Not long ago, I reviewed Between Me and the Night, which I loved because it had a simple story and an interesting art style. While it was arguably surreal, it was still grounded enough that you could stay invested in the story and make sense of what was going on. The symbolism was not too heavy and it didn't pummel you with some deep, philosophical concept. I then played DISTRAINT , and all of that became all the more emphasized because DISTRAINT seems to be the polar opposite of Between Me and the Night. It is similarly a side scrolling adventure game told in segments, with varying gameplay mechanics and adventure game logic. However, unlike Between Me and the Night, DISTRAINT is unapologetically a surrealist game and replaces any subtlety in favor of beating you over the head with heavy-handed symbols.
DISTRAINT is a horror adventure game in which you play a man whose job is to evict tenants who are having their property taken from them for one reason or another, hence the game’s title. However, the character seems to go through an existential guilt over having to kick people out of their homes, particularly the first tenant, who is an elderly widow. This could be told simply enough, and even that description seems tame. For whatever reason, it is instead told in such a way that it seems less like this guy is just guilty and more like he exists between two different realities because it takes surrealism to a whole other level. Every level is riddled with horror tropes and symbols so bizarre that it's hard to tell what is actually symbolic and what just exists to be weird and creep you out.
It’s a pixelated style game, which isn’t a problem in any sense. There are fantastic pixelated games, and even some with very impressive graphics and art styles. DISTRAINT had the potential for that, but the issue isn’t the graphics so much as it is the design. The atmosphere and backdrops are mostly cliché, with inexplicably gloomy and beaten down buildings and settings. But the characters all look like they belong in a simulation game, with big adorable heads and goofy expressions. The first time I saw the main character I was confused, because nothing about his design matched the rest of the game. All of the characters have this same problem and it seems to distract from the atmosphere when the people are so caricatured. DISTRAINT also has an issue with dust and static. You can thankfully turn down the film grain, but the dust is always present even when it doesn’t make sense given where you are. It uses that "gray with highlighted colors" design that's pretty popular with indie horror, especially to highlight blood and objects of importance, which works fairly well. However, there just doesn't seem to be much actual consistency between the characters and levels. The mood based on design switches rapidly between being grimly atmospheric to being flashy and gory, and it doesn't really give you time to get accustomed to either one.
The story has all the potential to be serious and easy to relate to, but all the weirdness and the inconsistent atmosphere does it no favors. The game is split up into six segments total in two parts, half of which are the main portion where you evict people, and the other half is where you start to realize that you might be a terrible person for evicting those people. There is a lot of symbolism throughout, and it ranges from nearly outright telling you what it means to being so vague that it’s impossible to interpret. It’s almost hard to describe some parts because any attempt to walk you through the actual story of the game would seem so out of context.
Most of the game is narrated, and this presents something of a problem, because it is that special kind of narration where the character tells you everything they’re feeling all the time. I was surprised to find out that the guy who made this game also made Silence of the Sleep, a game I really enjoyed specifically because while it had a lot of dialogue, it never over told anything. The dialogue was paced well, and even comical in a more relaxed way. In DISTRAINT, the dialogue tells far too much and when it decides to be comical, it tries far too hard. It also has the Fran Bow problem where the main character just seems ambivalent to the fact that he appears to be slowly losing his mind. At least in Fran Bow, you're playing an imaginative and traumatized child, who might be understandably apathetic to weird things. Here, you're a full-grown adult with a boring morning routine and an eight-to-five, a seemingly completely normal person. There's no reason to have such straight-faced reactions here. The character will occasionally express that something is terrifying but nothing he ever does indicates someone who is actually terrified, more that these things are just an inconvenience. The ghosts of his dead parents slaughter a hypothetical elephant in the room in his kitchen and he just gets his coffee like everything is perfectly normal. He'll often do horrifying and irresponsible things himself without even being asked. I don’t believe it for a second when he says he's disgusted by a nursing home harvesting the meat of their deceased old people, if he then casually takes said meat to the chef without instruction, knowing it will now be fed to the other elderly folk there (no joke, this actually happens). That type of thing is hilarious, but not usually in the way a game intends.
The main mechanic of the game is solving puzzles to progress through a level. Most of these are fairly designed, and they can even be pretty complex. The third tenant's level is probably the best out of all of them, where you have to learn how to maneuver through rooms using what could be either drugs or nuclear waste, which clears some doors and blocks other. It’s difficult but very doable and logical.
The only puzzle that seemed frustratingly illogical was in the home of the second tenant where you must coax a dog to listen to you. There are many things that would make logical sense here. You can get the dog’s food, the dog’s bed, or even just talk to the owner and tell him “Hey, I found your dog but she won’t listen to me”. Instead what you’re supposed to do is get a tin of gasoline, find a generator, which is very hard to spot because it blends in with the background, then use the generator to power a washing machine, which when powered on will cause the walls to bleed some more and then produce a bloody glove which will for some reason get the dogs attention because she likes the smell. Of course. I mean how do you get your dog’s attention? That was the only one that was troubling though. The rest seem to work just fine and the biggest issue is some doors are hard to spot because they’re at the end of hallways against the far wall and not always noticeable. Some of the puzzles are contrived, but they aren't overly difficult to solve.
I also didn’t like the ending. Now I didn’t much care for the ending to Between Me and the Night either because it was vague, but it was at least arguably a happy and satisfying ending. The ending to DISTRAINT isn’t vague at all, but it is also needlessly heavy. Especially given how utterly strange the rest of the game is, for it to end on such a dark note just seems off. It wasn’t the only portion that tried to suddenly bring the odd story into gritty realism, but it was the most jarring attempt.
Aside from the occasional adventure game logic, everything works and is often pretty cleverly designed. The music is nice for the most part, and there are some parts that are genuinely entertaining (it’s a horror game but the best parts were the ones that made me laugh). It doesn’t have the balance of fun and scares like Silence of the Sleep did, and even though the actual subject should be relatable, I couldn’t relate to anything in this story because even the realistic parts don’t seem reflective of, well, reality. There’s a certain point where exaggeration hurts the story more than it helps it, and DISTRAINT went far over and above that point.
If you like weird games that make you laugh even unintentionally, then you’ll probably really like this game, because the majority of its faults are the same you would find in a horror themed B movie. The kind of movies that are objectively are bad, but are still entertaining so you catch yourself watching them more than one time just because they’re fun to watch. Sometimes that’s all you need. If you’re looking for a more serious horror experience though, or a truly interesting story, then you might look elsewhere.
DISTRAINT was reviewed on PC through Steam with a code provided by the developer.
It's functional and just weird enough to be mostly enjoyable, but the forced surrealism wears thin quickly.