Despite the name, If Found isn’t about finding oneself. Kasio, a 23-year-old recent college graduate who’s just returned home to a small island off the coast of Ireland in 1993, knows who she is. She knows her next step: a Ph. D. She can’t predict the future, and she’s not especially confident, but she has plans. It’s her family who refuses to accept them, though, and, even worse, refuses to accept who Kasio is.
Kasio, a trans woman in a deeply Catholic country, won’t let herself be erased. Meanwhile, If Found’s sole mechanic is erasure. Your cursor is an eraser and you transition from scene to scene by wiping away what came before. That mostly means erasing the sketches and notes from Kasio’s journal—her own thoughts and impressions of her confused and disapproving mother, her emotionally abusive brother, and even her friends, who are as displaced and disowned as she is. It’s an act of letting go, but also acknowledges how pivotal these people and this one month in 1993 were to her—these events helped make her who she is, but they don’t define her, the game says, as you slowly make page after page disappear.
Kasio finds friends in her small island village. An old classmate, now squatting with his boyfriend in an abandoned house that doubles as their punk band’s practice space, invites her into the fold. For a while Kasio is happy. She feels free. There’s no money, little food, the utilities don’t always work and the house is literally falling apart, but she’s living her life, an adult, away from school and her family for the first time. Her friends’ band play a first show that’s surprisingly good. She starts to grow especially close to one of them. Kasio, who’s never really known romance, feels one growing between her and Shans, the band’s singer and guitarist. After a secluded, thoroughly private life, full of anxiety and discomfort around everybody, and spent mostly staring at the sky or ensconced in books, Kasio feels alive with her new, makeshift family.
And then all of it goes away, vanishing in a blur as you drag that eraser across those pages, erasing Kasio’s words and scratchy drawings of some of the most important people and moments of her life.
If Found isn’t a happy story. It’s an honest one. There’s a good chance you will cry, perhaps more than once, but there are also moments of joy, love and triumph. Despite the artistry of its presentation, and despite a recurring sci-fi metaphor that adds a bit of depth to the story but never quite fully connects, this is a low-key, modest, human affair. Its observations about family and relationships are touching, grounded and real, avoiding melodrama or outsized pronouncements about human nature. Much of it is universal, sure, but the focus remains on Kasio and how her merely being who she is can disrupt her relationships with her family and the world around her. It’s a character study of a specific person in a specific time and place, but whose pains and struggle ring true throughout the ages.
For me, If Found was instantly transfixing. From the start—when it seems like it’ll be the first visual novel to finally tackle the cosmic conspiracy theory surrounding Nibiru, the so-called Planet X, the “dark star” of the Grateful Dead—I was locked into its churning sea of colors and the peaceful process of gliding my mouse back and forth. Those sci-fi trappings aren’t quite misdirection—they eventually wind up impacting the main plot—but they’re more metaphor than anything else, a dreamlike imagining of a black hole in space to reflect the inexorable pull and turmoil of Kasio’s life back on earth. The intellectual and stylistic hook of that opening cedes to something deeper, more powerful and emotional once the game focuses on Kasio and her life. I wound my way through it in two sessions in the same night, sifting through the life of this stranger, a life almost nothing like my own and yet with a few striking parallels. To paraphrase one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, it moved me.
It also captures the feeling of a local, small-time rock show better than almost any other game, movie or TV show.
If Found bridges the gaps between a handful of different mediums and artistic disciplines to create a sad, poignant, ultimately uplifting tale. It’s a short story told through words, music, pictures both static and moving, and through the direct action of its audience, who can only engage with it in a manner that comments on and reinforces some of the game’s central themes. It’s a smart way to use the language and expectations of games to tell a story that’s as beautiful and delicate, as powerful and painful, as life itself.
If Found was developed by Dreamfeel and published by Annapurna Interactive. Our review is based on the PC version. It’s also available for iOS.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.