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Kasio scribbled on red paper on a dark background Image: Dreamfeel/Annapurna Interactive

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In stunning indie visual novel If Found..., you must erase to rebuild

Erasing everything

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Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

All I can do is erase.

In If Found…, an interactive visual novel by indie studio DreamFeel, there are two threads woven throughout the narrative, one of which is reality and the other fantasy. The game begins with the fantasy thread, a sci-fi story about a young scientist named Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia has been flung through space on a mysterious mission. She’s come across a black hole that’s about to engulf the world. She’s in contact with another human, someone who’s promised to help her save the world.

But me? I just erase.

The cursor in If Found… is, literally, an eraser — the classic, beveled shape — that’s swiped across the page. It’s the only mechanic in If Found…; if the player erases enough, the previous image will give way to another, and I can keep reading. At the start, that’s erasing the stars and skies as Cassiopeia gets closer to the black hole. Erase enough, and you’ll expose the next thread, or else you’ll be stalled in space forever.

The eraser gets smaller as the story progresses, as if it’s being literally used up. Its rubber leaves marks on the page, the pieces left behind dark with the pencil lead removed from the page. The game’s single, simple mechanic, erasing, opens up the game to nuanced, intimate storytelling. Nothing changes there; I’m always erasing. To move forward, the player must erase, physically moving the cursor back-and-forth over the screen to wipe away carefully curated memories.

The second thread of If Found... is told within a journal. It’s Kasio’s journal, not Cassiopeia’s. Kasio is a stargazer in her early 20s who’s returned home to Achill Island, a small setting off the coast of Ireland. She moved away to Dublin for school, but is visiting home for a month.

The journal is an intimate peek into Kasio’s life, filled with doodles and notes about the people she knows. The journal very clearly shows Kasio’s literal and figurative image of the island, drawn in detail across its pages. The game’s art style uses this hand-drawn, inky style throughout the game.

Her journal begins on Dec. 3, but everything’s happened already — the player is looking in from the future, slowly or quickly erasing the past 28 days of Kasio’s life. Why must I erase what’s happened, or at least the thoughts from when these events took place? It’s unclear. That’s part of the mystery of the game. It sometimes feels as though I’m snooping. It always feels as though I’m destroying.

The two characters of Kasio’s and Cassiopeia are moving in parallel to each other in If Found…, but they don’t necessarily cross — at least, not explicitly. Instead, the two stories are told together and play off each other with the very clear influences. Story progression is braided between these two narratives, each moving forward in short bursts. The journal portions are, however, where most of the main storytelling happens. There are occasionally short scenes wherein the journal entries are acted out, but they’re still shown in the same scribbled, hand-drawn style.

Serving breakfast Image: Dreamfeel/Annapurna Interactive

If Found… continues in this way throughout Kasio’s month on Achill Island, undoing the pain and trauma of these familial interactions, but also undoing the bliss of friendship and connection. That’s the part that makes the story so affecting. Queer stories in media are often boiled down to tropes, giving us singularly traumatic stories, like with the “Bury your gays” trope that has recently found so much discussion.

It’s refreshing and meaningful to see a complex story in which all pieces of the characters’ lives are considered, each part of a much larger story of a life, and the fantasy that such a life might also produce. There are painful, real moments in If Found…, but the game also revels in the support of friendship and family, too. This isn’t misery porn, nor does it paint reality with a brush that’s too bright, or unrealistic.

Besides, it’s not what’s on the page that matters, in the end. Not if you want to know what happens next. Because everything must be erased. There are no decisions to be made, no way to guide our hero through her journeys. I’m just there to erase what she’s written. To bear witness to the material, and then make sure no one does, or can.

Image: Dreamfeel/Annapurna Interactive

The likeness of Kasio in Cassiopeia is obvious, but the stories have similar beats, too. As Cassopeia gets closer to the black hole, Kasio is falling into a metaphorical black hole of her own after a conflict with her family, one that tries to push her into the “old home, old habits” of her previous life during her visit.

Kasio is home — and it’s been a while — but this also brings in new complications: Kasio is a trans woman, and wants to come out to her mother. A 2 a.m. argument introduces old conflicts and confusion: What are you doing with your life? Where are you going from here? Why is your hair like that? The mother questions everything, from Kasio’s appearance to her decision to study science.

Kasio leaves her mother’s house after the 2 a.m. fight and takes refuge with an old friend, Colum. Colum, his boyfriend Jack, and bandmate Shans live in an otherwise abandoned mansion. They play in a punk band together; the big house is where they practice and live together. It’s rundown and cold, but it’s theirs. It feels warm on the page, despite the lack of actual heating at the time.

Woman holding a guitar Image: Dreamfeel/Annapurna Interactive

It’s the sort of place I know. I lived here, too, when I was younger, a place where the floors shook from a bass in the basement and a new stranger was welcomed on the couch each week. It’s where people came when they wanted connection, where I slept when I wanted to feel safe. Everywhere else in the world I might have been considered an outsider: confused, sad, and often scared. But there, when I was somewhere around Kasio’s age, people knew me only as me.

It’s hard to erase this place, and plenty others. But I understand that to move forward in If Found…, I’ve got to erase it all, not just the painful memories. Each page has to be (mostly) gone before I can read the next one and move the story forward. It’s not like I can do anything about what happened anyway, right? The conceit makes sure I know that anything I’m reading about has already happened, and is unchangeable. I’m here to be the last witness to these events, even if I’m reading about them second-hand.

I must erase, because I have to know what happens. With that, If Found bounces so beautifully between the complexities of life. One particularly lovely scene takes place at a punk show at a nearby bar. Colum, Jack, and Shans’ band, The Screaming Bandshees, are playing. Kasio arrives a little late, and she’s met with the thuds of a deep bassline, which turns into a catchy punk show as she walks into the pub.

Her journal, once a mix of muted hues, is now neon scribbles on a black page, popping up at the reader as if the very thoughts were electrified. The images are frantic, and I want to stay here. Caught up in the moment, though, I keep scrubbing away the pages to see what’s next. The pages are messy and chaotic and my heart starts to race. The act of erasing — the frantic moments of my mouse across the page — feels thrilling. It’s fitting. I’m enjoying this singular moment in time, but the only way I can do so is to remove it from existence.

I erase another few pages, and uncover a quieter moment between Shans and Kasio. The gig turns into a party at the abandoned house, and now Shans and Kasio are alone in the attic, the ceiling literally crumbling above them. It’s quiet and slow, and I erase these moments gently and carefully, as if my hand and mouse were submerged in molasses. If I erase slowly, if I’m deliberate in my actions, I can spend a few more seconds there.

Image: Dreamfeel/Annapurna Interactive

All the game’s scenes — both in the journal and in space — are precisely crafted to fit within the narrative, which ran almost two hours for me. The pacing and physical action of erasing reminds me of games like Florence, also published by Annapurna Interactive, in how the mechanics mimic the emotion of feeling of a particular moment. If Found… makes the physical motions even simpler, but pushes in an intricate, braided story.

The erasing mechanic is so effective in If Found… because it gives the player space to experience the story. Though it’s still a simple movement, a click and a swipe, there’s some give. I’ve wondered how other people might approach erasure: Are they quick and eager to erase some of these memories, as I am with the more painful ones? What part of the page are others erasing first? Are they erasing the whole page? You must erase most of the page to move on, but there’s some forgiveness there. Are players lingering in the same spots as me? Using an eraser is like so many things in life; everyone has a preferred strategy, even if they’ve never thought of it that much. If Found … forces you to think about it as you’re doing it. You read, and feel, and then erase. Or maybe that’s just the order that worked for me.

Developer Dreamfeel ultimately reveals why Kasio is erasing her past, but the revelation comes near the end of the story. The final moments of understanding tie into the mystery of the black hole and Cassiopeia, too. It all comes together, right before you take it apart.

That’s when I realized that I’d been erasing each of Kasio’s memories, without really knowing why. I guess I understand her motivations — the intense moments where there seems to be no other option — and I never really took a breath to question it. I just wanted to make sure she was going to be OK, and the eraser gave me the only tool I had to find out.

So I erased, because it was the only way to rebuild.

If Found... is now available on Windows PC, Mac, and iOS. The game was reviewed on PC using a Steam download code provided by the developer. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.