The Search is a point-and-click-style puzzle game in the vein of the hugely influential Myst series, with an amazing synopsis that could appeal to a broad audience. According to the Steam description, players solve puzzles creatively, learn about wonderfully complex new worlds, unearth the mysterious past of the protagonist, and read through letters left by an enigmatic stranger who trod the path before.
Whatever other qualities he might lack, Jason Godbey, The Search’s developer and head of PR, knows how to write a fantastic game description by highlighting the game features that will interest players.
However, as with any great description, the payoff must be as satisfying as the set-up. Sadly, The Search is unable to meet even the most meagre player expectations. Lacking decent world building, character development, and any fully-realised mystery elements, the only promise The Search lives up to is that players can solve puzzles creatively. Even then, the puzzle solving aspect is frustrating and repetitive, hardly standing out as an exemplar point-and-click puzzle adventure.
To begin with, The Search has little enough story for the player to sink their teeth into. In the half hour run-time, the player character is never given a name or backstory other than having worked on other people’s artistic projects, and now needing to work on their own. While the mystery of their unfamiliar world is touched on in the first minute, real answers about where the players are and how they got there are never provided. The protagonist goes from one beautifully rendered environment to another, painstakingly looking for plot-objects, combining them in similar ways each time, and then creating an exit into yet another environment. This process repeats a couple of times until the protagonist eats a berry for some reason and achieves enlightenment.
Throughout the game, the player also finds numerous supplementary letters written by a figure known as “The Invisible”. Beyond the enigmatic character’s name, little else is given. The Invisible is not seen in the flesh (perhaps appropriately), nor are any clues to their motivation or backstory given. In games like Dishonored or The Last Of Us, letters are provided as optional story elements that expand the lore beyond the environments and dialogue. Players learn from the people who built the world they inhabit, who came before, or who guide them along.
The Search does not use letters in any of those ways, resulting in some rather odd and irrelevant exposition. For example, here is an actual letter from within the game, followed by the protagonist’s subsequent dialogue:
Letter: Chop down and clear away every tree which does not bear good fruit. Look past distractions and what is not essential and your path will be revealed. – The Invisible.
Narrator (Cissy Jones): The messages I’m getting from this world seem to be about clearing away obstacles in order to move forward and find a new path. I remember a story about a wise man who was pouring tea for an impatient man who had come to visit him because he wanted to know the meaning of life. The wise man kept pouring the tea while the impatient man kept talking and asking questions and the tea began to overflow in his cup. The impatient man protested saying ‘Stop! Can’t you see it’s full?!’ and the wise man said, ‘Just so, like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?’ I’ve always liked this story. To empty yourself so that you may be filled with something new…
The above example is one of many instances in which the letter adds neither a guide to solving the puzzle nor new plot information. The narration is 138 words of exposition, including a proverb that may have been copied from The Little Book of Calm. Notes such as these are included throughout the game and do not add much beyond a deep frustration and a desire to finish the game as quickly as possible without reading any more of these notes.
However, one of the more curious things about the game is the identity of the sole voice actor. Since the start of her career in 2010, BAFTA-winner Cissy Jones worked on an astounding number of critically-acclaimed games of quite high quality: Firewatch, Life Is Strange, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Fallout 4, Mafia III, Dishonored 2, the Halo series, Grand Theft Auto V, The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
Cissy Jones is a key part of The Walking Dead series owing to her skill and range, playing more characters than any other actor in the series. One of Jones’s more notable roles in The Walking Dead was Katjaa. Anyone who has played through The Walking Dead and knows what happened to Katjaa and her family can attest to the strength and dynamics of that singular performance, let alone the multitude of others. Cissy Jones’s performances throughout her career are a strong enough selling point to get her fans interested in a game like The Search.
Unfortunately, the script for The Search is so blatantly inadequate for an actor of her skill-level. By far, the most frustrating aspect of The Search is the dull, proverb-heavy voice-over that Jones reads, and her character development is kept to the bare minimum. Godbey did not take advantage of the fantastic selling point that is Cissy Jones’s acting skills and give her a meatier role, despite her presence being a major selling point for the game. Instead, Jones appears as merely a voice, doing a job that somebody with far less skill could do.
Similarly, gameplay is also going through the motions and could have been executed with more skill. The point-and-click aspect is frustrating, as players might find themselves merely moving their mouse around the screen until the pointer turns into a looking glass, instructing where to click. The only obvious visual clues are an image of the player’s camera which suggests that they should take a picture there, an infinity symbol (the ill-explained game logo) on a door that indicates the player needs to open said door, and an in-game cheat-sheet hints where important items could be found. Without this cheat-sheet (or indeed the optional tutorial guide that is oddly necessary), players would have to click on every visible object gruellingly until they eventually find the right one, which is far from satisfying.
The game is not all bad, though, and some moments result in genuine pleasure. For instance, when starting the game, a hugely satisfying moment occurs when players figure out that combining a lighter with a photograph creates coloured ash, which could, in turn, help create paint. The subsequent narration concerning the lighter’s metaphorical idea-refining abilities was one of the few satisfying moments of expository dialogue within the game. The Search is largely a literal exploration of the process of making any kind of art, and that small bit of explanation felt like a reward for being creative and intuitive. However, such moments are unfortunately few and far between, and, for the rest of the game, players merely repeat what they learned in the first level with decreasing enjoyment.
The game’s art, contrastingly, remains satisfying throughout and may be one of the redeeming features of The Search. Godbey, a digital artist since 2003, is responsible for the environments, objects, and some of the music. His artwork is beautiful and intricate with some skilful use of lighting. The environmental transition animations comprise almost the entirety of the special effects work. The game uses the post-processing effects of foley well to situate players in each environment, the voice recording is of good quality, and the repetitive background music keeps a consistent atmosphere throughout without being especially annoying.
From a visual standpoint, The Search is very much a spiritual successor to Myst, made on a far better game engine and with obviously superior graphics. Barring the poor writing and gameplay, The Search has shown that interesting modern point-and-click puzzle games can be made, raising hope for a possible resurgence of point-and-click games in the future.
The game is available for USD $3.99 on Steam and, honestly, that feels overpriced. The game has no replay value and is a frustrating experience overall. While the gameplay is adequate for a point-and-click adventure, and sometimes has genuine and beautiful surprises, The Search offers little payoff to its promises. If players come to The Search looking for a point-and click-game with the satisfying story elements of the Myst series, they would be better off buying or replaying the Myst series.