If Found…, and When Video Games Find You

Sometimes a game plays you — and helps you hit the next level.

If Found game
If Found game

Cultured Vultures spoilers

There are a lot of reasons we play video games. The ability to escape reality for a little while is a big one, especially in recent months. There is also, of course, the importance of representation in games. Sometimes, instead of wanting to run as far away as you can from reality, you want to play a game to assert your sense of self in a new context. That’s the whole appeal of character creation, isn’t it? Carving random pixels into something that looks like you, and saying “This is me. This space in the game is mine. I am on this adventure myself.”

Sometimes a game can sneak up on you, though. Samus taking off her helmet at the end of the original Metroid, revealing herself to be a woman instead of a generic genderless robot, stands out as a historic example of this narrative. It’s kind of the opposite of magically making something disappear. Poof — suddenly, a game has more depth than you thought. Human context, summoned out nowhere! Choosing to start a game because you relate to the main character is one thing, but starting a game only to later realize the game is about you is another sensation entirely.

If Found… is a visual novel developed by Irish studio DREAMFEEL about a coming-of-age story about Kasio, a trans woman in 1990’s Ireland. Kasio is figuring out her identity while living in an abandoned house with some punk musicians and hiding from her mother and brother. At the same time, a black hole is hurtling through space towards Earth and an astronaut named Cassiopeia is diving through the wormhole to find out a way to stop it.

If Found game
If Found game

Unlike the Metroid example mentioned above, If Found… does not try to hide Kasio’s identity as a trans woman or play it off as a dramatic last-minute reveal. The game is straightforward and honest about her identity and situation, because her journey to understanding and acceptance, both of herself and others, only begins once she knows this fundamental fact about herself. The reason I bring up the surprise reveal isn’t about the game itself, but rather, well, we’ll get there.

I initially grabbed If Found… from the Switch eShop because it looked like it had a nice art style, but ended up deeply affected by how the game builds its story around memory. The majority of the story comes from flipping through Kasio’s journal as you read, then erase each page of Kasio’s past and unravel her arguments with her family and her solace with her housemates/fellow punks. The basic act of erasing is, at first, a shocking thing to do, and it feels strange and mean to be erasing all of Kasio’s memories, but as the game goes on, that erasing becomes liberating as you wipe away other people’s preconceptions of Kasio and make room for your own story as you’d like to tell it.

Erasing in If Found… takes a while to get used to. For the first few pages of the journal, it felt wrong. This was someone’s life. This was the past, these were people that were near and dear to Kasio, the game can’t be asking me to wipe all of that away, can it? The game makes you sit with the intimate discomfort of this betrayal, scrubbing away Kasio’s memories, both precious and frustrating.

Going from page to page, watching the days and weeks melt away, I came to realize that erasing everything was freeing up a lot of space. Kasio has an argument with her brother? I can’t take his hurtful words away, but I can eradicate any mention of the event. Forcing these events to disappear, at least symbolically, almost becomes a therapeutic act.

If Found game
If Found game

The ability to unmake an upsetting incident in our past is an enticing fantasy. Like I said before, it lets you literally wipe away any unhappy event — a hurtful conversation here, an awkward misunderstanding there, any number of moments where Kasio should’ve said something different, all of these unhappy recollections removed with the swipe of a control stick and the press of a button. Never mind that it also involves erasing faces of friends and family. Never mind that you can’t pick and choose what to erase from Kasio’s pages. Other than occasional cuts to the astronaut Cassiopeia exploring space, all of your time is spent culling Kasio’s memories. Everything must go.

Playing If Found… reminded me a lot of my own youth, though I am not from Ireland. I’m from America, but grew up in a small town comparable to Kasio’s Irish burg. Seeing her hang out in coffee shops with friends and attend raucous punk shows all gave me a twinge of nostalgia — or rather, of memory. I had been there too. Not literally, not geographically, but in some other context.

When I was a senior doing theatre in high school, a friend asked me to audition for a play she wrote, and I said, as a joke, I was done playing men because I’d done it so many times, and would from then on only play female roles (I hadn’t learned about the gender binary yet—stay tuned). A few years later, my college improv group did a halloween murder mystery show. I played the withering matriarch of a rich family, complete with makeup, flats, and a maroon wrap dress, though I didn’t perform in any crass “lady” voice, instead speaking like I always do, if a bit sterner. I didn’t think much of it at the time, just a way for me to make the character feel distinct from everyone else. In storytelling, these kinds of events are what we call “foreshadowing.”

When I went to college I, like a lot of students living away from home for the first time, was exposed to a lot of new ideas. New clubs and hobbies and people from different states, different countries, different backgrounds I’d never encountered before. I also came across a lot of new terms and acronyms, like LGBTQ. I knew what gay people were, of course, and knew what trans people were, at least in concept. I had not knowingly met any trans people at that point in my life, as far as I knew. In hindsight, I can now say this wasn’t the case.

If Found game
If Found game

Learning more about gender identity was interesting from an academic standpoint. That’s all it was, I thought at the time — just an intriguing topic to make a more well-rounded, enlightened, welcoming person. I didn’t want to pay attention to the prickling in the back of my skull, like the dog-eared page of a book I’d never finished reading: ‘Are you sure you’re not forgetting something? No rush. It’ll be here when you’re ready.’

It wasn’t the sort of thing I thought I should bother anyone else to talk about. Surely we all feel this way, this is completely normal, and since surely everyone else is feeling this way, there’s no need to discuss it. Not even worth drawing or writing out in a journal. These thoughts were erased before they were written in the first place.

I would even try to erase my own mental journal — wiping away these internal conversations, scrubbing the memory of that murder mystery show, tearing out pages of thoughts about what I wished my hair looked like. All gone — just empty pages. Just me, a regular guy, ignoring the black hole that’s been growing this entire time and cannot be avoided forever.

There’s not a single dramatic episode coming up in this story, by the way — there was no cathartic bolt of lightning, no single argument with a loved one where I declared my intentions for the rest of my life. No real black hole threatening everything, just the metaphor that If Found… illustrates a lot more clearly than I am right now. Instead, life just keeps going. The journal gets filled some days, and some days it doesn’t. Sometimes I’d dare to open, some days I couldn’t manage it.

If Found game

Going back to If Found…, there is something else we need to discuss. The following section contains severe spoilers for the final section of If Found…, so if you don’t want it ruined for you, go ahead and play the game, and we’ll be here for you in two and half hours (you’ll be glad you did, it’s time very well spent).

Welcome back. What a game, right?

Like I said before, all of the erasing Kasio does to her journal frees up a lot of space in those pages. But the game doesn’t forget about this space — it does eventually call you to fill it. In the game’s final section, If Found… completely inverts its gameplay. No longer are you erasing things, trying to cross out the unpleasant past, shutting out anything connecting you the world — now, you place words and sketches onto the page, composing your own e.e. cummings-style word splatter and rebuilding the past you spent the past few hours destroying.

You rebuild your memories of friends. You redraw your family. Everything that seemed lost has come back again, not the same as it ever was, but still it’s all back. You don’t have to throw out the good along with the bad in pursuit of total mental freedom, you can take ownership of your story. No longer do you re-read past events, trapped as a passive participant in your own history.

In its final moments, If Found… gives Kasio’s will back to her, and by extension, you. Not only does it let you/Kasio take ownership of your/her life, it puts you in the present. The journaling begins again right now, and this time you and Kasio aren’t discovering the record of your past, you’re making it happen in your own time. Then, as if that’s not empowering enough, If Found… delivers its final masterstroke, its final gift:

At the very end of the game, If Found… gives you a character creator.

If Found game

Something so simple, so universally associated with the start of a game, is the final interaction between Kasio and the player. This person you’ve been following for the past two hours, scratch that, this person you’ve been for the past two hours and only represented by loose sketches, now needs to show up in full detail. She needs a face and a body and hair and fashion, and isn’t this what you’ve been chasing this whole time? Isn’t this what you wanted for so long? To look how you want to look and feel how you want to feel so that your mind and your body actually match, on your terms? Am I still talking about a game?

When I hit the character creator, I clenched my fists around my controller and cheered. I couldn’t believe the audacity of it! Ending with a character creator, as if to say that how Kasio looks, how Kasio chooses to appear, is the final, most important step in her journey. Sure, her life will continue, and there will be other obstacles to climb, but despite all of that, for this game, the character creator is the final triumph.

So, let me take a swing at my character creator. Hi. My name’s Ryan. I’m a writer and contributor at Cultured Vultures, and I’m trans. More specifically, I’m nonbinary, but for me at least the term trans also fits. I’m still a person in progress, but after a long time I find solace in finding the terms and names that feel right for me. If Found… is a game that turned a video screen into a mirror, and it gave me the time and space I needed to see my own situation play out in someone else. And if you found this article (see what I did there), thanks for reading. I’m glad you did.

If Found… is available now for PC and Switch.

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