Games

A moving parable that looks at the effects of colonial trauma, Mutazione invites the player to co-create its soundtrack. By Jini Maxwell.

Mutazione

A still from Mutazione.
Credit: Die Gute Fabrik

I first see Miu cry when we are sitting by the riverbank, just after the blackpool lilies have bloomed. It’s been coming for a while: every time we’ve spoken has been a dance between intimacy and dismissal. Today, she tells me why. Just like that: the raw truth, plainly told, followed by a silence that we share with the ambient, melancholy sounds of the riverside garden.

Die Gute Fabrik’s Mutazione, recently released on Nintendo Switch, is a game about moments like these, which blend intimate revelation with the thrum of everyday life. The game has a fundamentally anti-hierarchical narrative structure that is fuelled by curiosity, creativity and affect, rather than a singular grand narrative.

The story plays out over the space of a week, as 16-year-old Kai sets off to the secluded island of Mutazione for the first time to visit her dying grandfather, also for the first time. In his youth, Nonno had been one of a group of scientists who moved to the island to study the effect of a meteor impact on the ecology and population of the island. In attempting to harness the island’s unique powers, they unwittingly triggered a second disaster that left the surviving community physically and emotionally scarred. Nonno stayed, trying to remedy the harm – but perhaps now it is too late. When Kai arrives, it is mostly to say goodbye.

Nonno has other ideas. The great Papu Tree, the entity at the centre of Mutazione’s unique environment, is also dying. To revitalise the island’s biomes, and in turn revive the Papu Tree, Nonno directs Kai to plant seeds and spores in different areas, from the mushrooms and moulds that grow in the depths of Jell-A’s cave, to the trailing willows of the swamps. This is the heart of the game: Kai spends her days getting to know the isolated community on Mutazione and fulfilling Nonno’s requests by collecting and cultivating plants for each of the unique musical gardens scattered around the island.

What unfolds is an ecocentric narrative that looks unflinchingly at the effects of colonial trauma on the lives of the colonised, both interpersonally and communally. The player encounters the story largely through conversations between Kai and the richly imagined ensemble cast, whose desires, experiences, relationships, conflicts and decisions are presented and explored without judgement.

The collage-inspired 2D art is characterful and cohesive. Even actions such as accessing the menu and starting dialogue are so aesthetically coherent that they melt into the game’s rich environments. Character designs that might look ghoulish with another artist’s touch are idiosyncratic and warm. Kai’s body language, more finessed than any other character’s, delicately expresses the hesitation, anxiety and anticipation within her silences, allowing her emotional presence without dominating dialogue.

No single character’s perspective is treated as more important or informed than any other on the island. Interpersonal conflict, when it arises, is muffled by the same forces that mute conflict in real life: things go silent; people have to work alongside each other regardless; or eventually it just matters less. It’s a subtle note of realism with a radically egalitarian effect on the narrative.

Mutazione could technically be played from start to finish in about six hours. However, its musical gardens offer a creative dimension that deepens the experience well beyond the scope of the linear story.

Each plant you cultivate emits a different instrumental sound. With more than 100 unique plants scattered throughout the island, these musical gardens allow for remarkable creativity, with further complexity enabled by the fact that the sound each plant produces is also affected by its developmental stage: a seedling will produce just one or two notes, while a more established plant might produce a full arpeggio.

Each of the seven plantable gardens represents a different musical temperament and key. The spiky plants that can be planted in sandy soil by a lighthouse create harsh sounds in a minor key. In contrast, the pacific sounds of the rooftop garden are brighter and bolder.

As you replenish the biodiversity of the island, the grown plants in your gardens drop seeds and fruit that allow for further creative experimentation – and plants can also grow in gardens of a different temperament, albeit not to their full size and aural complexity. The player designs their own unique soundtracks to each emotionally charged space as they gather more seeds.

With a structure modelled after a telenovela – rather than the typical hero’s journey – Mutazione is an experiment in grounding a narrative in a community, not an individual. It’s a storytelling approach that narrative lead Hannah Nicklin described as having “multiple middles”, compared with a typical narrative game that might offer the player multiple alternative endings.

Choosing to cultivate the soft harps of the blackpool lily or the trumpets of the neejon palm in the eastern gardens where Miu tells you she lost her children, won’t affect the game’s outcome – but it keenly shapes the player’s relationship to the space. Through cultivating these gardens, Kai’s emotional involvement with the community of Mutazione is mirrored in a literal responsibility for shaping the environment of the game. As an act of communion between the player and the world, it feels almost overwhelmingly intimate.

All life on the island is interconnected in an emotional and physical ecosystem that can’t be disentangled: just as the gardens need the Papu Tree, and vice versa, one character’s healing might cause another’s pain. In a different game this could feel like a sermon, but here it feels honest, and that honesty is expansive and forgiving.

The narrative ends at what feels like the beginning of the real work. Nonno, our ageing patriarch, learns that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. The extractive, destructive work of the scientists with whom he first reached the island can’t be healed by a single newcomer, however well-intentioned or informed.

It’s a potent message that gets a little lost in the rush of the game’s final chapter. Despite the game’s radical opposition to individualism, it comes to a climax that focuses on Nonno and Kai alone.

Mutazione is at its best when it forgoes the typical narrative impulse towards hierarchy and momentum, something it mostly does brilliantly. It offers the player an opportunity to fully participate in an intimate, communal world, a world in which Kai – and through her, the player – is no more or less remarkable, and no more or less implicated, than any other character. This point is made explicitly in the game’s final chapter but in the process of stating its moral core, the narrative ironically undercuts the work the rest of the game has done to embody that ethos through play.

I first played Mutazione on Playstation 4 in 2019. After I planted Miu’s garden, I needed a moment to myself. I let the melancholic soundtrack I had helped create spill into the living room. As I processed my thoughts, the delineation between my home in the real world and my experience of the game felt porous and open: a generative space, opening up room for something new to grow.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Musical healing".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.