Indie Game of the Week 172: Mutazione

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It's been a hot minute since I last checked in with Danish developers Die Gute Fabrik ("The Quality Factory", far as I can tell), having played their 2011 platformer Where Is My Heart? at some point in 2014 and forgetting to review or blog about it, a rare lapse on my part. I can tell you that Where Is My Heart? was largely about community and spirituality, and the more point-and-click focused Mutazione from last year has shades of that also but with an added ethnobotany angle to it.

In Mutazione, the player is Kai, a young woman visiting her grandfather's home on the titular island for the first time. The grandfather, Nonno, doesn't have much time left and Kai has grown up hearing stories of Mutazione's close-knit community from her mother Gaia, though she's still less than happy about being wrenched away from her previous summer plans - she's a would-be swimming athlete in training - to watch an elderly relative she doesn't know slowly pass away. Turns out Nonno is a bit craftier than that: his years spent as the island's shaman, in addition to his background as a biologist, has given him a keen knowledge of the plants of the island and which ones might serve to prolong his life. Kai helps him prepare what he needs while spending time with the island's other inhabitants, the majority of which are mutants born of an apocalyptic meteor collision some fifty-plus years before the game begins and is alluded to only sparingly for the first few hours of the story in a nice bit of conversational verisimilitude (after all, it's ancient history to most of these people, so why bring it up?).

It's integral for a setting like this to feel
It's integral for a setting like this to feel "lived-in" given how much time you spend in the same handful of locations, and Mutazione does a fine job with that by way of these cross-sectional interior environments.

While Mutazione does have its mysteries to solve and goals to follow, it's also a markedly unhurried game. The island of Mutazione is the type of isolated, beautiful, and cosy place where time seems to stand still; Kai's interactions with the community, which can be as involved as the player wishes to get (Kai herself has a number of dialogue responses for the player to choose between, generally binary choices split between being introverted and reticent or extroverted and gregarious), make up the bulk of the game even when most of them aren't required to push the plot forward. Time moves after story-significant encounters (not unlike the original Gabriel Knight) and the player is given a clock icon instead of the usual dialogue or interact icon to indicate when an interaction will shift time ahead a segment, from morning to noon to afternoon to evening to night. However, the player is free to explore and see how concurrent story arcs are progressing with the other villagers prior to pushing ahead. The scattered villagers will move around to pre-determined locales across the island, talking to their friends, waiting for Kai to stop by, or trying to relax. There's much you can miss if you aren't thorough, but at the same time not a lot of it feels essential unless you're finding yourself caught up in the lives of Mutazione's population.

There is a kernel of gameplay in Mutazione, separate from walking around and talking to people, and this comes in the form of Kai and Nonno's botanical diversions (sounds like a shampoo when I phrase it like that). Early, Nonno teaches you how to use his shaman drum to create music to help certain plants grow. By collecting seeds of plants with a... similar taste in music, and planting them strategically around Nonno's small garden, Kai can quickly grow them with the drum and harvest their seeds (to plant more in the future) and fruit (needed for potions). This mini-game is simple enough and only has a few appearances, but has enough variety to make for an effective means of breaking up the more story- and dialogue-heavy adventuring. It's not too dissimilar to the mixology of "cyberpunk bartending action" visual novel VA-11 Hall-A in its execution. That's not to say the dialogue parts aren't compelling in their own right, though: each character is going through something of a minor drama in their lives, whether it's the enormous teen golem Tung's abandonment issues and his projects of building a boat and founding a band with his feline pal Miu, Ailin and Graubert's rocky relationship and how Ailin's pregnancy is exacerbating those cracks, the lonely child Bopek and his lack of friends his own age, your mother's unadventurous childhood friend Claire and her unrequited affection for local bar-owner Spike, and many more threads that slowly make themselves known and play out with Kai's observance and occasional input. It can be a bit soap opera-y at times, though not in the exaggerated sense of everyone having amnesia and an evil twin; more in how peoples' lives are often more fascinating in those smaller relatable moments than in any enormous, fantastical life-or-death contexts.

This game is very geared towards what the kids call
This game is very geared towards what the kids call "vibing", and it's never more apparent than in this horticultural mini-game where you play your jellosa shrubs airport jazz muzak to help them bloom.

I will say that, true to its intent and aesthetic, Mutazione is a leisurely-paced game with little in the way of "incident" for better and worse, depending on how eventful you want your interactive entertainment to be. It might ramp up towards the end - I'm only about three or four hours through it, which is about halfway according to HowLongtoBeat - but I suspect it'll maintain this chill and relaxed attitude throughout. I've been playing Kai as an honest and open person, and I'm wondering if that hasn't affected the way Mutazione's citizens communicate with her, and if they're more open with their hopes and dreams in turn. I don't think I'll play the game over as a quiet moody teen who doesn't get along with anyone (had my fill of that with my own youth) to see what's different, but despite wanting to see how the story proceeds I have found myself visiting the many screens of Mutazione to make sure I check in on everyone before I shift ahead to the evening or the following morning, even if it's never strictly necessary. It's wild that, for a game set on an island built on the ruins of a prior civilization with a population of mutated rock and bug people, that's all about using magic to grow herbaceous curatives, it manages to feel this down-to-earth and human. If you like your talky adventure games to be verbose and full of empathy and themes, it's worth a look.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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