Designed by Ray Gill
It is always hard to review games that are built solely on narrative without revealing any spoilers. You can talk about the intense fights, art styles and why characters are in their current situation, but it is almost impossible to analyze elements such as the map design in “Gone Home” separately from its relation to the story, but perhaps that is the fundamental intricacy of such a game. “Unheard,” made by Next, a Shanghai-based studio, is a title inspired by many auteurs in this narrative-based realm, including “Dear Esther,” “What Remains of Edith Finch,” “12 Angry Men” and “Sleep No More.”
“Unheard” can be summarized as the process of collecting information through audio, mostly conversation. Players control a character in the world, but this character does not have any impact on the gameplay other than determining which conversation you want to listen to next.
Though a lack of complexity diminishes the narrative of the game, “Unheard” still benefits from its innovation and creativity. Players have to figure out the story and the names of the people involved by listening to a variety of conversations. Later in the game, there are often several people talking in the same level. To get the full picture of the scene, players have to decide which group to listen to first, then drag the time bar back to the starting point in order to hear the others. The game also features events that add atmosphere to the scene to avoid overwhelming the players with dialogue.
The writing maintains a decent quality overall with a few unfortunate disappointments. One of the most significant issues is “on the nose” text. An example of such a problem would be conveying anger in a character. How might a writer show the character is furious?
“On the nose” text often plays out like this:
“How do you feel?”
“I am super angry!”
The alternative would be something like this:
“How do you feel?”
“Leave me alone, please!”
In dialogue like this, the game loses any sense of subtlety and the narrative feels forced. Of course, this varies based on the context, and sometimes the first instance might work fine. But in this game, “on the nose” writing appears a little too frequently. The voice acting certainly does not help improve the writing, and instead it makes the entire issue worse. The quality of the voiceover in the Chinese version differs significantly from the English one. The former features a broader range of accents and less dramatized performance, but the English version suffers from overly theatrical acting to a degree that is cringeworthy and unnecessary. This problem likely stems from lower popularity among English-speaking audiences. Reviews on Steam prove this point: There are over 5000 non-English reviews (primarily Chinese) on Steam at the time of writing, but only 215 English reviews.
Few games focus solely on narrative nowadays, and even fewer focus entirely on dialogue. It is refreshing to see a Chinese studio’s creative take on this diminishing genre of games. Considering the massive potential of the gaming market in China, there is hope for more Chinese companies to develop original content.