Here’s the short version.
In 2014, I met Els White.
In 2015, he moved to the UK.
In 2016, I traveled internationally on my own for the first time and visited him in London.
In 2019, I went to his wedding.
In 2020, I played his first video game released on Steam: Retrace.
Els is far from the only indie game developer I’ve interviewed or followed over the years but, one of only a few that I would call more of a genuine friend that a friendly acquaintance. I’ve known them for the better half of the last decade and, while I’ve written a lot of game reviews over that same stretch of time, I’ve long suspected that I wanted to write something a little…different for Retrace.
Retrace is a 2D horror-adventure game that pulls in elements from visual novels and weaves naturalistic queerness into the narrative at every turn. If you’ve seen movies like Saw or played games like Danganronpa or Zero Escape, you can probably piece together the broad-strokes gist of the setup.
A freak storm sees Freya and her friends wake up scattered amidst a labyrinth of ageless architecture of ambiguous antiquity. Separated by puzzles cruel as they are cryptic, you’re tasked with reuniting your fellowship and then finding a way to escape.
At the start of the adventure game’s first act, you’re asked which of Freya’s friends you want to hold tight to amidst your inevitable abduction.
Melodramatic and suddenly as it arrives, that choice of who you want next to you when the worst happens is an early sign that Retrace is operating on a slightly different frequency than its inspirations. Though solving the mystery of your imprisonment remains paramount, the writing in Retrace is just as interested in the feelings that predicament evokes.
These early parts of Retrace often reminded me of old-school Resident Evil. It’s sometimes troublesome to find the clues hidden in plain sight but the silence and stillness blends with the game’s atmospheric soundtrack to create a rich sense of ambience.
Ultimately though, Freya’s path to salvation is more-so paved by failure than any choice. Regardless of which companion you enlist at the start of the game, you’ll eventually reach a dead-end.
Reawakening in a secondary purgatory that’s far more abstract and enigmatic than the first, Freya is greeted by a timeless stranger and invited to indulge herself by winding back the clock. Rewriting the past is rarely so neat and convenient.
Of course, in addition to the question of what choices should be made, Retrace questions your commitment to those same choices. When seeing where difference decisions might have led you, doubt isn’t very hard to cultivate.
This middle-act of Retrace is all about walking back the choices you’ve made and seeing what the alternatives look like. Only by following each thread of the multiverse to their respective zenith of despair, can Freya string together a patchwork solution that binds them together.
I don’t want to go too deeply into detail with regards to what comes next.
Months later though, I still can’t decide whether I wanted the final act of Retrace to be shorter or longer. It doesn’t outstay its welcome but it also feels remarkably narrow compared to what comes right before it.
For a game that’s all about choices, I didn’t feel all that empowered by where the narrative ended up. I can’t help but wish for a version of this story that gave me a little more to work with, a little more time to get to know the characters and a little more agency to push and pull when it comes to what the relationships between them look like.
As someone who has lived their life as straight white man, I’m probably not the right person to critique the aspects of queerness that Retrace tries to explore. However, I will note that, as a fan of this particular genre, it is refreshing to see a story told in this genre where heterosexual relationships and norms aren’t the default.
Again, as someone who self-selects into this style of game, I had a lot of fun unraveling everything the metaphysical quagmires presented by Retrace.
A more traditional review might be able to convey these essential facts but it also probably wouldn’t do justice when it comes to articulating what this game means to me.
Cloying as it might sound: when I think about Retrace, I’m honestly moved. My stomach tightens. My eyes water. The invisible weight of what could have been presses down on me.
In the years since I met Els, I feel like the landscapes of my mind have become feral highways. Ambitious avenues twisted into knots of dead-ends and crooked cul-de-sacs.
It’s one thing to have an idea. Quite another to go through logistics and labor of making it manifest. When I think about the number of concepts, pitches, outlines and narrative snippets I’ve stuffed into my nearest notes app over the years, the idea of actually following any road to its conclusion feels like a mirage.
When I look upon this thing you have made, it inspires hope and awe. Even if I know it wasn’t, you’ve made it look easy. It’s one thing to play a game and enjoy it but quite another to play a game and feel so closely-connected to the means of its production.
Els, you did the thing. I can’t wait to see what you do next.