There comes a point where someone is so broken by their circumstances, so devastatingly damaged, that it becomes simply not reasonable to believe that they could ever heal from what’s been done to them.
It’s there that the magic comes in: an unbinding of what’s reasonable. A Space for the Unbound, from Toge is a story about using magic to help heal those who might otherwise never be able to help themselves. It is about love, and it is about pain — and the way pain warps one’s perception, distorting your view until reality seems an impossible place to live through and the only safe place is deep inside your heart.
It’s about how sometimes the pain finds you there, too.
A Space for the Unbound is equal parts point-and-click puzzle game and visual novel. From the beginning, you’re not quite sure what is going on. The prologue shows you the charming relationship between a high-schooler named Atma and his younger writing partner, Nirmala. You’re shown the end of a story they’ve written – a truly heartbreaking tale of a dying princess granting one last gift to her only friend, a beloved cat. Heartache, right from the beginning, presented in the sweetest, most adorable manner possible. Your mileage may very as to where sweetness veers into the saccharine, but the game is tonally consistent enough for you to know whether or not it’s for you very early on.
Things get surreal very quickly. With no explanation as to how, we learn that Nirmala and Atma have access to a magic red notebook, one that allows them to “Spacedive” into people’s hearts and see what makes them tick. Items from the real world can be bought into this heartspace, and items from the heartspace can be taken out. You can change the way people feel about the world, help heal problems they’re obsessing about, or simply use their memories to finish a certain piece of the puzzle – all with the help of that little red notebook.
So when a storm blows through town, and the red notebook falls into a local river, you can understand why Atma plunges into the waters to try and retrieve it. It, unfortunately, does not go according to plan. Atma, it appears, drowns in the attempt…but then opens his eyes and finds himself in his classroom, the events of the prologue seeming to be nothing but a dream. While the player is left to wonder what’s real and what isn’t, they’re introduced to Atma’s girlfriend, Raya…and there’s something off about her, and the way the world around her seems to bend to her whims. Still, the pair have a bucket list of things they want to do together, and none of them will be an easy task!
The mystery unravels slowly — especially given that it takes a while for Atma to even realize something is wrong. The story unfolds with a number of cascading quests — for example, at the beginning, you need to find Raya, but first, you have to climb over the wall and to do that, you need to sneak past the teachers to find the climbing club and help them out with a quest of their own. In most games, this would be an exhausting affair, and if you’re trying to rush toward the end, it will be.
A Space for the Unbound, however, does everything you can to make sure you play at its leisurely pace. That you take the time to get to know the town, its citizens, and the things that are bothering them. Even when things take a turn for the truly strange, there’s always a deeper story to be found. The difficulty of the puzzles you need to solve ramps up as the game goes on, and some of the sidequests require timing and skill far beyond anything I could achieve. The heartfelt stories of the people each puzzle is bound to, however, make all the frustrations worth it. By the game’s end, you’ve run up and down the town enough time that it feels like home — one you’re all the sadder for leaving. Did I mention that you can not only pet every cat you see but get to name them as well?
The animation is truly charming. Atma has this adorably determined expression on his face as he runs from quest to quest. There is a peacefulness to the small town, to the high school, and the various other locations you visit, a charm that’s undeniable. When it wants to, though, the game flips everything on its head, making everything strange, surreal, and disturbing. The presentation is what’s masterful — something as simple as a roomful of hissing cats, or a chef obsessed with cake, should not be as disturbing as they end up being, but the game manages it. While never devolving into horror, there is a darkness that the game is trying to express, and managing to do so in its pixelated, endearingly cute art style is an accomplishment.
I don’t wish to spoil the ending of A Space for the Unbound, but the trigger warning the game offers when you open it should make it clear: the story deals with issues of depression and suicide. It does so with tremendous compassion, and the feelings it evokes through the later stages of the game are a gut punch. The game’s charm, music, cleverness and mini-puzzles; all of these would make it a great game on its own. But how the game deals with the story at its heart is what sets it aside as one of the most powerful experiences of a story I’ve had in years. It is a rare and special thing to see a game that takes advantage of the ways games can tell stories no other medium can and to see it done as beautifully as this was.
One of the items on Atma and Raya’s bucket lists was to bawl your eyes out while listening to music. I never achieved it in-game, but by the time I got to the end, I felt I really should have been able to tick off that item myself.
A Space for the Unbound will soften your heart and set you up to believe in the magic of compassion and the healing power of stories. It’s a lesson on the power of perspective. It will hook you in with its mystery and its questions and provide you with answers, both comforting and devastating. It’s a game that will frighten you, frustrate you, disturb you, and welcome you home. And when it’s all over, it asks you to say goodbye, and you will find that you’re not ready to — but I don’t think you could ask for a better ending.