It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play, we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
Shortly after the death of her grandfather, Sarah Wright is tasked with cleaning out the attic of his home in rural England. The small room is furnished with a desk, a large grandfather clock, and a curious globe. It’s also full of books and mysteries that Sarah uncovers as she searches through her grandfather’s belongings.
This is the setup for What Never Was, a first-person adventure that feels like a cross between Gone Home and Myst. It’s smaller in scale compared to Gone Home — in What Never Was you only have access to a single attic, as opposed to a whole house — but the attic still feels like a real, lived-in place that’s full of information that’s waiting to be uncovered.
Much of this comes down the sheer amount of things you can interact within the game. What Never Was is controlled mainly with the mouse: a left click will prompt Sarah to say something about whatever you are looking at, and a right click allows her to try to pick up or move whatever the item is. You mainly explore the space looking for missing pages from her grandfather’s journal. Each one details his world travels as he looked into mysterious alchemical and mythological phenomena. It also provides a clue for solving the game’s puzzles. These aren’t particularly complicated; mainly, you’re just clicking on particular buttons in the right order or arranging things in the correct manner.
Much like in Myst, much of What Never Was involves simply clicking on everything you see and trying to figure out where these pages might be hidden. It’s a lot less tedious than it sounds, as nearly everything in the attic has a voice line attached to it. No matter what it is, Sarah seems to have something to say about it. That could mean reading the title of a book that sticks out to her from a pile, reminiscing over an old stuffed pig toy, or admiring her grandmother’s old cello. Each of these lines helps to turn these items into more than just set dressing.
The dialogue attaches meaning to the objects you’re constantly looking at. It isn’t just that there is a voice line for everything; it’s about how they are delivered. There is a joy and somberness to the writing — especially the voice acting — that makes you feel like Sarah is both excited to learn these new things about her grandfather and sad that she wasn’t able to share them with him when he was alive.
What Never Was ends with the implication that this is merely the start of a larger story, but upon further research, it seems like that isn’t the case. The game’s creator Acke Hallgren described the game as “the first level of a game which (in all likelihood) will never come to be.” This actually fits perfectly with the game’s ending, as Sarah wishes she could have shared in her grandfather’s adventures, not just learned about them after he died — just as I was left wanting more time with What Never Was.