CW: Suicide, depression, mental illness
There is little logic to the path that a game need take to be noticed by Buried Treasure. Mostly I stumble on games from poring over new release lists, other times a developer’s email will catch my eye at the right moment, other times still I’m told by a friend to look at something. But then there’s calling your game Milk inside a bag of milk inside a bag of milk. That’s the only guaranteed way.
Thank goodness it’s so interesting too, or this’d be an awkward article to write. I think perhaps the best way to describe it would be: an existential crisis as a game. It self-describes (once it can remember the term) as a visual novel, and that’s probably the closest label that matches. But that doesn’t do justice to this tri-coloured Commodore-like adventure, rendered throughout in magenta, red and black, that rather extraordinarily explores difficult topics around mental illness.
It is, on some level, a game about a character going to the shops for a bag of milk. (I honestly had no idea that milk is normally sold in bags in this game’s native Russia, which only added to the peculiarity at first glance, but also takes little away upon discover. It would be like trying to empty an ocean of peculiar with a teaspoon.) In another, it’s a game about mental illness from the perspective of, well, the mental illness.
Because in Milk Bag, as I like to call it, you apparently play as a sort of narrator type, who speaks to the game’s semi-aware character through dialogue choices, which can either support or undermine what appears to be an enormously unstable psyche. But the more you play, the more you realise the unstableness belongs more to you? The game? Everything? For instance, when you try to question the character’s awareness that they’re in a game, the replies are far more confident and undermining of you than anything else.
This creeping weirdness is hugely boosted by a brilliantly unpleasant soundtrack – long, crawling drones and wobbling synths, suggesting something most unsettling is occurring. Also I am fairly sure the barely distinguishable shape that serves the milk is a snake.
Your role within this is to “help”, and should you not prove helpful enough, the game will end. Just constantly call this poor individual stupid and it’ll end pretty quickly. Although the alternative choices don’t exactly lend themselves toward bubbling positivity. Not least when you’re forced to get into a extended and deeply odd conversation about the imbalance of steps taken on asphalt and grass.
Much of the experience I’ve described, viewed externally, could look like an exercise in gaslighting, and trying to describe the game makes it sound far more cruel than it is. It’s malevolent throughout, but that goes in all directions, and you feel as much of a victim to the character’s replies as they do to yours. That and everything is so completely surreal, so ungrounded in a tangible reality for so long, that such mores don’t apply. Then keep playing and much of what’s come before is put into a difference context.
It all feels much more like something from the world of creepypasta, enormously aided by the disturbingly opaque graphics, and even the occasionally poorly translated English writing. That and looping conversations with crow-like figures that develop into discussions over the inherently frightening nature of the letter ‘O’. But it’s also undeniably about something.
It’s interesting to be as supportive as possible, because you begin to better understand your role within this tangled narrative. And it’s not, thank God, to be a saviour. There’s no saving here. There’s observing some suffering through the distorted lens of surrealism-meets-mental illness. Please don’t underestimate how affecting that is.
I’ve lamented a few times of late of my frustrating with indie gaming taking issues of depression, mental illness, and most of all, grief, as excuses for a plot. The sad girl is sad because of death, now jump over these obstacles… This is something else entirely. It is, within its own twisted, unnerving and ominous tone, far, far more honest about these subjects.
It’s about 20 minutes long, and right now costs less than 50p. I went into this thinking it was a cool approach to being outright strange, and left being surprisingly touched by its depth of truthfulness, if lacking in tangible hope.
- Nikita Kryukov, Nikita Kaf Publishing