It’s not often that a high-level game tackles a particularly difficult and emotional illness, although when they do, they are rightly praised for bringing these topics into the game world. Before I forget grabbed attention and made headlines – with a few notable award nominations – for his portrayal of dementia, and we spoke to the developers to find out more. After experiencing the game on Nintendo Switch, it’s easy to understand the praise; Before I Forget tackles a delicate and often personal subject with care and sensitivity. As a storytelling experience, it’s hitting its marks, but it’s clearly not a game for everyone, either.
It is worth starting with a brief introduction to dementia as a disease, as this is what drives the storytelling and game design here. It is a disease most commonly associated with old age, although the precocious dementia is increasingly known in young patients. Its symptoms can be confusing and frightening, both for the victim and for those close to them; elements of paranoia and hallucinations may occur in some cases. A common thread is what it does in memory of a victim – small details and snippets of memories from decades ago can be as clear as daylight while current circumstances, tasks and routines can. often be forgotten.
Before I Forget, developed mainly by two people with some input and the help of a small group, reflects on these symptoms in one frame. The protagonist, Sunita, is at home and at the very beginning your first task is to find and put on her glasses. Much of the storytelling is environmental, like notes around the house designed to help Sunita remember dates, key information, and more. Even the notes are a moving part of the story, as old, sentimental scraps of paper share the space with practical advice notes.
What takes place in less than an hour in a typical game is a journey through memories and the mundane within this house. It’s a linear path in a first person perspective, all in all, with locked doors and barriers in the path so you are directed to the next beat; given the topic, however, this is handled well. There are some very light puzzles, although they are extremely straightforward, so it certainly qualifies as a game that is just about exploring rooms while the story unfolds around you.
Although structurally simple, the visual design and script enhance the experience. In terms of the storyline and performance, there is a great voice over for our protagonist and his loved one. It’s a sober, grounded and believable performance, with Sunita’s observations, memories and fears that draw you into events.
Visually, much of the house begins the game in a stylized gray scale; As you interact with objects and trigger Sunita’s memories, there is a gradual spread of color, a good representation of familiarity returning. Blank notes serving as simple reminders fill up as Sunita reads them, and certain sentimental items shift the screen to a dream scene, evoking a key memory. Playing mostly in handheld mode, we were also impressed with how it looked, with the painterly style working well on the handheld screen.
The visuals blend beautifully with the audio design, especially the use of appropriate thematic music. There are some spells in the game that run almost silently, with only your movements and interactions with doors and objects audible, but it adds a greater impact to a beautiful piano sheet music when used. It becomes clear why the game recommends that you play in one sitting, ideally with headphones.
Another cool twist, given how short the game is, is that you can do another run with Developer Comments turned on. This is mostly audio from the two main creators of the game, but we also hear the game’s composer, for example. The implementation is smart, with bubbles throughout the house that can be triggered to play each commentary clip.
As for the quality of the Switch version itself, we were generally happy with the way the game holds together on the system. While the visuals are simple, they’re also stylistic, and the color-based transitions look gorgeous in action. The hardware holds up most of the time, but there are rare and brief times when there is a bit of stuttering or slowing down; this is a slow paced game so it has no real impact on the gameplay but it is our duty to mention it.
Another important point to remember is that, at the end of the day, it’s a dark experience, and even with moments of happiness and lightness, there is the underlying disease and its implications. Given the subject matter, it’s inevitable that the experience will be emotional, and those who experience dementia with family or friends – like this writer – will certainly find it difficult at times. However, with games like this to be expected, and the storytelling also shows the joys of a life well lived and how the memories can be so uplifting.
Before I Forget is a short and beautiful experience which nevertheless tackles a difficult and rather dark subject. It takes creative courage to share a game that represents the impact of dementia, and to do so sensitively and as accurately as possible; it achieves this goal. Not only do we suffer from the illness with Sunita, but we engage in the successes and joys in her life. Before I Forget strikes a careful balance that deserves praise.