A highly stylized side-scrolling adventure is my catnip. Titles like Limbo, Little Nightmares, and Inside are the types of experiences that require I shove friends onto my couch and insist they do an immediate playthrough. So with Nordic studio Krillbite releasing a stylized side-scrolling adventure about being a cog in the machine of capitalism… Well, that should be Catnip City.
Mosaic casts you as an unnamed corporate drone who lives an unnamed corporate lifestyle in a terrifyingly normalized dystopian world. You wake up each day dressed for work, then scramble to get your shit together, so you can get to work before being penalized. The process of trying to get to work each day comprises most of the game — interspersed with the ability to pull out your cell phone at any point to seek escapism. The escapism doesn’t exactly work out, as you might be able to guess.
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Your downtrodden office sadboi doesn’t engage in box puzzles or re-routing water streams, either, as you might expect from games of this type. He embarks on a mostly linear story. Mosaic is literal walking sim. And that walk is just about attempting to take part in a horrible machine’s process on the daily. No options exist to avoid this. Your adventure is akin to the journey of a cow through a meat processing plant; you’re on a moving platform that will take you where you were always going to wind up. You can drag your feet, but why do so when you know you can’t stop the inevitable?
Mosaic’s world borrows from a number of bureaucratic dystopia tentpoles — from Brazil to Equilibrium. You’re an unnamed occupant of an unnumbered apartment in a city where everything blends. The buildings around yours are as indistinct as every car clogging the freeway. Every opportunity to encounter another human being results in disinterest at best, and pain at worst. In the mornings, you ride the elevator with the same set of neighbors who pretend they can’t see you. On your commute, the only thing preventing your character from being stampeded to death is an indifferent mass of humanity acknowledging you just enough to actively avoid you.
Then each moment of potential joy gets stamped out. At one point I tried to stop and look at an interesting item in the world. My phone immediately reminded me that I needed to increase my speed by 30 percent if I wanted to make it to work on time. Later in my day, someone from my office texted to ask me out on a date. Then they immediately texted to say they’d meant to contact someone else. Whoops!
Pain seeps through the moments between moments in Mosaic. For example, there are multiple narrative asides you can uncover along your journey. These either delve into technological darkness or sunbleached joy. Both of these are overwhelming because they break the world with their extremism.
But nothing in Mosaic is as awful as the moment when you brush your teeth. Sure, the highs and lows of cartoonish extent can push you towards a feeling, but the absolute absence of intent in your morning routine is suffocating. This process is nothing more than what it sounds like; you can comb your hair and fix your tie and brush your teeth before leaving for work. But when you brush your teeth, you lock eyes with yourself in the mirror. You see that shell of you. You’re a walking remnant of your own dreams and a crushing reminder of what you’ve settled for. And when you lean over to spit out the toothpaste, your head just stays down there. You just stay crushed in that moment. Oh god, what is the point?
Anyhowdy! That’s the process of brushing your teeth.
If that sounds too bleak, well, don’t let it get you down. There’s a magical talking goldfish that wants to live in your pocket and help you find members of a jam band hidden throughout the world! Although those fun fish adventures are interspersed with visions of yourself bleeding out and drowning in the ocean. So yeah. I guess maybe Mosaic might be pretty bleak after all?
It’s also a short experience. The game offers a few interesting twists, including jumping into the body of a butterfly that gets murdered and spit-out by a machine. MUCH LIKE CAPITALISM, AM I RIGHT?
It also introduces mechanics like perspective manipulation that it never gets the time to use more than twice. The problem is that this is absolutely everything Mosaic does. It’s striking aesthetic “mood” without any obvious meaning. Its metaphors and limited game systems don’t mesh with a drifting story that doesn’t culminate in much besides “Sad: The Video Game.”
Mosaic a gorgeous little slice of dystopian hell-life, for what that’s worth. It just… doesn’t bring anything new to the table. In some ways, coming away from it without much to say at all is worse than if it had made me feel horrible instead. It’s a real loss that a game about finding meaning and joy would result in me feeling empty instead.