In recent years, thanks to the growing popularity of indie games and small teams of developers, videogames have provided a means of discussing impactful topics. Often with only several people working on a game, this allows for unique insight into subject matter that might not otherwise be possible for triple-A titles. Notable titles like the widely-celebrated and brutally-difficult Celeste, which cleverly discusses depression and anxiety while climbing both a literal and figurative mountain, or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a dark fantasy in which the player is made to experience psychosis, are both brilliant representations of mental health in video games. Games like these do not stigmatise or portray such difficult topics in a negative light, but rather help to promote understanding and discussion.
Chances are you may know someone, or have friends or family who have a loved one affected by dementia – in Australia alone there are 472,000 people living with dementia, and almost 1.6 million people involved in their care. This complex collection of symptoms can lead to memory loss, confusion, and impairment of thinking, making even simple daily activities into challenging tasks. A condition for which there is no prevention or cure, and of initial signs that can often be subtle or vague. Dementia is chronic and can progress to the point where it can become debilitating or even fatal. So how can a videogame attempt to replicate and provide insight into such a complex set of neurological symptoms?
This has been achieved in Before I Forget, a story-rich experience that is less of a traditional videogame, and more of a succinct interactive, artistic insight into the emotional impact of dementia. Created by 3-Fold Games and conceptualised at a Game Jam in 2016, the game launched as a Humble Original for PC in 2020 and received a BAFTA nomination earlier this year as a “Game Beyond Entertainment” (which has been received by games such as Hellblade and Animal Crossing: New Horizons). Now available on Nintendo Switch, how does such an impactful, thought-provoking game fare on a handheld console?
The player takes control of Sunita Appleby, a Indian Cosmologist and a celebrated scientist – though these accolades have since become remnants of her fragmented past. Once a brilliant mind, Sunita is now affected by symptoms of dementia; her memories of family and friends fade in and out of view from within the window panes of her small home in which the entire game takes place. Finding herself trapped in her own porch, a small post-it note adhered to the wall sparks a memory of her loved one.
Unpaid bills lay scattered that Sunita has no recollection of, voice messages are left on her phone by friends who are now complete strangers, and through empty hallways echo the sound of melancholy piano played by none other than virtuoso pianist, Dylan Appleby, Sunita’s husband. This short story follows several days of Sunita’s life as she seeks to find Dylan and overcome simple challenges at home. Though the story takes place from her current perspective, you’ll be able to piece together her past through recollections, forgotten conversations, treasured mementos, and nostalgic flashbacks of key life moments.
Although short, the story is insightful, emotive, and at times even amusing and heart-warming. Impressively Before I Forget manages to achieve a deep emotional connection between Sunita and Dylan within a timeframe where most other videogame narratives would only be setting the scene.
Some may classify Before I Forget as a “Walking Simulator“, a sub-genre of games in which the primary gameplay involves controlling a character that walks and interacts with objects to unravel a story (think Dear Esther & Gone Home for example). In order to focus on a narrative, aspects of gameplay are minimal, though this does not detract from the overall experience of the game. Sometimes even navigating throughout Sunita’s small house can be a difficult task, as could be the case for those with dementia. Particular parts of the game may fool you into thinking you’ve gone in the wrong direction, or surprise you with hinderances that in reality do not actually exist.
Interacting with certain items in the game will prompt flashbacks of memories, in which you’re given insight into Sunita’s life, her relationship with Dylan, or her childhood. Although these events are mostly quite straightforward, they provide more depth to the narrative. You’ll likely miss a lot of these small details during your first playthrough, as not all of them are necessary for progression, which provides some incentive to play the game an additional time.
This is one of the most appealing aspects of Before I Forget – I’d compare the visuals to a fusion of real life and an impressionist painting. At the beginning of the game, the surroundings are dull and devoid of colour to represent Sunita’s lack of memory. With further progression and interaction with more elements, her memory breathes life into the game’s visuals and colour begins to once again wash across the house like watercolour paint slowly spreading across a canvas. It’s a beautiful visual effect and is highly satisfying to see a bland room eventually transformed in pastel colours – quite a unique way to gauge the player’s progression through the game.
Despite being played on the small, handheld screen of the Nintendo Switch, the simple visuals of the game still look incredibly attractive thanks to this art-style. There were even moments where I found myself pausing to admire the surroundings and snap a few screenshots before moving on.
In juxtaposition to the game’s gorgeous visuals, there are hindering visual elements designed to represent Sunita’s symptoms of dementia. Often the screen will have a hazy visual effect or at key moments will distort to appear chaotic and confusing, making it intentionally tricky to navigate an otherwise simple hallway. I would have liked to have seen more use of these sort of visuals though, as there were only a couple of instances where they had a significant impact.
Clever audio design is a key aspect in Before I Forget. Heavy footsteps on hardwood floors might prompt you to explore your surroundings, echoing piano notes from the distance call you to walk towards them, and thoughts and conversations from the past regularly play out in Sunita’s head. You’ll also hear quite a bit of dialogue throughout the game from Sunita, her mother, and Dylan. All have excellent performances from their voice actors and become highly emotive toward the end of the game. The simple piano soundtrack too is quite fitting, as music is often played by memories of Dylan who is a talented pianist. Here’s a short snippet in which you can literally watch the world go by while you enjoy the music:
Though I usually find myself fawning over game soundtracks, my favourite aspect of the audio is the inclusion of a full developer commentary. When starting the game you can choose to turn this on, and in doing so you’ll be prompted with hovering speech bubbles throughout your journey through the game. These snippets each a couple minutes long, contain interesting banter from most of the team who worked on the game, and felt as if I was listening to an interactive podcast. I wish more indie games would include commentary like this as an added bonus! It really offered me incentive to play through the game again with the commentary turned on.
At only an hour long, Before I Forget feels like less of a traditional videogame and more of an interactive art piece, designed to offer insight into the topic of dementia and does so by portraying an impactful story with emotional character connections in a single sitting. In consulting with two psychiatrists (Dr Donald Sevant and Dr David Codling) for their medical expertise, 3-Fold Games have managed to create a melancholy but poignant story that highlights the challenges faced by those with dementia. I personally found myself to be quite moved by the experience. Though not all will find the game appealing, players with a fondness for artistic games or those seeking a narrative with an important message will find the experience worthwhile.
So, why should you play it?
- You enjoy concise games with a focus on an emotional narrative.
- Artistic games with very basic gameplay usually appeal to you.
- You’d like to try understand a bit more about dementia.
- It’s hard to find time for long games – this game can be easily played and completed in a single sitting.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- You’d rather play games to keep yourself occupied for hours at a time.
- If videogames are more of a way to escape life’s tricky topics rather than to experience them.
To seek help regarding dementia, or if you need to help a family member or a friend that is affected, you can reach out to the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 or via the Dementia Australia website.
If you or someone you care for is in need of support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.