When we were putting together our most anticipated games of 2022 list back in January, there was one game I knew had to be on it: Mojiken Studio’s A Space For The Unbound. It’s a slice of life adventure about two Indonesian high school students set in the late 90s, and the demo (which has recently been expanded to include the first chapter in addition to its short prologue) instantly captivated me when I first played it a couple of years ago. There are some light supernatural elements that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s watched the films of Japanese anime directors Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda (including a giant, ominous Your Name-style comet, no less), but for the most part this is a much more grounded game than Mojiken have made in the past, such as the fantastical point and click puzzlers She And The Light Bearer and When The Past Was Around.
Indeed, the only game in their back catalogue that has a recognisable, real-life setting is their short, free browser game Banyu Lintar Angin. Born out of an internal game jam project in 2017, Banyu Lintar Angin once again draws inspiration from the studio’s home country of Indonesia. It only takes a couple of minutes to play, but speaking with its creator Dimas Novan, it was vital in sowing the seeds for what A Space For The Unbound would eventually become.
“To pay tribute, be nostalgic, and remember is the main motivation for how these games are made,” says Novan, who is also directing A Space For The Unbound. “When I was young, it was one of my dreams to make a story that was set in an Indonesian high school. That dream was heavily influenced by the activity I discovered on the internet named ‘anime pilgrimage’, an activity where a group of people try to compare real-life locations with its anime counterpart. It was very surprising to me, to learn how an artist can insert their own subjectivity and breathe a new life into the already existing environment. A Space For The Unbound and Banyu Lintar Angin is the very culmination of my dream back then.”
From the outset, Mojiken have been quite upfront about the themes Unbound will touch on. While its high school romance will sit at the heart of its story, its Steam page description also doesn’t waste any time pointing out that this is a game “about overcoming anxiety and depression.” It’s too early to say exactly how Novan and his team will be handling these sensitive subjects in-game. The demo offers a couple of glimpses (more on that in a minute), but naturally keeps its cards quite close to its chest. Still, I was curious whether the studio felt any additional pressure on this front, having been so open about it ahead of time.
“So far the reception has been very good,” says Novan. “Judging by the people who played the demo, people seem very on board with what we’re trying to bring to the table. I would be lying if there isn’t extra pressure, that’s why we consulted other professionals for their input to help. After doing some writing we realized that everyone’s experience regarding anxiety and depression is unique to each person. To avoid losing focus on what we do want to tell, A Space For The Unbound’s overall story is focused on one person’s journey.”
Even with outside consultation, Novan admits it hasn’t been an easy journey getting the game to where it is today. The team experimented with several prototypes in the early days of development, and “some elements worked and some of them not,” he says. “If we’re talking about games or pop culture media, it needs to have a common ground value that people can relate to. Plus, it has to be entertaining enough to make people willing to experience the story for hours. The early prototypes didn’t really have any of that quality. After doing some study on writing and exploring the genre deeper, finally we found a formula that we think suits the game best and we tried to apply it in the prologue. We realized in order to make the players on board with the overall story we need a tool that makes the story more easily digestible. And that tool is the ‘space dive’.”
Ah, the space dive. By far one of the most intriguing concepts in Unbound’s demo, this supernatural feat sees young protagonist Atma dive into the hearts and minds of the people around him by using a magical book. Think Psychonauts, but as a puzzle-driven point and click sequence rather than a whacky platformer. The aim, though, is largely the same: uncovering what’s troubling the mind of Atma’s host so he can untangle their fears, thoughts and anxieties to help them move on. The first couple you perform tap into classic adventure game tropes, using items you find in both the real world and these dreamy counterparts to cause an effect inside the person’s mind. This may be as simple as unlocking a door with a key, or switching off a bunch of lamp lights to send the host to sleep while playing their favourite mixtape of Indonesian keroncong music. It’s not particularly taxing, but each scene is a real feast for the senses, with Mojiken’s keen eye for detail and pixel art composition coming to the fore.
“Space dive has become the key that lets us structure the gameplay and the story much more easily,” says Novan. “Every quest in A Space For The Unbound has to be resolved using the space dive concept. By using this, we can make a much more heartfelt story combined with a magical realism theme that people are quite familiar with.”
That’s not to say Mojiken will be throwing space dives at you left right and centre, though. In the new version of the demo Atma is dealing with problems much closer to home: making a bucket list with his girlfriend Raya instead of attending careers counselling; avoiding the glare of teachers on the lookout for afternoon class-dodgers; and rescuing a stray (pet-able) cat from a tree. It’s these slice of life segments that I’m looking forward to most in A Space For The Unbound. As I lamented back when I reviewed Japanese indie game The Kids We Were, it’s a genre I’m hungry to play more of, but one that few games (on PC at least) seem to cater for. Novan, though, believes the slice of life genre is on the up.
“One of the reasons games are being played is because they provide escapism,” he says. “But sometimes escapism can be achieved by something that is much closer. Some people are really intrigued about how they can live as a farmer in a remote village, some people are also fond of being fishermen in the village near a big lake, etc. People like to try what kind of life experience they can actually have inside a game. To me, A Space For The Unbound is a game that lets you become an ordinary high schooler that lives in Indonesia, a setting that hasn’t been represented much in mainstream games, and I think this has become the game’s strength and adds a unique form of escapism for those who are interested in it. It’s a slice of life experience that international audiences may see as something new and fresh, that hopefully they are interested enough to play the game.”
While there’s still no set release date for when we’ll get to experience the rest of what A Space For The Unbound has to offer just yet, its various delays have meant that its prologue demo has now been out for over two years at this point - a long time, all things considered. With that opening sequence having been set in stone so early on, my final question to Novan was whether its long stint as a playable demo has ended up being more of a hindrance than a help to the rest of the game’s development. Thankfully, rather than feeling hemmed in by what’s out there already, having the demo out in the wild has actually afforded Mojiken a surprising degree of freedom and flexibility in expanding the rest of the game.
The prologue itself has remained largely unchanged, says Novan. “There are small improvements and polish in the art and programming,” but that’s more or less it. The rest of the game, however, has “shaped up quite differently” to what Mojiken had planned in the beginning.
“The prologue chapter did its job really well on becoming a tutorial level while setting up the overall atmosphere and the base for the story,” he says, but “the feedback we got from players helped us to try many new different features and plotlines we never thought of before. Rather than being restricted by expectations, we successfully expanded what we already built. But of course, the premise and core experience are still the same. It’s a very back-to-back process and it’s quite effective to make us constantly surprised at how the game can be pushed further.”
One thing that Novan and his team never lost sight of, though, was the reason why they’re making the game in the first place. “My ultimate ambition for this game is that I’m hoping to preserve my memories as an Indonesian in the game. I want to see the environment I’ve been living in in a new light through game format, and I hope people enjoy the game we made.”
A Space For The Unbound is coming out later this year, and you can try the free prologue and chapter one demo on Steam right now.