Narrative-focused games have a tendency to create sad, almost depressing atmospheres. Every time I fire one up, I can't help but wonder when my heart is going to sink after getting invested in these characters. I Was Here fits the bill when it comes to gloomy games, but there's something else that makes it stand out as far as first-person narratives go. I Was Here is a 15-minute game about how intense love can be a fleeting moment in our lives, and that short length goes a long way to cement the game's message.
I Was Here is developed by Kate Smith, who made the game for her capstone project at New York University. On a technical level, the game doesn't look as good as the more well-known indie darlings, like Gone Home or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. However, I Was Here more than makes up for that with its instantly relatable characters and sympathetic story.
The game puts players in the shoes of Skye Lockwood, a senior at an all-girls boarding school named Greybrook Academy. She meets her new roommate Olivia Steele, a sophomore, and they hit it off very well. They become fast friends and fall passionately in love, which is unfortunately derailed by Skye going to college after graduating high school.
As far as gameplay goes, I Was Here is pretty standard. It's a first-person game built with Unity, after all. The player walks around Skye and Olivia's dorm room, examining the scattered objects. Some items are accompanied with a voice over, which is the main mechanism for narrative exposition. Most voice overs are conversations between Skye and Olivia, which start off somewhat awkward but charming and eventually transforms into an adorable relationship. These voice overs, done by the developer (who plays Skye) and Abigail Wahl (Olivia), sound genuine and believable, furthering the emotional impact the story.
The story is spread across three acts, all taking place in the same room. In each iteration, small details are changed, and that attention to detail should be noted. The acts take place in October, December, and May, and in each act, the calendar outside the room changes. It's not just the name of the month that changes, but the entire day-to-day schedule. The posters on the walls serve as perfect ambient descriptors of these two characters. Skye's feelings about Pokémon isn't explicitly told to us. The posters and voice over work show us her love of Pokémon.
I could sit here and tell you how these two girls are into sci-fi and Blink-182, but it would pale in comparison to the way I Was Here conveys these minute details to the player. It's unobtrusive and subtle. When you walk into the room, you know it's been lived in by real human beings. Granted, the assets are fairly simple, and the asset collision can be wonky. But you still get the gist of what the artist is trying to express with this piece of work.
The game's ending is brilliant in how universal it is. It's a tale that leaves you with mixed emotions. Their intense relationship is wholesome. It has the kind of on-screen (or perhaps on-speaker?) chemistry you can't help but smile at. But with the story ending in the two splitting up, it turns into something so invariably human. The emptiness of longing for the bliss someone else made you feel is made even more hollow by knowing you'll never see them again. In 15 minutes, I Was Here puts you in that place through the lens of a handful of voice overs. And perhaps that's the perfect length for this game. It's a short moment that leaves a lasting impact, perfectly mimicking relationship portrayed in the game.
I Was Here was reviewed with a free copy downloaded from Kate Smith's itch.io page. The game is available for PC, Mac, and Linux.