9.03m Review (Game, PC)

9.03mImagine Dear Esther with even less of a defined narrative. We're talking about a beautiful game that's all about exploring your environment and putting the story together for yourself. There's a deeper emotional narrative driven by guided interaction through open level design. You have clear marks to hit, but you're free to explore the world as long as you want. 9.03m from indie developers Space Budgie is that game. Inspired by the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, 9.03m has you exploring the San Francisco coast for items and memories that have washed up in the wake of the disaster. You follow a string of guiding lights to a silhouette of a person enjoying the beach. That person transforms into an object--a toy, a locket, a wedding band--when you approach. You pick up the item and gently rotate it to find the hidden butterfly that reveals a simple memory--a name, an important date, an inscription--revealing the everyday lives cut short by the tsunami.

To say that game is emotional is an understatement. I was fighting back tears the first time a person transformed into their lost object. You become so used to the routine so quickly that the silhouettes themselves begin to tell a story. I started to slow down so I could give those people a little more time on Earth.

The game is short and very abstract. You can tell it's the shore because of shifts in color and San Francisco because of a faint red glow representing the Golden Gate Bridge. The landscape is all purples and blues, all the better for the white and violet lights to guide you to your target. You're exploring the landscape at dusk in all of its colorful beauty. The sun is setting and each discovery leads you a moment closer to twilight.

The sound design and score is what really pulls you in. It's a very simple piano driven score--a little ambient synth echo behind--that ebbs and flows with the rhythm of the game. The sound effects never let you forget where you are. The ocean is rumbling in the background and the different textures--wooden planks, sand, and stone alike--really sound like you're walking through that environment.

9.03m is also a charity game. Half of the proceeds from each sale go to Aid for Japan, a charity providing assistance to children who lost their parents to the 2011 tsunami. The charity does have an impact on the game's substance. The victims you get to visit with are children and married people. I don't want to spoil the most heart-wrenching moment in the game, but it makes it perfectly clear that the game was designed to raise money for the charity and not just marketed to take advantage of that.

It's hard to go wrong with an inexpensive ($1.99 at Steam and it's already gone on sale multiple times) game designed for a good cause. 9.03m goes beyond a benevolent purchase. It is, on its own merits, a beautifully designed game. It's smart. The layout makes sense. It has a very distinctive visual style that sets the mood--think Journey's constant play with light and shadow to alter color and emotional tone. And it's very compelling. You will get lost in the story you're putting together from the visual cues. 9.03m is an unforgettable and inescapable experience, an experiment in creating empathy without manipulation. It's honest.

You can pick up 9.03m at Steam.

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