Sarawak is a game by Cowleyfornia Studios. (Spoilers follow; I received a review copy courtesy of the developers, Duncan and Marina.)
The protagonist, Mia, is a student investigating the murder of an unknown professor at Magdalen College, who comes to her attention when a police officer interrogates her, apparently because her mother is involved. After the officer takes a call and leaves, giving Mia no other information about the murder, she goes on a trail to discover that information herself, with a view to clearing her mother’s name. The more she learns, however, the less urgent this need becomes, until finally, she learns the truth about her mother and has no choice but to remove her from her life.
The presentation is lovely. Scrolling down to uncover more text put me in mind of an e-book, especially with the serif fonts and the comfortingly textured background. I also loved the way the game gently directed my attention to the pictures at the side, inviting me to solve the relaxing puzzles there. The combined use of words and pictures to tell the story felt very satisfying, like the game was taking full advantage of the interactive fiction medium. I got the sense that I was piecing together a narrative from a wide variety of sources, which felt completely congruous with the academic setting and the central quest for answers.
My favourite part of the game was the penultimate chapter, in which the protagonist, Mia, learns her parents’ history from one of their former colleagues, Micah. In a seamless blend of text and pictures, the sun sets and the background colour deepens as the conversation proceeds, giving their words a sense of reality and finality. The way different assets slid into view put me in mind of a play, especially with the rule-breaking, slightly over-the-top puzzles and the ironic tone of the newspaper clippings key to the investigation (“It is a tragedy that the theatre will be sullied next Saturday by the lower arts.”).
As Micah explains, Delia, Mia’s mother, once agreed out of desperation for money to be a drug trafficker. She was caught, but having used her husband John’s ID while paying for postage (without his knowing), he was arrested instead. Yet his concern that their child would be born in prison made him stay silent and accept the 10-year sentence in her place. Far from repaying his kindness, however, Delia prevented Mia from getting even a glimpse of her father and even fed John lies about Mia, saying she despised him and had no interest in meeting him. When John was released, Delia’s guilt and anxiety over the mountain of lies she had built finally overwhelmed her in an argument between them, leading her to push him over the balcony.
Regarding this series of events, I think I would have liked a little more elaboration on Delia’s decision to keep Mia away from John, which I can only assume was done out of an interest to protect herself. I would also have liked for the epilogue to be an opportunity for Mia to understand her mother’s motivations, which would seem to be one of her main concerns, especially considering her instinctive need to consult her mother when faced with the interrogation at the start of the story. Mia’s growth from a doting daughter, one who would not hesitate to lie to the police to protect her mother, to a self-described “grown woman” who would accept the truth about her parents with full awareness of its ugliness, seemed a little rushed to me, and I felt that more could have been done in the way of reflection, be it privately or with Micah.
Still, the painstakingly designed aesthetic and the regular stream of puzzles were a delight. I personally wouldn’t have minded longer passages in between puzzles, detailing Mia’s change in attitude towards her mother, but the consistently high levels of interactivity added greatly to my enjoyment of the game. My absolute favourite part was following the path of electricity from the generator to the room I was trying to power, which, apart from thrilling me to no end, also showcases the skill and versatility of the developers — I was literally taken on a ride.
ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Blue pea. Bold, vivid, and richly steeped in Southeast Asian flavours.