In a surreal land without a past, frozen in time, a lone birch sapling sits on a pedestal, its roots dangling into the water below. When a strange creature gives you a set of test tubes and informs you that the fate of the world is tied to that of the tree—hence “Fatum Betula“, or “Fate Birch”—the future of the world becomes yours to make. Feed the birch, feed the world, and live with the consequences.
What follows is Fatum Betula, an eerie, atmospheric adventure through a strange world full of odd inhabitants: a talking cat, a quirky old alchemist, more than a few ghosts. It’s the sort of world where a secret path at the bottom of an ocean can lead you to an endless road full of identical, pristine, soulless little suburban houses (“Little boxes on the hillside…”). The sort of world where a nap in a little house floating in the middle of a lake will let you wake up in a nightmare version of the same and shoot the breeze with the spirit of a fisherman who used to live there.
It’s a world where the low polygons and uneven textures of a PlayStation-style aesthetic are more than just a throwback to the games of yesteryear. Fatum Betula will certainly evoke a sense of nostalgia for anyone who grew up with the original PlayStation—there’s a bamboo grove area that gave me vivid, wonderful flashbacks to the many hours I spent playing Tenchu as a kid—but there’s more to it than that. Textures that don’t always line up neatly and slide around as you move the camera, short draw distances, and jagged edges all work to establish a sense of unease, an otherworldly familiarity.
As you explore this world and talk to its strange inhabitants, you’ll piece together a fragmented vision of a place without any true sense of history. Each person has their own story, of which you’ll catch little glimpses but never get the full picture, and these different pieces don’t necessarily line up. But that’s fine; they’re not meant to. This is a world that exists without rhyme or reason, precisely so that you can take fate into your own hands.
Which you do so, ultimately, by finding different liquids with which to fill your vials, and feeding those to the birch in the temple. The liquids typically come as rewards for completing “quests” (of a sort) for the locals, through simple, abstract adventure game-style puzzles. Help that old fisherman remember a painting he once saw a long time ago, and he’ll share some liquid bone matter with you; get hold of the skull of an immortal for the old alchemist at the bottom of the well, and he’ll give you a sample of the essence of immortality. None of these puzzles is overly difficult, with plenty of clues hidden (or not-so-hidden) in the dialogue, but they’re abstract and follow the logic of an inherently illogical place. In that, Fatum Betula is more of a game about exploration than puzzle solving.
Each new liquid you find is a chance to feed something new to the birch, resulting in a thematically-linked ending. Feed the tree blood, and you’ll embroil the world in war; feed it immortality, and you’ll doom humanity to the horrors of being truly endless, to the point of outliving existence itself. Across ten different endings, Fatum Betula touches on a many different ideas: the destruction of the environment, the impact of religious dogma, the true nature of a world that exists only within the confines of a videogame. Ultimately, Fatum Betula makes the point that “fate” lies in your actions, and the future is whatever you make of it.
It’s a nice message, but it’s one that, for all of Fatum Betula‘s experimental nature and abstract storytelling, lacks nuance or much in the way of depth. By touching on so many different ideas, but so briefly in the form of short ending videos, Fatum Betula never takes an individual idea further than simply offering a glimpse of a consequence. Sometimes that glimpse is the blunt instrument of suggesting that poisoning the world’s oceans with oil is maybe a bad idea; other times, that glimpse is simply observing an outcome—all people are skeletons now, good job.
This also means that there are diminishing returns to exploring these different endings. The first journey through Fatum Betula is a fascinating experience as you poke and prod at this strange world and let the mood wash over you; whatever ending you get first will be riveting, for the sheer sense of mystery. But by the time you’ve seen half of the different outcomes, the mystery is lost, and it becomes a game of going through the motions—you know the world, you know the puzzles, you know where all the levers are, and you’re just pushing them in different orders to create different outcomes. When you get to that point, the lack of depth in the endings becomes apparent, and seeing them all becomes a case of just doing it for the sake of completion.
But before you get to that point—for the first journey, certainly, and at least a couple more after that—Fatum Betula is an intriguing experience. It’s an experimental game that uses its PS1 aesthetic to drive home the surreal atmosphere of this world, and it’s easy to get lost in that atmosphere as you explore and experiment in search of different endings. It’s just a shame that the mystery runs out of steam so much sooner than the game itself does, dulling the impact with each new outing and robbing the “true” ending of much of its potential.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.