SWERY Explores the Meaning of The Missing
By Jeremy Parish
Deadly Premonition. Spy Fiction. Dark Dreams Don’t Die: Immersive, cinematic, espionage and crime thrillers set in 3D environments, built around combat and gunplay. They’re the games on which designer and writer Hidetaka Suehiro (better known as SWERY) has built his reputation—yet, curiously, his latest creation, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, feels nothing like them. Rather than casting players as a spy or detective in a high-stakes action game or immersive sim, The Missing tells the story of a teenage girl looking for a lost schoolmate by way of a two-dimensional puzzle platform game. The Missing seems more like vintage Oddworld than it does a modern blockbuster title, and at first glance you’d be hard-pressed to connect it to SWERY’s previous work.
Look beyond first impressions, however, and you’ll soon find a game that isn’t so far removed from the rest of SWERY’s catalog after all. Yes, you play as a teenage girl who spends much of her time climbing ropes and pushing boxes, but the themes that define The Missing are quintessentially in keeping with SWERY’s legacy. If the game looks and feels lower-key than something like the string of hyperkinetic cutscenes that defined D4, that’s entirely by design. The Missing marks the first release by SWERY’s new studio, White Owls, and as such it represents something of a back-to-basics approach for him—inspired, unsurprisingly, by his love of film.
“I’m a game creator,” says SWERY. “But I'm also a writer, and I edit video footage. I majored in film in university, and learned about many different types of direction techniques. During that period, I was always drawn to ‘one-shot’ films composed of a single take. When I asked myself ‘What would I need to do to allow a small studio like White Owls to express something using that direction technique?’, I realized that the platformer genre is kind of like the one-shot film genre in its own way.”
And so, as The Missing unfolds, it largely does so in a single “take.” The protagonist, J.J. Macfield, wakes up disoriented while camping on a mysterious island with her best friend Emily, who appears to have vanished in the middle of the night. J.J.’s search for her missing friend unspools as a continuous journey, with players controlling her from start to finish, whether she’s solving puzzles or running through harmless scenery—or scrambling desperately to evade bizarre monsters.
Because this is a game, of course, the one-shot film metaphor doesn’t work perfectly. After all, in a video game (especially one where you scramble desperately to evade bizarre monsters), there’s always the possibility that the player will make a mistake, take a wrong turn, or otherwise die. When that happens, the continuous “shot” film metaphor is interrupted as the player is sent back to the most recent checkpoint. That happens in The Missing less often than you might expect, though. See, despite J.J. seeming like a normal teenage girl, defenseless in the face of uncanny danger, it turns out she’s a lot harder to kill than you might expect.
Freaky bone monsters? This isn’t your usual church service.
“The very first idea I had for The Missing was that I wanted to use the player themselves as a gimmick,” says SWERY. “When creating a platformer, one usually thinks about things in three different layers: The player; the enemies; and the map gimmicks. I wanted to add another layer to that, and came up with the idea to use the player themselves as one of the gimmicks. I decided that using puzzles was the best way to implement that.”
In gameplay terms, “using the player as a gimmick” translates into a sort of grim immortality for J.J. The island she explores is filled with dangers—not only monsters, but also manner of traps and environmental hazards. These can inflict grievous harm on J.J., but she has a remarkable ability to shake it off. With the press of a button, J.J. can heal herself as good as new… and even when dealing with seemingly fatal injuries, she can still drag her body (or what remains of it) around. This means you’ll only ever be returned to a checkpoint for a do-over if you really mess up.
J.J. endures some alarmingly brutal injuries from the wrecking balls and concertina wire that fill the island, but the 2D platformer’s zoomed-out, two-dimensional viewpoint keeps it from feeling exploitative or cruel. While players may initially be reluctant to subject poor J.J. to all the folding, spindling, and mutilation she faces, before long this rough treatment becomes a key to solving the environmental puzzles that stand between her and Emily. For example, some obstacles can deliver such a devastating blow that it literally turns her world upside-down, and some puzzles can only be solved by soaking up an injury that flips the screen (and gravity) around. Your heart really goes out to J.J. as she hobbles, flops, and crawls around the world—but there’s a point to her pain, SWERY promises.
Dead and dismembered, but still somehow not defeated. Talk about your plucky teens.
“In a way, I feel that The Missing takes the systemized horror genre and restructures it with a modern interpretation,” he says. “It seems like grotesque horror at first glance, but when one actually plays it, that aspect quickly ceases to bother them. The game was specifically built so that by the end, it should feel like a delicate, tear-jerking, ‘springtime of youth’ film.
“Doesn't that make sense? I feel like ‘horror’ and ‘springtime of youth’ go hand in hand,” SWERY jokes.
It helps that The Missing isn’t only about crushing bones and grasping for hard-fought success. There’s a lighter side to J.J.’s life as well. The game world contains hidden collectibles to acquire along the way in the form of pink-frosted donuts. The donuts’ playful retro cartoon mascot also doubles to become J.J.’s favorite “bitmoji” stickers to deploy during text conversations with friends and family. J.J.’s phone is always at the ready for the player’s use, serving as the game’s diegetic pause and options menu. It also helps leaven the island’s oppressive mood with a bit of shorthand banter. The whimsy of J.J.’s text conversations creates an unsettling contrast with the harrowing nature of her journey, but SWERY says that contrast is also by design.
Sometimes, you gotta take a break from dying and do a little bowling.
“Life is complicated,” he says. “There are many different facets to it. In my games, I've always striven to depict ‘what it means to be human’ rather than ‘stories.’ That's why I think that natural ambivalence always appears.
“The Missing has been called a game that deals with extremely complicated, modern themes. I do think there are some shades of that within the game. But I never thought of it as a game meant only for specific people. I believe that everyone is capable of understanding and sympathizing with the themes within the game. ‘All people are minorities and majorities in their own ways’: That's what I wanted to express, and I used my own life experiences to help complete the tale.”
SWERY says that there’s more of a connection between The Missing and his previous works than might seem evident as first. It goes deeper than themes of horror and the ability to twist reality, too. Fundamentally, SWERY says, The Missing connects to his other creations through its fundamental humanity.
“I always take care to make sure the humans in the games are depicting life itself rather than specific roles or character types,” he says. “Regardless of the genre of game, each character who appears is completely different from the next, with their own unique characteristics, personalities, and ideas—but in a way that allows each game to still seem ‘SWERY-ish.’ And if each character were to represent a ‘point’ in a living world, the story is the ‘line’ that connects them all.
“I create each game thinking it'd be amazing if I could connect all these different points together in order to create a larger multiverse (‘the SWERYVERSE’). Not through putting in easy-to-understand, fanservice-y stuff like Easter eggs, but by creating a ‘stream of human traits’ that flows through the core of every piece. Amidst that stream, The Missing depicts themes like ‘immaturity,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘instability,’ and ‘growth and salvation,’ making it yet another dimension within the SWERYVERSE.
“Did I succeed or not? I'd like to have everyone play the game and decide for themselves.”
The physical edition of The Missing is on sale exclusively through Limited Run Games until Feb. 14: [Switch Collector’s Edition | PlayStation 4 Collector’s Edition | Switch Standard Edition | PlayStation 4 Standard Edition | 2LP Vinyl Soundtrack]