Writer's note: I will not discuss specific spoilers in this piece, because anyone who plays The House In Fata Morgana for as long as it takes to get to the twists deserves to have them preserved — but I will discuss the motifs that weave through the game, so be warned if you want to go into the game completely blind. Also, the images might be considered spoilery, too, though I endeavoured to keep away from the BIG twists.
Also, please be aware that this isn't a review — it's an ongoing diary of the game ahead of a review, so we can truly deep-dive into the themes of a game that earned so many 10/10 reviews that it had a perfect score of 100 on Metacritic for a time.
For those of you who still want to find out more about Fata Morgana: Welcome to diary entry three...
When I started The House in Fata Morgana, which feels like a lifetime ago, I had no idea what to expect. The story is extremely cagey, even frustratingly so; characters will smugly deny you the answers you seek, and even the text itself is occasionally censored. It is, perhaps, the only visual novel I have ever played that keeps its secrets so closely guarded that the plot isn't even revealed until at least ten hours in, and even then, your trust has been eroded so much that you aren't entirely sure.
What's so brilliant about The House in Fata Morgana — which was the most highly-rated game on Metacritic until recently, and now shares joint second place with GTA IV, SoulCalibur, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 — is that it makes you feel exactly the same as the main character feels. You are unmoored in time, questioning your own sanity, pleading desperately with the story to give you the satisfying ending you deserve; the story denies you these things time and time again.
My first diary entry was pretty goofy, because the story begins with some weird, unsettling, and uncomfortable plotlines; in the 20-30 hours I've played since then, I've grappled with themes of trauma, isolation, PTSD, abuse, identity, and religion, as the story winds its way slowly and painfully towards some kind of conclusion.
"Hurt people hurt people'' is a phrase that came up in my mind multiple times during Fata Morgana, but the truth is that the phrase is incomplete. Hurt people hurt people because misery loves company. Every character in Fata Morgana has been twisted by years of abuse and neglect, whether that's because they have been denied what they need, or because they have been used and discarded by people who saw them as barely human.
These hurt people, the characters of Fata Morgana, find it hard to relate to other people without similar scars. Other people's happiness insults them; watching people find love and intimacy when they themselves have no idea how to find it is just another dagger in their heart. So they figure out ways to either bring people into their world of darkness, to be as wretched as they are — or they shut the world out completely.
Unsurprisingly, most of these characters are women, who are treated like dirt, like lesser beings, undeserving of kindness, respect, or humanity. Some of them choose vengeance, and some of them just want, more than anything, to be left alone. Many of them find some small shred of happiness only to have it wrenched away from them once more by fate. And, at the centre of it all, our three main characters, who want more than anything to just be happy — but, because of the hurt they have all borne, all they can end up doing is constantly sabotaging themselves and each other.
This is what trauma does to a person. The scars that it leaves are tender and raw; although you might want to embrace someone, your body will react differently, pushing them away as a means of self-defence and self-preservation. You will respond to kindness with fear, and to generosity with suspicion. You have been taught that no one is good, that everyone has ulterior motives, and most importantly: that you are not deserving of goodness.
None of this is true, by the way, but these are the things your brain will do to try and protect you. And this is the bloody, beating heart of Fata Morgana: hurt people hurting people, because it's all that they know.
It's easy, especially at the start, to see this as a bunch of awful, manipulative people being abusive for no reason, but as the story unfolds, it reveals the pain that they went through — the pain that twisted them from broken shards into knives, and the anger that made them turn those knives on anyone who dared to come close.
I find myself thinking a lot about videos of neglected dogs, snapping and snarling at anyone who comes close, and how much nurture and care it takes to reassure them that they're safe, now. Even then, those dogs will perhaps never feel comfortable around other dogs or people. But they're not bad dogs: it's a learned response based on what they went through. That's how I think of trauma responses, as someone who's had plenty: you are not a bad person for having moments where your brain and body go into fear mode.
Likewise, the characters of Fata Morgana are (largely) not bad people — they are tired, they are bleeding, they are alone. The only way they know how to bring people into their lives is to hurt them in the same way, to brand them with the same fear, perpetuating a story of trauma and violence like a broken, dirty mirror reflecting back nothing but ugliness.
Occasionally, The House in Fata Morgana will repeat itself. It will make me watch a scene from a different perspective, or retell a story that was previously too pretty, in order to show the real story beneath. Sometimes, it will take an age to tell a story that isn't particularly interesting — the first story in the game, for example. There are even times when it could stand to lose significant portions of the text that don't really go anywhere. But, 30 hours in, I like it, warts and all.
It's not perfect — and don't be tricked into thinking that a 10/10 game has to be perfect to merit that score — but its beauty is in its imperfections. Were it shorter, or more to the point, it wouldn't be what it is: a tale of the self-perpetuating cycle of trauma over hundreds of years. I don't know if I'm close to the end. But I want to know how to break that cycle — not just for the characters, but for myself.
The hard part is not always the wounds, after all. It is waking up every single day with the scars. It is letting other people run their hands across them, and not flinching away. It is pushing through the echoes of pain that they left behind. It is letting yourself trust again, despite every bone, every nerve, every shred of you screaming at you that you'll only get hurt again.
The House in Fata Morgana is a story about witches and curses and love, but it is also about the true cost of never giving up, and that the remedy for fear, pain, anger, and tragedy can only be the supreme, sacred power of empathy.