I’m sure that indie studio mojiken‘s supernatural slice-of-life A Space for the Unbound is the perfect game to play when it’s raining outside. It’s set in a pixel-y, 1990’s Indonesia, where everything is tinged in an evocative seafoam green, flanked by a low, hot sun and pink clouds. It gives you an attractive, dry place to escape to. It’s a sweet, undemanding adventure game with a layered story to get lost in; it’s a grapefruit slice to enjoy while more high-profile studios start the year with class clown problems and performance issues.
But as dreamlike as A Space for the Unbound can get—its core story follows teenagers Atma and his inscrutable girlfriend Raya, who can manipulate reality at the cost of her health—its release was subject to real life, too.
In summer 2022, Mojiken and coffee talk developers Toge Productions accused publisher PQube of exploiting their “position and heritage as developers from Indonesia to obtain a diversity fund” that was withheld from developers. In response, the developers decided to delay the game indefinitely to “ensure that it is published […] in a way that is consistent with our and our community’s values,” they said in a PR statement. Ultimately, the game was put on ice for another five months, and the end result does feel unrepentantly Indonesian.
And that’s my favorite part. It’s set in a small, warm town, with, on its surface, not much happening other than the protagonists’ school life, a low-traffic internet cafe, and clusters of bitter melon growing off of short white fences. Though collectable bottle caps from apparently popular Indonesian drinks like Rhino Soda (“How can something locally produced be so expensive?” Atma asks) glint on the ground, and there are a few instances of uncharacteristically didactic anti-smoking dialogue, supposedly to speak to Indonesia’s ongoing tobacco addiction (“Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, and can complicate pregnancy,” a general store owner dutifully informs us and Atma), the game never tries to explain its culture to you. It doesn’t need to. It embodies it.
As Atma, you’ll find useful junk, which a shopkeeper complains of people piling up, in an abandoned patch of swampland to help you complete objectives like baking a black forest cake for Raya. Other than finishing tasks, which require little more than navigating a compact map, picking things up, and bringing them elsewhere, gameplay consists of beating up school bullies through arcade-inspired arrow key combat and quick-time events, and performing “spacedives,” a mystical method of diving “into people’s hearts and [ridding] them of their inner turmoil.” A small yellow flower appears over characters’ heads when you’re able to perform this function. When you do, their hearts can be anything—maybe a galactic bedroom, a balancing scale, or a cage—but they’re always populated by one flowering tree, which has buds that unfurl as you essentially heal their inner child to get what you want.
I don’t love that as much as I love the game’s pretty pixels and fairytale magic (there’s a talking cat, a bully that transforms into a “weredog,” Raya cutely manifests money in Atma’s pocket when she wants to see a movie, etc .). I played through a bit more than half of it, and never felt totally sure of its emotions or the message it was trying to send with them, though the game’s description calls it “a story about overcoming anxiety, depression.”
Like, at one point, Atma agonizes over spacediving into a pastry chef’s heart to convince her to stay at a job she hates. Your talking cat buddy convinces you it’s the right thing to do, and as the player, you have no other choice—it’s the only way to get a black forest gateau for Raya and complete your objective.
But it didn’t seem like a very empathetic task to me, and the game progresses as slowly as syrup pours, so I couldn’t understand how it fit into a plot that otherwise seemed to emphasize supportive friendship. Confusingly, after you do it, the pastry chef enthusiastically thanks you for leading her back to the kitchen.
Generally, A Space for the Unbound‘s plot could benefit from some more clarity. When Atma falls asleep, he has visions that help make sense of Raya’s wild powers. But they’re brief, and usually contradicted or brushed aside by Raya immediately when he wakes. So as I continued to put time into the game, I never felt rewarded with knowledge of where, exactly, the story was going.
The ten-ish hour long game beats Mojiken’s previous releases by about eight hours, though, so it makes sense to me that A Space for the Unbound has some trouble mapping out its mystery. Its setting feels carefully planned and I admire its ambitions to tell a modern fable, so I can forgive an occasionally awkward execution. It still looks and feels like a calming sunset for our dark January. It’s like a song with cryptic lyrics—when you play it, there’s still something to gain.