'Severed's' One-Armed Warrior and Her Quest for Home Are Made for a Mobile Gaming Age

Todd Martens
Photo: Drinkbox Studios
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The world is bright and blocky -- a handcrafted-looking universe that seems constructed of paper, but immediately the tone drifts toward melancholic.

Early in the game “Severed,” one of the more striking images you’ll see this year in a video game appears. A woman of mixed-race descent stands before a mirror, her yellow dress bloody, her arm a stub and her eyes wide in shock.

The world is bright and blocky — a handcrafted-looking universe that seems constructed of paper, but immediately the tone drifts toward melancholic.

The art almost appears lifted from a Dia de los Muertos display, and though this is the beginning of the journey for young Sasha, it also feels like the beginning of an end.

Welcome to one woman’s nightmare.

It gets only worse. Sasha’s family is missing, their belongings scattered around this universe — one that feels like death sprung to life. Oh, and since is a video game, there’s an assortment of monsters — boxlike-skulls, multi-armed monkey-like creatures, a giant blinking eye on a gelatinous purple pedestal — who are after Sasha.

“Severed,” from Toronto independent studio DrinkBox, is a touch-control, role-play game. There are dungeons and monsters and magic. But the game, available now for Sony’s hand-held device the Vita, is also about loss and grief as much as it is about Sasha’s one-armed ability to wield a sword.

Set in a frightening, mysterious world, the game asks if an ordinary woman-turned-warrior can conquer her fears and come to grips with the unknown fates of her family.

“Sasha is such an interesting character. I really like her,” says DrinkBox’s Augusto Quijano, one of the project leads on the game. “There’s not a lot of interactions, but she seems like someone who’s just constantly internalizing things. She’s quiet, but there’s something brooding about her personality.”

When “Severed” shows us a close-up of her face, Sasha looks unwavering, as if trying to project an age beyond her years. Little is spoken in the game, and the title’s sparse but dooming score contrasts with the vivid and colorful look of the world. The mood becomes darker as family trinkets are found and “Severed” hints throughout at a grim fate for Sasha’s family.

“It’s a rite-of-passage story, and she just needs to mature, and the way she’s showing her frustration and lack of power is by raging against the world and things that have happened,” Quijano says of Sasha. “She feels like all of this is unfair, and she’s just literally lashing out at these monsters that she encounters. She’s a very determined woman, and that strength comes from the pain.

“Sometimes you need to rely on rage to pull you through. It’s just like a process you need to go through. It may not be pretty, but it’s necessary to mature, to grow as a person.”

“Severed” is also novel in its presentation. Though only a Vita version of the game has been announced, its touch-based controls are expertly suited for our mobile gaming age. Fighting is done not by a press of a button but a swipe of the screen. The player must learn the rhythms of “Severed’s” foes and swipe in time.

It also continues a trend for what is shaping up to be one of the more thoughtful but experimental years in gaming. Titles such as “That Dragon, Cancer,” “Firewatch” and “Oxenfree,” while not set in the typical video game dystopian universes, navigate more personal — at times, hopeless — themes, whether it’s the struggle of a terminal illness or the loneliness of no longer being able to communicate with a loved one.

Quijano says “Severed” was born of his thinking about his family. Raised in Mexico and based in Toronto, he wanted the game to capture a helpless, long-distance feel. The inspiration for the game, he says, came from conversations with his mother, which were tinged with sadness because of his inability to be in the same room with her.

“For me, I was thinking a lot about memories, and I was thinking a lot about being away,” he says. “I moved from Mexico, and my family is back there. A lot of the interactions we have are this weird long-distance thing. You have Skype and everything, and that’s great, but there’s a visceral separation.

“I was thinking a lot about that stuff, the separation.” That’s the kind of themes I started to explore, and you turn it to 11.”

“Severed,” then, is a metaphor.

The challenge came in conveying the game’s themes without becoming too, well, game-like. The small “Severed” team — the game was made by fewer than 20 people — settled on something of a more minimal approach. Enemies would say next to nothing, and images, such of those of Sasha standing in front of a mirror, would carry the weight of the tale.

“Sometimes games are not known for trying to do this interesting narrative,” Quijano says. “They’re starting to shift toward that, but you can get stuck. You need to remind yourself, what is important for the character and not for the player playing the game? They expect to gather all the stars and save the world.

“For me, I always defaulted on the character. What’s the truth for her?”

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.