a solid and respectful proposal on the subject of Alzheimer’s

In my usual job as a video game analyst, I’m always very fortunate to dedicate myself to this task because I love it. Today, however, I consider myself doubly fortunate to be able to analyze a title related to my other professional passion: daily therapy with people suffering from Alzheimer’s. In addition to writing letters, I have been doing physical therapy in centers specializing in both Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive impairment for more than ten years.

I’ve spent the four years of development following the path of inner ash, as it is not usual for there to be productions of this nature, let alone on a topic as glaring as Alzheimer’s. Works like “That Dragon”, “Cancer” or “Inner Ashes” are as rare as necessary, and this time it comes to us from Calathea Game Studio, a new Spanish studio of 16 people who have signed their first work Inner Ashes .

Inner Ashes is a title that is used mechanics of running simulator and jigsaw puzzles, builds a moving story about a father who, faced with this illness, tries to find out the reason why he is no longer in a relationship with his daughter. With a very respectful approach to what the disease entails, we are faced with a game that makes this condition extremely visible. While I disagree with some design decisions that partially hamper the experience on both a narrative and playable level, this is a surprisingly solid proposal as a letter of introduction to a study.

Lost in a sea of ​​memories

In Inner Ashes we control Henry, a family man who wakes up confused in his own home but can’t remember why his beloved daughter Enid isn’t with him. Using various objects that we see around the house and moving between the real world and the dream world of a decaying ghost, Henry will try to reconstruct some of the most important moments of his life.

From the very beginning we are made aware that Henry has Alzheimer’s not only through various fact sheets that we will find but also through small details that we see in the house. They are small elements that those of us who have in some way lived with this disease recognize right now: the post-its pointing out simple actions and facts, a board summarizing messages and daily tasks, barriers that prevent access to certain websites… It helped me. I really enjoyed seeing how Inner Ashes handled these subtle details without explicitly mentioning it.

For example, we always return to our house from world to world and each time we see things that have changed, such as a calendar suddenly showing a date several weeks before the last look, causing confusion for both leads for Henry as a player himself. There are also actions that we can no longer carry out in the same way; As the game progresses, the stump that Henry enjoys chiseling will become less defined and he will have a harder time remembering what to do with it. They are small contextual actions or details in the environment, but which best reflect the reality of these patients.. It’s a pity they haven’t been further improved to integrate them more organically into the gameplay.

Inner Ashes is a title that builds a moving story of a father and his daughter using walking sim mechanics and puzzle games

As I mentioned before, the action will take place between the real world and the dream world, represented by different islands that symbolize a symptom or disease state. The design of these worlds is greatboth because they symbolize certain milestones of the disease, and because of their beauty on a visual level. These areas are pretty linear and we just have to explore them looking for post-its, pictures or objects that can be used to solve simple problems; We will also have to solve many things Tangram style puzzles, the other main mechanic of the game. The reason why these puzzles are so common in the game is that they are usually a good way to cognitively stimulate Alzheimer’s sufferers, especially in settings like day care centers or similar; hence its widespread use in the game. Still, it lacks a bit more variety in the challenges, as there are many other cognitive stimulation resources of this type that might better suit the goal of memory recovery.

During the roughly four-hour gameplay, we learn the details of Henry’s and Enid’s relationshipas well as the consequences of the progression of her illness, with illustrations and dialogue between them (dubbed into Spanish); As you can imagine, the narrative component of the game is the other pillar of the game, along with exploration and puzzles. Although “Inner Ashes” isn’t overly long, it leaves a very satisfying feeling at the end thanks to its development spirited environments and pleasant music and cozy. This is where my problems with the game start, however, as visibility is not the same as awareness, and more could have been done for the latter than the former.

Visibility and awareness, two sides of the same coin

Let’s assume that the work of the Calathea Game Studio team is not only commendable at the video game level, but also when it comes to approaching the problem of Alzheimer’s with so much respect and knowledge. In that sense, it is also true that they are not responsible for making Alzheimer’s disease more visible than they have done here; Not surprisingly, several members of the team told us they had experienced the disease first hand and as a professional in the industry I attest that they did a very respectful job of being aware of this reality.

Unfortunately, there are design choices, both mechanical and in terms of depicting certain aspects of the disease, that create certain frictions that have prevented the group from progressing. Henry’s movement is slow, extremely slow. This feature is common to all running simulator, could be justified as Alzheimer’s patients eventually develop a psychomotor disability; However, I don’t think slowing down the pace of the game like this is the best way to show it, especially in a title where we have to explore the environments in great detail (some of them are quite large). It causes player fatigue in some sections. First of all, it is not present in all stages of the disease and may have shown itself to be an ability that the player loses late in the game rather than early on.

Likewise, the team told us that Henry’s dream world was designed with the aim of providing a pleasant counterpoint when talking about an experience as tough as this. While I understand the decision, I think that the simple fact of showing a crumbling environment doesn’t replace the beauty they’ve tried (and managed) to seek out in the worlds, thereby losing some of the message of what the inside of the mind makes up someone who suffers from the disease is like. Illness.

Without going much further in that direction, Inner Ashes is a good proposition when it comes to teaching and conveying information about Alzheimer’s to the player. But while the real-world moments can create a sense of confusion and even overwhelm thanks to all the elements changing over time, it’s a message lost in a dream world that’s too valuable for my liking. Symptoms such as mood swings, confusion or forgetfulness could have been incorporated into this playable scheme in a way that had a direct and obvious effect on the player.

When we embody someone with Alzheimer’s and even get inside their mind, it’s a great opportunity to empathize with the player through interaction, not just through an emotional story. In that sense, I think the potential it could have had was somewhat wasted; Although it can be seen as a bad thing, I really see it as a positive as I see the ability in this team to do something more ambitious.

Inner Ashes wastes talent in all of its sections. The graphical part is beautiful, as is the music and the symbolism it uses in its worlds. Thanks to the sensitivity of the story and the dialogues, thanks to the connection to Henry and Enid’s father-daughter relationship, it also does a great job of addressing the emotions of each individual, whether they have experienced the illness or not. Playable, albeit overly simple in terms of the variety of its mechanics, we’re still dealing with a solid product. Although it won’t leave any more residue than that of its story and it could have been used in other ways to create greater impact and empathy from the player, it’s a complete success when it comes to conveying some of the reality of The game with great respect. These people and their families, a task that was not easy.

Inner Ashes is available for consoles and PC for €14.99.

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