Twenty-something Kasio, star of new game If Found, is struggling. Over the period of a month, she fights with her family, falls in and out of love, bounces around different couches, and is just generally fighting through the awkward stage of becoming who she really is. As a player, you learn all of this in a novel way: flipping through her diary and erasing her memories. It’s a unique twist on the standard visual novel, one that makes a sometimes static genre feel more dynamic and alive. It’s a coming-of-age tale that’s both comforting and uncomfortable — oh, and it’s also a game about a black hole swallowing the planet.
If Found was developed by Dreamfeel, a small Dublin-based studio headed by writer and designer Llaura McGee, best known for the short, low-fi game Curtain. After that project, McGee says that she “realized that making stuff by yourself is really hard and really slow,” and so she set out looking for collaborators for a new project. Through a friend, she was introduced to artist Liadh Young, and the two hit it off right away. McGee sent over an idea she was working on called Space Blood — “a swashbuckling space opera starring cats” — and Young quickly sent back a bunch of concept art. From there, the two explored ideas before landing on the basic idea for If Found.
One of the problems was scope. “I really wanted to make a game that would play to our strengths a little bit,” McGee says. “Rather than trying to create something that everyone else is doing, rather than taking a massive budget to make gorgeous 3D graphics, what kind of game could I make with a comics artist that would be within our means?” Around that time, she had become enamored with notebooks and the idea of marginalia, which led to the basic concept for If Found.
This was around 2016. The team created a demo that was shown at various prestigious events, but they had a hard time maintaining focus. “That was kind of our pattern: starting projects, working on them for a couple months, getting far, and then abandoning them because it spiraled out of scope control,” McGee explains. To make things worse, she was also lecturing on game design part time, making it difficult to completely dedicate herself to the game. But that changed when Annapurna Interactive — the publisher behind notable indies like Florence, Wattam, and Sayonara Wild Hearts — signed on to back the project. Being able to focus proved to be huge. “They give you a push to finish it when you need it, and that really helped,” McGee says of Annapurna. “They wanted whatever was best for the project.”
If Found takes around two hours to complete, and it packs a lot into that relatively brief runtime. While the core mechanics are simple, they do just enough to really make you feel like you’re part of the experience. I played the game on an iPad — it’s also available on Steam — and the act of erasing by swiping my finger was immensely satisfying, much more so than simply tapping through dialogue, like in a more traditional visual novel. It really felt like I was scouring the pages of an old notebook and learning more about Kasio, her friends, and her family. At times, you’re not just erasing but instead adding color to the world through your swipes. It’s almost like painting.
The story is split into two parts. There’s Kasio’s coming-of-age story, which is set in 1993, and, thanks to the art and music, it does a remarkable job at oscillating between different tones. Often the game is uncomfortable. When Kasio sneaks into her childhood home, the dark colors and quiet sounds made my heart pound. Likewise, I still feel awkward thinking about Christmas dinner, when Kasio is forced to listen to her mom question her life choices. Later, when she goes to a punk show at a local pub, the thumping base line and messy visuals made me appropriately disoriented. But If Found can also be sweet and comforting, like when Kasio has breakfast with some friends, or goes on a date at a restaurant, and everything feels warm and welcoming. (The game is also very Irish; there’s even an annotation tool so you can understand slang.)
Amid all of this is another, seemingly separate storyline running in the background. It’s about a version of Kasio some time in the future, now an astronaut investigating a black hole that could swallow the Earth. Kasio’s main narrative is compelling on its own, but according to McGee, the sci-fi elements were designed to help amplify the emotions. “One of the big influences was magical realism. It’s emotionally real, and it heightens the drama and the action that’s playing in the real world. It made it this extra amount of exciting,” she explains. “We could get away and have our realistic story of this young queer woman, and also have the cool fun stuff, too.” I won’t spoil too much, but it’s worth seeing how the two threads come together.
If Found is somewhat reminiscent of Florence in that, while the two games have a very different tone, both are almost perfectly paced and tightly constructed. It’s easy to breeze through If Found in a single evening, yet the brief runtime is also one of the game’s strengths. “I definitely subscribe to the point of view that a piece of media shouldn’t be any longer than it needs to be,” says McGee.
If Found is available now on Steam and iOS.