4 PM styles itself as “a short, narrative game,” and by all accounts it manages both of those things quite well. My first playthrough only took 28 minutes (these 28 minutes include the time I spent turning the game off and on trying to fix graphical glitches). The narrative itself is centered around Caroline, a woman who works in an office and who also struggles with alcoholism. The game is structured around that alcoholism, showing us Caroline in hangover mode, drinking at a club and drinking while at work.
4 PM, concerning itself only with narrative elements couched in cinematic aesthetics, leans heavily into this alcoholism as a way of characterizing Caroline, and with good reason: She literally has no other character traits as a person. 4 PM could compensate for that by depending more heavily on its being a game, allowing us to explore Caroline’s office, talk to her coworkers and spend time at her home. However, because of a strange attachment to cinema’s pacing, we’re hurried through some clichéd and trope-laden items in those locations (a letter from Alcoholics Anonymous, a recording on her answering machine, bottles in the desk drawer) while barreling through the plot.
The game seems to be aware of the fact that it is riding a strange line between cinema and game, and it breaks up sequences of exposition with videogame elements. In one, you sneak out of your office to go to a bar. In another, you have to make it to the dance club bathroom before hurling. In each case failure means that you have to start all over again, going through some very rote motions only to be rewarded with more wooden exposition.
Because 4 PM is a mostly linear experience that only has a couple paths, I want to refrain from critiquing the ending here. I will say that I don’t think it is earned, that it comes from the “this is very serious writing” playbook, and that it shatters the entire first-person experience of the game by shifting into third person for several minutes for seemingly no reason. When I hit the credit scene, in which a country western/rockabilly track about whiskey plays (which seems odd after a game that tries to take alcoholism seriously), I was incredibly happy for it to be over.
These inconsistencies in design and narrative are matched technologically in 4 PM. I had a strange amount of object and texture pop-in, with load times between scenes that were supposed to be “quick cuts” taking five seconds or more. The sound mix made no sense; sometimes a person standing in front of me was talking from a far-off place. Sometimes the sound cut out completely. The character I was controlling seemed to always be tilted down and to the left and walking with a strange step, which I suppose could be seen as an effect of the alcohol if there were any other signs of it. When other characters spoke to me in cut-scenes I seemed to shrink about two feet for no real reason.
4 PM feels like a Source mod developed in 2008. I’m infinitely forgiving of technical problems if there’s some golden writing or something novel inside, but 4 PM doesn’t have any of the successes that might let me forgive it for its failings. When there are games like Actual Sunlight or Gone Home out there, I can’t say that you should spend any time thinking about 4 PM.
4PM was designed by Bojan Brbora. It is available on PC, Mac and Linux
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.