Decide how far one man is willing to go for that promotion.
PC Release: September 29, 2017
By Ian Coppock
The cutthroat world of corporate ladders inspires as much depression as it does opportunity. For every person who’s willing to ascend that ladder through honesty and hard work, there are ten more who are willing to do it by any means necessary. DISTRAINT is unusual in its psychological examination of corporate culture and the pursuit of that almighty promotion. Whereas the media and pop culture tend to see unabashed ambition as a moral good, DISTRAINT is decidedly more… unsettling in its own portrayal of that ambition.
Single-handedly created by indie dev Jesse Makkonen, DISTRAINT is a side-scrolling horror game that puts the psychology of greed under a microscope. The title was originally released in October of 2015, but the recently unchained Deluxe Edition of DISTRAINT packs the game with a streamlined UI, improved environmental lighting, and better animations. DISTRAINT is all about psychological horror, with a few adventure game elements thrown in for flavor.
DISTRAINT casts players as Price, a young attorney who makes his living evicting people from their homes. Though Price empathizes with the people he’s come to throw out, he keeps going in the hopes of making partner at his superiors’ law firm. DISTRAINT follows Price as he meets the last three people on his list, each of whom have a different reason for being thrown out and none of whom are too keen on meeting the attorney.
DISTRAINT is a side-scrolling title, but it isn’t a platformer. Players progress through the game primarily by solving puzzles. Getting to some of the residences on Price’s list is surprisingly difficult, and because he has at least a bit of a heart, he’s willing to help people out with the odd job or two in exchange for a slightly clearer conscience. DISTRAINT‘s puzzles are a throwback to the golden era of adventure games; got a locked door? Try using that coat hanger in the inventory.
The other, much more unsettling gameplay element informing DISTRAINT‘s design is gruesome psychological horror. As Price sacrifices more and more of his soul for that promotion, he suffers an onset of horrifying hallucinations and exhausting nightmares. These sequences are rife with all sorts of unpleasant sights and sounds, and sometimes put the player in mortal danger. Price can’t hide from the demons inside his own head; all he can try to do is run.
Because puzzles are the means by which players advance through DISTRAINT, it’s best to tackle them first. For the most part, DISTRAINT is refreshingly good at offering up logical puzzles. Unlike so many adventure games that chide players for not thinking to combine the spaghetti and the body powder into a key, DISTRAINT‘s puzzles follow a logical order. Got a locked door? Find the key! The most opaque option players might be confronted with is thinking to use a hanger as a TV antenna.
Not all of DISTRAINTs puzzle sections are so cut-and-dry, though. There’s a rather ludicrous puzzle toward the end of the game that involves getting high, tearing pieces of paint off of paintings, and using them to make a door. That Price is huffing mushrooms during that part of the game only does so much to make the challenge less outlandish. Fortunately, puzzles like that are the exception rather than the rule, as players can expect almost every other challenge to follow some order of logic.
DISTRAINT‘s horror is as terrifying as its puzzles are satisfying. Players can slip into one of Price’s fierce visions at any moment, which alter the game world in unsettling ways. Apartment complex corridors might suddenly become full of bodies, or that chair that was empty a second ago might now have a headless corpse occupying it. These sections are almost purely psychological and rarely place the player in actual danger, but that sure doesn’t make them any less startling.
DISTRAINT accompanies its macabre visuals with equally morose audio, including industrial-sounding grinding noises and distant screams. Occasionally, though, the game is a little too enthusiastic to leverage jumpscare violin strings. Those same strings can also screech at unbearable heights, going beyond being scary and indicating unbalanced audio mixing. It pays to keep the game’s audio at a manageable level, which players can only do so much to accomplish with DISTRAINT‘s limited options menu.
DISTRAINT‘s visual morbidity is at its most acute during the horror segments, but the game also gets a lot of help from its general aesthetic. The entire game world is built out in crunchy, fluidly animated pixels that convey a strong sense of creepy to the player. Maybe it’s that all the characters have spooky facial features or that the backgrounds’ pixels make environments look murky, but something that Jesse Makkonen did makes the world of DISTRAINT forbidding as hell. Even DISTRAINT‘s most brightly lit sections feel morose.
Speaking of lighting, Jesse did a great job leveraging that in the Deluxe Edition of DISTRAINT. The title is one of the few horror games that’s lit in almost every color of the rainbow… yet still feels unwelcoming. Jesse’s use of near-monochromatic background colors also helps set the mood of each scene. The cabin that Price visits is made scarier with its palette of dour yellow lights, while the nursing home is done out in sterile, uncaring tones. This close attention to lighting does wonders for DISTRAINT‘s heavy atmosphere.
A lot of games have fluidly animated pixels and good lighting, but what truly sets DISTRAINT apart from its peers is its narrative. Price is a fascinating character: a person whose regret makes him sympathetic but whose greed makes him morally repugnant. He’s one of the most complicated characters to pass through the horror-adventure subgenre in recent years. The character is pushed to his breaking point over the course of the game and reacts convincingly to events in both his waking and nightmare lives.
DISTRAINT‘s plot also benefits from good pacing. The game is patient enough to not throw all of its terrors at players at once, preferring to let the horror simmer in tense inter-scare dialogue exchanges. Price’s moral dilemma is instantly relatable to any players (especially young ones) who have had to tow the corporate line at someone else’s expense. The resulting drama is potent and the dialogue feels organic despite having the occasional spelling or grammar error.
DISTRAINT‘s frank examination of ambition and morality makes it one of gaming’s keenest studies of those concepts in a workplace context. They illustrate how cutthroat and, frankly, depressing the working world can be. DISTRAINT shows that many opportunities for advancement are more Faustian bargains than anything else, especially in the case of Price. That game-long existential crisis is where the title’s true horror resides; the hallucinations just give it a face.
Because of its uncommon attention to moral crises and its fluid adventure gameplay, DISTRAINT deserves a try from every gamer. It’s a curious odyssey into the mind of someone who has a weighty decision to make, and it’s written organically enough to feel pertinent to any working stiff. The game’s terror is also brought to life in more literal ways, with unsettling imagery and sound design straight out of a slasher film. With Halloween right around the corner, there’s no better time to give DISTRAINT: Deluxe Edition a try.
You can buy DISTRAINT: Deluxe Edition here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.