their expressions change. Some blocks turn red and show expressions of anger, and they rush toward Harm when he is in front of them. Other blocks turn to expressions of disgust, and these blocks will move away from Harm, attempting to distance themselves when he moves toward them.

Eventually, Harm moves into the city, where he is surrounded by a virtually indecipherable cacophony of faces, all reacting with anger or disgust at his presence. In one particularly challenging sequence, Harm must overcome “The Bully”, represented by a cluster of blocks that he must avoid contact with over and over again as he progresses through a narrow passageway with short side paths and no other way through.

Early chapters are more abstract, with Harm moving through ancient structures equipped with incomprehensible technology (though Harm seems to know how to operate it). Harm flies on his door through floating stones, across half-destroyed olden cityscapes, between the movements of unstoppable machinery, and beneath the crumbling substructure of civilization.

The goal in each level is to fly the door through a series of obstacles without touching anything. The player holds a button to move upward, and lets off to descend, while pressing LEFT or RIGHT to control the door’s lateral movement. An advanced control allows the player to burst upward for a short while, allowing him to move more quickly and dodge incoming threats.

Each area features a map in the lower right corner of the screen, showing the basic path the player needs to take through the environment. Purple blocks mark entry and exit points, where blue blocks are checkpoints, which are activated by landing on them. When the player reaches the purple block at the end of the path, he can touch down and then open the door to move into the next area.

No matter what actions the player is performing, there is a vibrancy meter that is constantly counting down, and the only way to fill it up is to collect blue souls floating around the environment. As the vibrancy meter reaches zero, the screen begins to turn bloodshot and blurry, and once it runs out, coming into contact with any obstacle will end the level and send Harm back to his room to start it again from scratch.

Since the door is powered by souls, Harm cannot simply reopen the door to return to the level… he must reach inside himself and offer up a sliver of his own soul in order to continue, and this action is emphasized by way of a protracted animation that shows just how much suffering Harm is going through in his offering. Harm’s journals focus on the determination it will require in order to complete The Plan, and he believes that the sacrifice he is making will be worth it in the end.

Early areas are very short, and can be completed in just a couple of minutes, but levels get significantly more difficult as the game goes on, with the player pushed through tougher challenges and longer distances between checkpoints.

At the end of each series of levels is a Harvesting Temple. Here, Harm leaves the door behind and completes a short platforming sequence. Platforming controls are very basic, with movement to the left and right, a small jump, and the ability to grab ledges and scramble up onto them. There is no penalty for failing platforming challenges, aside from having to repeat the actions to move forward. When Harm reaches the center of the temple, he activates it, and the screen goes red as all of the souls are drawn out of his body, leaving behind a barely living husk. Harm then walks slowly back toward the door and, passing through it, he reemerges in his room and collapses on the bed, completely spent.

Most levels involve avoiding stationary obstacles or objects that move along a prescribed route, but later levels feature elements that react to Harm’s presence, like the aforementioned blocks that move toward or away from him based on their anger or disgust. Based on this, Harm can cause blocks to move around and open the path forward, but the blocks move quickly, so Harm doesn’t have much time to navigate around them.

Unfortunately, these reactive elements do not reset to their home positions when Harm respawns, which means that a block might move toward Harm and kill him, but when Harm is sent back to the most recent checkpoint, that block might now be positioned in such a way that he cannot possibly move forward without getting killed again.

This design causes a great deal of frustration in later levels as the player gets killed, only to respawn and find himself making a purposeful sacrifice (not unlike Harm) just to get a block to move out of the way for his next attempt. This can lead to a death-respawn-death chain where the player burns up all of his time just trying to get blocks to move into favorable positions, instead of resetting the puzzles so that the blocks start out in positions that would favor the player’s movement if he has the skill to get past them.

Moving blocks build up speed quickly and are capable of moving much faster than the player, so there is limited opportunity to make rapid adjustments given his slow speed and the limited mechanics available to him. Very often, blocks will begin accelerating toward Harm while they are still offscreen, so by the time the player realizes a threat is incoming, it’s too late to react, thus requiring a certain amount of repetition and memorization.

These later more challenging areas certainly convey Harm’s fears and anxieties, and the challenges he faces in dealing with them – even to the point of being overwhelmed by them – but that does not always translate to a rewarding gameplay experience. Tension is added by the constant countdown of the vibrancy meter, but this leads to frustration as the player makes mistakes and wastes time trying to manually reset puzzles, and failure results in repeating large chunks of the game.

Aesthetically, the illustrative visuals and metaphorical representations go a long way toward framing up the world as Harm sees it, and the visuals are further enhanced by a haunting and oftentimes dramatic soundtrack.

To Leave was developed by Freaky Creations, a studio based in Guayaquil, Ecuador and founded by a team of a dozen members in 2012. This was the studio’s first release.