Mental health has been one of the most misunderstood aspects of human psychology for centuries. It wasn’t until recent years that video games started to truly delve into the eccentricities and nuances of mental health, with bigger titles such as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice being among the first highly popular games to take a stab at it. Now, another title attempts to shed some light on mental health in developer Genius Slackers' What Happened.

What Happened is a horror adventure game that puts players in the first-person perspective of Stiles, a young high school student who hears voices in his head and experiences episodes of blurred vision. During his journey, Stiles will discover keys, padlock codes, and lamps - all of which offer new pathways that lead to glimpses of the protagonist’s psyche. These glimpses highlight themes of crippling anxiety, self-doubt, self-loathing, and jealousy, all manifesting through rage and fear. Stiles’ varying emotions and mental states come to light as he progresses through various settings, showing interactions with different characters, including what appears to be a love interest, though, whether these hallucinations are memories or fantasies is unclear.

What Happened takes an interesting direction with its graphics style, blending cartoon vibrancy with realistic authenticity. This synthesis of lively jocoseness and ominous gloom manage to drive home the disorienting impact of mental illness through the focalization of an ever-changing, ragtag environment manipulated by interactable, shifting lights and objects.

These assets present the core of What Happened’s gameplay, blocking pathways that can be accessed by finding keys, padlock codes, and lamp switches that effectively change the landscape through which Stiles must navigate. If players get stuck in a room, spending enough time looking around will cause the game to get impatient and drop hints, such as input from Stiles’ Mind – which plays an antagonistic yet advisory role – or cues from the environment in the form of vibrating objects. What Happened encourages exploration of each room, opening drawers, cabinets, and lockers to find items (keys, letters, etc.) that offer insight into Stiles’ mental state as well as his interpersonal relationships.

Certain milestones will trigger cutscenes, holding true to most story-driven games, that reflect Stiles’ subconscious, dropping hints into his condition. Milestones are reached through escaping some environments, many of which are blocked by locked doors, and if players try to open locked doors before finding the key, the camera blurs and Stiles dizzies, thereby disorienting players. The effect can be so amplified that some gamers may experience nausea akin to motion sickness.

Pushing through that nausea, though, will reward players with the opportunity to explore multiple environments, from uncouth and more spacious areas to claustrophobia-inducing rooms. These settings offer little in the way of adversarial opposition, for What Happened offers no combat experiences. Rather, the game uses a storytelling mechanism in which the villain resides in the main character’s head – which sometimes manifests as a physical being, such as a giant, nasty shark from which Stiles must flee while following prompts from his Mind’s voice to ensure survival.

Stiles himself is a character who warrants empathy, his mind plagued by his brain’s machinations. Witnessing his emotional roller coaster elicits a similar range of sensations, confusion not the least among them. The supporting characters introduced throughout the journey augment those trepidations, though, the voice acting leaves a lot to be desired, as some of the characters’ expressed emotions are unconvincing.

Overall, What Happened delivers an impactful, thought-provoking experience that exemplifies the eccentric dangers of mental illness. Despite not having a combat system, its puzzle-solving exploration requires focus and persistence, rewarding players with progress and deeper dives into Stiles’ mind. While it doesn’t achieve Hellblade’s adrenaline rush or convey as convincing of a narrative due to the less-than-average voice acting, it still satisfies the growing need for drawing attention to the perils of mental illness and is capable of multiple endings.

What Happened releases July 30, 2020 for PC.