The House in Fata Morgana is a masterpiece on every level, and a game that truly pushes the artistic boundaries of the medium.
Few things are quite as bizarre to me as the never-ending arguments about whether visual novels are “real” videogames, about whether they’re something you play or something you read. Not just because their status as videogames seems like such a given to me, or even because of how pointless and superficial the underlying question really is—whether or not we call them “videogames” has no bearing on what they are and what they do. No, this debate is so strange to me because I can’t think of a single other genre that so consistently and intelligently pushes the boundaries of what “videogames” can be as an art form, the kinds of stories they can tell, and the unique ways they can tell them.
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Nothing exemplifies this more than The House in Fata Morgana. At first glance, it’s a gothic horror story about a cursed mansion, mostly told to the player with little involvement from them. That’s true on both a literal and narrative sense: the role you play in this tale is that of an amnesiac who wakes up one day in the titular house, before its maid begins to recount the strange, tragic history of the place. You are an entirely passive observer, as both the player and the person you embody within the game.
As the maid’s stories unfold, she takes you on a journey through the House’s history—different time periods, different occupants, even different locations, with the House’s apparently ability to relocate itself at will. Each story is its own thing, all beautiful and tragic in equal measure, but with little to connect them beyond the shared setting of the House. At first blush, The House in Fata Morgana is an anthology of individual tales, each masterfully written, but all separate, self-contained.
Only, they’re not. From the middle ages to Victorian times, from England to Japan to America, everything in the House is connected. These seemingly disparate tales are far more closely intertwined than they first appear, the links between them revealing ever so slowly at first, quietly weaving together in the subtleties and easily-missed details. But as things move along, those connections become harder to miss, the quiet developments laying the groundwork for late-game revelations that force you to recontextualise everything you thought you knew about the tales you’ve been told.
Which brings us back to You, they player. Your role in all this follows a similar trajectory, starting as a passive observer while the game slowly wraps itself around, quietly gets its hooks in, then shifts focus to make you a fundamental part of what’s happening. It’s a subtle shift, the stories you thought you existed outside of stealthily weaving you into their fabric until it becomes apparent that You are as much a part of this House as the maid or anyone else.
It’s a shift that is so impactful and effective precisely because of The House in Fata Morgana‘s position as a visual novel—as a videogame. In the way it sets itself up as a narrated story told to a passive audience and then reframes and subverts those expectations, in the way it dances around and embraces and rejects the tropes of the visual novel format, it unfolds in a way that is so fundamentally tied to the player’s subjective place within an interactive narrative that it can only truly work as a videogame. You could take all the same words and all the same pictures and print them into a book, and while it’d be a compelling one, the impact would be lost.
This is what I mean when I say that visual novels push the boundaries of what “videogames” can be as an artform. In a medium so obsessed with a narrow definition of “interaction” as something that happens on screen in response to you pressing a button, The House in Fata Morgana digs much, much deeper into the relationship between text and audience, between game and player, and the influence they have on one another. And while Fata Morgana might be the most powerful and memorable example of that I’ve ever witnessed, it’s far from unusual in the visual novel space. This is a genre full of artists constantly examining and re-examining what a “videogame” is and what it can be, both as a form of art and as a space for player interaction.
The story that unfurls through this is phenomenal, too. Part gothic tragedy, part horror, and part bittersweet love story, it’s a haunting examination of the darkest corners of the human psyche—disturbing, uncomfortable, confronting. But as intense and unflinching as it gets, it’s not something that’s ever played for shock value; it’s something that’s always grounded in humanity, dealing with painful, distressing subjects with care and nuance.
It’s a tale about being othered: about being rejected by society, about being hated and exiled and cast aside. It’s a story about being told that your very existence is a crime, and about grappling with your own identity in a world that wants to erase it. It’s a story about what happens when you’re deemed inhuman, and when you embrace that inhumanity because you can’t see any other option. But it’s also a story about love, about finding comfort among other “others”, about learning to be true to yourself despite the hell that the narrowminded masses try to put you through. Most of all, The House in Fata Morgana is a story about hope, about redemption: it’s a story about going through so much and still managing to find your own slice of peace. It’s tragic and heartbreaking, but achingly, beautifully so.
It’s masterfully told, with an elegant script that vividly stokes the fires of imagination. The writers have a way with words that’s nigh unmatched; even setting aside the story that’s being told, the way each word and idea flows into the next is mesmerising. The artwork is similarly picturesque, with every scene, every background, every character portrait looking like it should be hanging in a gallery while still capturing the full spectrum of theme and emotion that the game traverses. A layered, melodious soundtrack rounds this out, with soul-stirring vocal tracks being especially adept at tying the whole mood of a scene together.
As well as the main story, Dreams of the Revenants Edition also comes with prequel and sequel stories—Requiem for Innocence and Reincarnation, respectively—as well as a handful of shorter side stories. The House in Fata Morgana itself is such a singular game that I don’t think the extras could ever possibly leave quite the same impact, but they’re a wonderful way to expand upon this fascinating world. There’s also the simple luxury of having Fata Morgana on Switch; a handheld makes for a far more pleasant and convenient way to play a visual novel, and it’s a nice alternative to Vita version—no better or worse, but just another option for handheld play.
Sublime writing, beautiful artwork, and a haunting soundtrack combine to undertake one most nuanced and thoughtful explorations of all the best and worst of the human condition—disturbing and intense, but ultimately hopeful, and with a level of care and humanity that’s rare to see in a game that goes to the dark places this one does. Perhaps most of all, it’s a perfect example of how much visual novels can push the boundaries of videogames as a medium and as an art form, both because and in spite of their “gameplay” constraints. The House in Fata Morgana is, quite simply, a masterpiece on every level.
Title: The House in Fata Morgana: Dreams of the Revenants Edition
Publisher: Limited Run Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Release date: 30 April 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.