DISTRAINT is Psychological Horror Perfection Only Gaming Can Achieve
The price for success is your humanity. That has been the premise of many morality fables. In DISTRAINT by indie developer Jesse Makkonen, this concept becomes the stuff of psychological horror, horror that is magnified because you are the person paying that price.
DISTRAINT is a game that shows us the strength of the gaming medium and demonstrates that, when done right, it can provide a visceral thrill unlike anything else.
In DISTRAINT, you assume the role of Price, a debt collector for the company McDade, Burton and Moore. Your job is to seize the homes of three indebted people who have failed to make their payments.
Immediately, the game tells you that it’s not going to let you be comfortable in the experience. The screen is cropped from both top and bottom, and places you exclusively in dark, narrow hallways. There are a variety of eerie sounds constantly in the background, and the filter is a grainy, disconcerting shade. One of the first things you interact with in the story is the smell of rotting flesh, which you are then told to simply ignore and get on with the job.
And the job? Well that’s where things really start messing with you.
You begin by meeting Mrs. Goodwin, a sweet, elderly lady whose house smells like blueberry pie. It is your job to make sure she leaves her home. It is the first act you are willing to do for your company, and the game truly plays that up.
Price is a good man and he is doing bad things. This takes a toll on him. His mental condition slowly deteriorates, a descent into darkness both mental nad literal. As he commits more and more deeds to try and keep the evacuation as civil as possible, he starts hallucinating about his dead parents, corpses and and blood everywhere.
Again, this is not going to be a comfortable experience.
Beyond what the game does, however, is the more disturbing reality: what it asks you to do.
The cook at the old home needs meat? There’s a fine corpse of another elderly gentleman that passed away, so please provide the beef. The drug addicted young man wants to throw a party before he leaves his home? Convince the band to play so you can kick this victim out as soon as possible. A lonely man lives with his dog? Rummage through his belongings, learning every detail about him, only to find the dog so you can get him to leave.
As the game gets darker, and the puzzles more abstract, it physically becomes more difficult to continue playing. Yet, you keep moving forward, even though it requires you to hurt people.
And that guilt is part of the allure because, just like Price, you may not like it but you need to keep going forward to “win.” And when you see all that you do to achieve this victory, it will be rewarding in a way you never expect.
DISTRAINT is not shy in telling you what it thinks about corporations — because Price is presented at least partially sympathetically — and their tactics in getting people out. McDade, Bruton and Moore are all disgusting people with little regard for humanity. They appear nice to you, but one of their first commands in the game is to ask you to dance for them.
Their message is clear: you are giving us your soul to win this game. And at that moment, they are not talking to Price.
In a world where the billionaires like Tony Stark are presented as the real heroes of the people, it’s a nice change of pace to see those marginalized and destroyed by the wealthy.
A lot of games ask you to do awful things. The difference here is, unlike the shooting in Gears of War or the gang wars in Grand Theft Auto V, this never attempts to glorify or even justify Price’s job. He is no hero saving the world. He is a monster, his personal morality be damned.
And that is what makes DISTRAINT uniquely socially conscious — it doesn’t let you forget that Price is not the real victim here. He may struggle with his morality but, at the end of the day, he keeps moving forward. And every time we are close to start sympathizing with his struggle, we cut back to the awful reality of the people who are truly hurting — in part because of Price.
The more we learn about his victims, the tougher it is for us to accept that we have to essentially defeat them to beat the game, and we keep waiting for Price to do something heroic, but to no avail.
Ironically, and masterfully, this lack of freedom is all the more chilling because even though you are controlling him — you are powerless to stop him unless you just get up and leave the game.
DISTRAINT is an expertly-paced thriller. It clocks in at roughly around two hours and, save for some puzzles that seem to drag for a bit, it moves quickly at all times. Long before you realize it, you will be so far in to the disaster of your morality that it won’t change anything, and it will all be your own choice.
It is an experience unlike any other, and you need to experience it.
I played DISTRAINT on the PC, and it runs perfectly fine on even old machines that aren’t so powerful. It is also available on iOS and Android, although I cannot speak to the touchscreen controls. If you end up playing it and actually like it, be sure to let Jesse Makkonen know; indie developers don’t have the budgets to market like bigger companies, and rely a lot on word of mouth, so we should support them any chance we get.
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On behalf of everyone at Pakistani Pepper Productions, this is Abdul Rehman saying peace out and pepper on.