I haven’t read in a while. Something about 2020 made me stop reading novels. Even though we had this painfully long lockdown where I literally had nothing but time on my hands, I didn’t read a word. My dusty old bookshelf, with its reams of yellowing, crinkled, weathered books weighing heavy on its creaking shelves, begged me to relieve it of its pain, but I could not be dissuaded. I regret that now.
I’ve genuinely missed reading, tucking into a good story, fully immersing oneself in a fleshed-out world, following detailed and multi-layered characters across exotic locales in the hopes of learning whatever truth is being cleverly unravelled without my knowing. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to play Sarawak, a “literary mystery game”, I quite literally jumped with joy. Here was my way back into the world of literature, a transitional piece of media to sway me from video games back into the page-turning world of novels. And oh boy was it a pleasure.
“Its narrative is both simultaneously deft in its weaving of the plot and exposition, and bewitchingly charming.”
Sarawak is about Mia, a young woman who finds herself sat opposite a policewoman one morning, her breakfast swiftly growing cold. Her mother, it would seem, has been implicated in the murder of a professor Mia saw lecture only hours before. Determined to figure out the truth, she sets off on a continent-hopping adventure to find the answers she seeks.
For the majority of Sarawak, you’ll be reading. What takes some visual novels a gargantuan amount of text to exposit, Sarawak does in a passing paragraph. Its narrative is both simultaneously deft in its weaving of the plot and exposition, and bewitchingly charming, a feat only achievable by the very best of writers. The way the words filled my mind with such distinct and vivid imagery, transporting me to the blistering heats of Borneo, or the stuffy corridors of an Oxford library reminded me of the joys of reading.
“The art is bright, evocative, and brilliantly vibrant as the colours pop on screen, and yet so hauntingly sombre when it needs to be.”
Throughout Sarawak, very few images are used. When they are, they are presented with a beautiful minimalist art style that conveys all the information you need to glean, while still offering you a more detailed examination of each location by just using its expertly written prose. The art, by Marina Sciberras, is somehow nostalgic, reminding me of how my mind as a child would translate the words of an Agatha Christie novel into stunningly surreal images. It’s bright, evocative, and brilliantly vibrant as the colours pop on screen, and yet so hauntingly sombre when it needs to be. Each piece of art has been so carefully designed for a specific moment, that they perfectly convey the exact tone, feeling, and emotion of all present within it, through colour, detail, and style. It’s a sight to behold and completes an otherwise cleverly crafted package.
Characters in Sarawak feel truly alive, their dialogue not based on the presumption of how one speaks, but feeling as if they were someone I could have happened cross on my own journeys. Even without voice acting, I was able to hear them speak to me. The lady with pink hair whispering about her forlorn, unrequited love for our tour guide, and Micah who explains his sombre story, a melancholic twang periodically audible as he recounts the past.
For a game that relies so heavily on the execution of its narrative to convey a believable and coherent plot, it’s fortunate that the writing has been so cleverly delivered and incredibly engaging. The writers have done a phenomenal job to achieve the perfect harmony between crafting an intriguing and heartfelt narrative.
“Mia is a colourful, determined, intellectual, who can be whimsically charming when the moment calls for it.”
Of course, this is a game, and as such, there is more on offer here than the story. There are multiple-choice options when responding to another character, or when choosing the course of events. Every choice I made felt like the right one, and the conclusion the narrative came to based on them felt satisfactory. Whether all of the choices lead to the same conclusion or not, and how much of an impact they have on minute-to-minute gameplay, I’m not entirely sure. But the choices serve a purpose beyond interacting with the narrative.
Choices also help to serve as stop-gaps, breaking up what would otherwise be long stretches of text. They also add character to Mia, a colourful, determined, intellectual, who can be whimsically charming when the moment calls for it. They’re a fun distraction, and help the player feel more engaged on a personal level with the story and character.
There are also puzzles, although these do take a back-seat to the story. I didn’t have a problem with this, or the puzzles, which were, for the most part, simple enough. I’d have been frustrated should they have been obstacles in my way of learning more about the narrative. Fortunately, much like the choices in the game, they serve as an excellently executed distraction, giving the player something to do and think about should their eyes grow weary. There is further interaction with particular objects in the environment, such as twisting a sign or revealing a photograph, which was a nice touch.
“This is a story truly worth experiencing for oneself.”
The only real negative I could find is one puzzle later on in the game was a little obtuse. It may have been my own fault, but I couldn’t seem to figure it out despite having tried everything. When I did eventually solve the puzzle, I felt it was done by accident. I am reviewing it before the game is out, so I’m sure someone helpful out there will put them on YouTube once it’s released.
Ironically, for a game that is almost predominantly comprised of a narrative, I’m not all too keen on spoiling Sarawak. Sure, it would help me convey what was so special about the game to be able to natter on about this or that plot point, but I don’t want to ruin the experience for you. Because, truly, this is a story worth experiencing for oneself. The only issue I had with the narrative was the ending, which felt a little sudden. But I have a feeling my greed of wanting more of this game, to be immersed in its world for just a little longer, might be clouding my judgment a little.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on Steam, code was provided by the developer.