Combine an already confusing maze of level design with the shifting planes and shifting angles of the game world, and Claire feels like it's purposefully trying to confuse you. Because it is.
Claire looks a lot like Lone Survivor. The aesthetic similarities (a 3D world presented as a series of 2D, side-scrolling screens with detailed yet vague pixel art) are enough for one to immediately start comparing the two, but this would be a mistake. Claire is a very different game, and going into it expecting a gender-swapped Lone Survivor is bound to leave one confused and frustrated. Whereas Lone Survivor was very much about the survival aspect of survival-horror, including a crafting system that had you cooking food and keeping pets, Claire is primarily interested in storytelling over survival. Though even in that regard, Claire is a more abstract and metaphorical game than the already heavily symbolic Lone Survivor.
Claire is a game about being lost. As such, its levels are labyrinthine in their complexity, made even more complex by the constantly shifting 2D perspective. For example, you'll walk down a hallway moving from left to right (west to east), but when you enter a door, the plane shifts 90 degrees. In other words, you're still moving from left to right on the screen, but you're actually moving from south to north on the map. Then there are times when the camera changes its angle, so that left becomes east and right becomes west. Combine the already confusing maze of level design with these shifting planes and shifting angles, and Claire feels like it's purposefully trying to confuse you. Because it is.
One of the most awkward things about the early game is that there's no strong sense of reality. Claire opens in a hospital that's supposedly real, but as soon as one walks outside Claire's room the player will see decrepit halls, peeling walls, broken doors, and flickering lights -- a world long abandoned by anyone living. Even in the safe calm of the break room this place looks dead and unreal.
This lack of context is jarring because it breaks from the conventions of how an "otherworld" is usually presented. For better or for worse, the Silent Hill aesthetic has become a common reference point for many psychological horror games, and Silent Hill always establishes some sort of solid real world foundation before it transitions into the Dark World. This separation of worlds is necessary because if we're in the Dark World all the time, then it becomes normal and ceases to have to the same fearful impact.
Claire ignores this "rule" because, as I said earlier, it's a game about being lost and it’s more interested in storytelling than survival. This means that the game has a very slow start since there are so many basic questions left unanswered about the setting and character. It's tempting to dismiss the game, but everything begins to come together by the time you leave the hospital for the school (the second of three “levels”). This isn’t when the game starts to make sense, but it’s when you’ll begin to feel comfortable with your displacement and confusion -- when you’ll realize that this is purposeful. You’re experiencing the world as Claire does, lacking a strong grip on reality and identity.
The school area is also where the mechanics become stronger as well. You have two health bars: one that represents physical health and one that represents psychological health. If either one shrinks to zero, you die. Venturing out into the world drains your psychological health, turning each excursion into a methodical yet frantic race against time, but you also regenerate that health in safe rooms. This results in some tense moments as you run through a maze of hallways, trying desperately to maintain a sense of direction, looking for the next safe room before your literally go insane.
The ending comes dangerously close to clichéd sentimentalism (as is the case with any story that focuses on being lost in an emotional darkness), but thankfully Claire avoids falling into that trap since your ending is dependent on your actions throughout the game. If you get the clichéd happy ending, it’s because you literally earned it, and that makes it feel like less of a cliché and more of a natural conclusion.
Claire is available on Steam