Fairy tales and Drew Barrymore movies taught me that a girl with butterflies in her stomach might be easily inconvenienced by some weird guy (either a literal beast or an everyman who acts like one), but the fluttering is a product of purity, clear like a raindrop. Without a sword or a big-shot career at her disposal, a girl can only become noble through how powerfully her heart beats. This story started to bore me until I realized it was recycled nearly everywhere, except for in the horror genre.
Horror—including horror video games—perverts the lovesick girl cliche in order to create another, in which a girl in love is actually the Grim Reaper. Yandere Simulator and Doki Doki Literature Club pass around the suffocating love established by centuries of Wuthering Heights melodrama and international erotic thrillers, and indie horror adventure MiSide is the most recent to take it on. I played the 35-minute demo for MiSide (Windows users can download it free on developer Aihasto’s itch.io page, and others can watch Alpha Beta Gamer’s full walkthrough on YouTube), and was impressed by the game’s graphic design, but feel its story might be another round of uninspired tropes.
Because of that, the horror elements presented in the demo rarely land, though they are initially presented creatively.
I start the game with a loose idea of what it’s about—I’m a guy who, “for mystical reasons,” Aihasto’s description says, gets absorbed into a mobile game—so I’m not surprised when I’m immediately given point-and-click tasks. Mita, the blue-haired, diamond-eyed protagonist of the mobile game I play, requests I put her dirty clothes away, cook her chicken soup, and earn money through mini-games over a series of fast-track days.
The point-and-click intro is a bit clunky, like when it cuts to a “Day 5” title card before I get the chance to make any soup, but its design and art style is lipstick-smooth and cohesive. I appreciate the attention to detail, like Mita’s satisfaction meter in the top-left corner, and her funny imploring to “Remember! You can play [mini-games] to get money.” It makes me feel like I’m about to play a knowing parody of the stalker woman trope, a Fatal Attraction spurred by G-Fuel, but then it starts falling apart.
Mita tells me to put my phone down, and when I do, I’ve seemingly been transported into her game, finding myself inside a 3D, explorable version of the house depicted in the 2D introduction. I walk through it in first-person to observe more amusing details—a book on the shelf titled “How to Tease Him,” a small doll with red eyes that follow me around Mita’s peach-pink room—that, again, demonstrate pleasant artistic sensibility. I like the soundtrack, too; it’s a sorrowful new-age synth loop that detunes whenever something extra scary happens, like when the electricity suddenly gives out.
It’s also around this point that the game’s logic starts breaking down. After Mita appears in the anime-style flesh, dialogue prompts to learn more about how I entered her game and why only make me more confused. Asking outright about what happened triggers a black screen while Mita presumably explains, and when the game cuts back to her she declares “And here you are!” like I have any idea of what she said. Other dialogue that should give me goosebumps ends up being similarly frustrating, like when I ask her why she requested I hand her a pair of scissors during dinner.
“I can also open the sauce with a knife, of course,” Mita says, “But I wanted to have everything ready for your return, so you can’t see the long preparations. I love making surprises! Yeeep.” Well, no one promised me she would be the most coherent virtual girlfriend.
The demo ends shortly after this. While we’re playing a card game, my protagonist hears a thumping sound coming from Mita’s closet. Mita stops him from prying it open, citing her private underwear stash, then addresses his anxiety with something that makes me sad: “This world…it’s just these four rooms. Wouldn’t that be enough for you? Will you just try to stay with me?”
When it’s time for me to reply, “stay” is, confoundingly, a locked dialogue option. The game seems to resist thinking too hard about the implications of its own story—how lonely a girl must become if she’s stuck inside a phone, always needing more but never able to get it on her own terms—and instead hopes that players think a devoted woman is scary enough by herself.
Even still, MiSide doesn’t brush its isolated woman with either Single White Female’s pity or Heathers’ acid empathy in its demo. It doesn’t consider its male protagonist as more than a naive anime boy who wants to get the fuck out, either. It only begins to retell a story from inside pretty, but thin, binding.
I feel like I’ve heard that story enough times before bedtime. Ideally, the rest of the game will give me something new.