I can’t remember the last time a videogame broke my heart the way A Fold Apart did. Don’t be fooled by the cute, cartoony presentation; this is a raw, honest, haunting look at the challenges that come with a long-distance relationship. By the time the credits rolled, I was an emotional wreck.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A Fold Apart follows two unnamed protagonists, a teacher and an architect, as they navigate the tricky waters of trying to keep their relationship intact despite their careers sending them down very different paths. The architect gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a major city landmark, but it means moving to the other side of the world for a year—right at a time when the teacher is really finding their place and connecting with the children they teach. So they couple decides to do the long-distance thing, rather than expecting one person to sacrifice their dreams for the other—after all, it’s only a year, right? Their love is strong enough to weather that.
But it doesn’t take long for the loneliness and isolation to set in, and for misunderstanding and resentment to grow from those seeds. “Did you really want me to not take the job in the first place?”; “Are you expecting me to drop everything and move out there now?”; “I don’t want to have to give up on my dreams”—thoughts unvoiced, but still there, festering, unable to be properly dispelled because the same distance that gave rise to them in the first place makes proper communication that much more difficult. And of course, as time marches along, the questions get more dire: “If neither of us are happy anymore, why are we still doing this?”
No matter how much people love one another, being apart—even for a relatively short time, in the scheme of a life together—inevitably puts strain on the relationship. If anything, the stronger the love to begin with, the greater the difficulties that arise from being apart, because the loneliness is that much more pronounced. But by being honest and communicating properly, those trials can be overcome.
That is, fundamentally, what A Fold Apart is about. Through text messages and the occasional moment of choosing how to respond, we see the love at the heart of this relationship. But then a misinterpreted comment, coupled the pain of being apart, will send one of the lovers down a rabbit-hole of doubt and anger.
In the surreal, turbulent recesses of the mind of the person in question, you work through these struggles by solving puzzles designed around folding a piece of paper. The goal of each puzzle is to reach a star that opens a path forward, by navigating a series of platforms that span both sides of a scene resembling a piece of paper. Fold the page in the right way, and you’ll connect previously disparate platforms or cover up an obstacle that was blocking the way forward.
It’s a simple concept, but it lends itself beautifully to themes of the game. The backdrops of the pages you’re folding grow increasingly surreal and nightmarish as the game goes on, but one thing that always remains clear is that each side of the page represents either the city the architect has moved to, or the town where the teacher remains. If this relationship is going to work, neither person can just remain wholly in their own world—the only way through the struggles is to fold those worlds together, and find some way to limit the impact of the physical distance between them. It won’t always be pretty, and requires some pretty big compromise on the part of each individual, but that’s the only way to make it work.
The puzzles themselves never get overly difficult, but I think the game benefits from that. A Fold Apart tells the kind of story that’s best experienced as a fluid, continuous experience—in a single sitting, if you have the two to three hours that takes. Having puzzles that constantly stump players, and thereby undermine the pacing of the narrative, would be at complete odds with that. To take that a step further, there’s a very generous hint system that you can use to show you the next step of any puzzle (or even solve it completely). Crucially, even if you make liberal use of the hints available, you still get to witness how the puzzles come together and tell the story that they tell.
Unfortunately, A Fold Apart does also suffer from some serious bugs that I can only hope will be fixed before too long. Some puzzles see you pushing blocks around and climbing up them, but I often found myself physically unable to climb—even after solving the puzzle correctly up till that point—until I reset the puzzle and started again. A couple of times, I somehow managed to despawn my character entirely, with reloading the last save the only way to fix it. A Fold Apart‘s checkpoints are frequent enough that even such game-breaking issues don’t cause too much of a setback, but they throw a spanner in the works of the pacing that the rest of the game works so hard to maintain.
Don’t let those bugs put you off playing, though. A Fold Apart is an emotional, honest look at the challenges that come with being in a long-distance relationship. It’ll break your heart, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need—and the beautiful ending makes all the heartache worthwhile.
A Fold Apart is developed and published by Lightning Rod Games. It’s available now for PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, Apple Arcade, and iOS.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.