There are many stories out there…Some stories that make you excited to go through them again right after they’re finished. Or that leave you emotionally satisfied after completing them in a long, fulfilling single session.
Others still create new memories that bleed into the new works you take on, as their characters leave such an impact that you can’t help but see them in everything you experience from that point on.
And even when they don’t hit you in that way, so many stories will just provide a pleasant escape, a world of life, love, and potential liberation all for you.
And some stories…just aren’t pleasant to experience. That’s a good place to start with The House in Fata Morgana, because it’s clear from the first chapter of this sprawling, epic tragedy that there are a myriad of unpleasant fates in store. Crisis of identity, morality, empathy, and sheer, frightening humanity are on the table, and any answers the player may find are far, far away from the first lines of this epic. The title makes no qualms about this or the sheer expansive intensity of heartbreak and agony that many of its various characters will go through, but with a careful, knife’s edge balance, all of it ultimately feels necessary to convey the sheer breadth of this frightening tale the work has in store.
Some stories aren’t pleasant to experience. And yet, they draw you in with their rich, woven tapestry of intelligent design and narrative construction, asking you to bear with them as each moment slowly plays out, minute by minute, century by century, story by story.
There aren’t many games like this particular visual novel, but let me make it clear: that’s because making a title this compelling with the content it contains is a masterwork of the medium.
Developed by Novectacle, originally released in 2012, and recently remastered for modern systems, The House in Fata Morgana is a fascinating, multi-generational, multi-layered visual novel that, ostensibly, focuses on a group of tragedies that befell the inhabitants of a spectral, cursed manor. However, while that encompasses the most basic overview of the title in question, an interconnected framing narrative serves to elevate these individual stories far beyond that original conceit.
From a time of plenty in the middle ages, to the madness of a new world, and finally, the greed of a modern age, the titular House views various individuals going through their lives as normal until, seemingly without warning, a horrible finale comes to pass. With every story told within the house, the player gets to know the ins and outs of tragedy playing out like a well-oiled machine, with hope dangled just out of reach as it all comes crashing down.
Lives and lovers are frequently forsaken by the end of these individual tales, and it would be unbearably morose if not for the game’s sheer production in terms of presentation. Visual novels already have a high bar to meet in terms of visual splendor, as much of the core of the game’s characterization, setting, and tone must be interpreted from that alone. But Fata Morgana takes this a step further, with lushly painted character portraits that showcase extremely complex emotions and personality with just a glance.
This is especially important, as one enigmatic character in the game in particular has extremely minute changes in expression that are only apparent on close inspection. And coupled with that is a generous number of full-screen CG paintings, unique to every chapter, and showing characters in full regalia in scenes that most need their emotional zenith to be achieved. This is especially impressive in later chapters, where so much needs to occur in a short span of time, and yet, the game is willing to put in all of the visual work needed to make it feel consistent with the production value provided thus far.
And the soundtrack…What a gift this game gives in its audio experience. Composers include Mellok’n, Takaki Moriya, and Aikawa Razuna, all of whom come together to weave unique, operatic melodies, many of them unique to particular characters, scenes, or even specific time periods. In addition, and possibly one of the soundtracks most unique features– almost all of the 60+ tracks are lyrical, written and performed in either Portuguese or French, depending on the individual songs. This imparts a particular specificity to each track, an identity that can often be lost in the larger milieu of an extended work.
But as the player continues through the game, both of these components of the larger gameplay experience become storytelling tools all on their own. Because while The House in Fata Morgana begins as an anthology, with time, it grows to be so much more than that, and the methods it is able to use to pull this off is breathtaking.
Long-running artists, writers, and even performers will identify recurring components of their work that can serve to expand the scope of their other tales. These sometimes take on the role of character archetypes, a la the Italian theatre productions known as the Commedia dell’arte. In other instances, these can be actors stepping into a role familiar to their audience, embodying a specific personality and conceit that is quickly digestible to anyone watching. This is certainly present in part in Fata Morgana, with its rich characters fleshed out from initially defined simplistic starting points (the mad beast, the young scholar, the high roller, and so on). But not only is this title able to expand upon these characters to great effect…
The House in Fata Morgana performs a magic trick and defines specific archetypes within its own narrative, which then return in new, different forms throughout the piece.
Rather than having every component of the prior stories remain its own isolated tale, Fata Morgana is able to use its framing narrative to recontextualize itself and the stories within it into new forms. Prior characters come back, similar yet different enough that they owe their own unique tale. This extends into the incredible soundtrack and art direction, as these character archetypes grow beyond the tethers of individual identity and instead contain a multitude of identities throughout tale and time, as both roles to be played and narrative-spanning motifs to be interpreted.
In what may be the most tragic of these, one such component of this narrative is an orally told story all on its own, whose origin and conclusion are both individually so devastating that the realization they possessed any connection at all brought me to tears. The House in Fata Morgana is a masterwork of storytelling, and one I hope others take the time to experience, in spite of, but also because it is so decisively melancholy.
It may not be for the faint of heart, but it is certainly a somber symphony of bittersweet beauty.