When looking for heartfelt and emotional stories, the indie video game scene has become a reliable outlet for gamers to love to experience rich, tear-jerking storytelling. Torn Away — from Russian indie studio perelesoq — is no exception.
Using a wide range of perspective styles and a variety of stealth and puzzle mechanics, Torn Away balances the painful truth of living through World War II with dynamic gameplay. However, it’s that exact balancing — gamifying a historical tragedy — that might put people off.
From Russia with love
Torn Away is an innovative, story-driven puzzle adventure. The game follows the story of Asya, a young Russian girl living with her parents in her native country during World War II. When the war reaches Asya’s home, though, she and her mother are imprisoned and then separated. You follow Asya’s journey as she escapes Nazi prison camps and tries to find her way back to her family.
One of Torn Away’s greatest triumphs is its design and visual direction. The art of this game is simple yet clean, emulating a childlike aesthetic but still looking professional and polished. Meanwhile, the voice acting is moving. Admittedly, I did deliberately choose to listen to the native Russian audio and read the English subtitles. In my opinion, it made Asya’s experience feel more authentic and immersive instead of using English voice actors for my benefit. For accessibility reasons, though, it’s fantastic that the game offers both Russian and English audio options.
The creators of Torn Away also make effective and thoughtful choices with the game’s shocking moments. For example, early on Asya is chasing a rabbit through the snow. You — as Asya — find tools to help you survive and a radish you intend to feed the rabbit. However, right before you can feed it, this little moment of hope is shattered when a soldier walks over and shoots the rabbit in front of you. To its benefit, the game is very careful not to create a spectacle about the horrors of World War II, showing off mass graves or gratuitous deaths. Torn Away is honest in its depiction but not brutal. These choices help keep the story focused on Asya while also not turning this tale into twisted torture porn, which is a respectful way to approach this sensitive tale.
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Sewing for seven hours
When it comes to the gameplay of Torn Away, the mechanics are fairly simple. The game is a mix of a stealth adventure with point-and-click puzzles. Despite the simple mechanics, Torn Away’s developers have done its best to try to keep these elements diverse and dynamic so they don’t become boring. However, that doesn’t mean perelesoq’s game design efforts always work.
When talking about the adventure aspect, Torn Away is quite innovative in using different styles, perspectives, and angles to make the story feel more dynamic. Whenever Asya is in a rush of emotion — positive or negative — we’re often in a limited first-person perspective. Meanwhile, all of Asya’s tense scenes are side-scrolling. This makes the sneaking aspects of the game more effective, increasing the tenseness of the scene by letting you see all the danger around Asya.
Then, in her more domestic scenes, Asya is slowly wandering around and doing little puzzles. This is where the gameplay falls flat and slows the game to a grinding halt. While these scenes help break up the action, not only do they have an excruciatingly slow walking speed, but the puzzles are clunky and slow. For example, I spent 10 minutes on a sewing puzzle because the prompts weren’t quite clear on how I was to turn the hand wheel. There’s also a lot of walking back and forth between said clunky puzzles, which wouldn’t be bad if Asya’s walking animations weren’t similarly so slow. All these factors colliding together just make the game more tedious than it needs to be.
Complicating a mother’s love
One of Torn Away’s largest flaws was its characterization of Asya’s mother. While what Asya and her mother go through is horrific, their relationship was written quite thin and, at times, confusing. While writing, perelesoq made the choice to have Asya and her mother at odds during the idyllic, cozy beginning of the game — likely in an attempt to make their relationship richer and more realistic. During this scene, Asya lovingly prepares gifts for her mother’s birthday while also repeating to her imaginary friends that she thinks her mother hates her. Once Asya and her Mother are captured, it’s clear that conflict is gone. However, including that conflict makes a lot of the emotional beats between Asya and her mother feel sudden and strange. It’s conflict, comfort, then gone.
Either the story should have taken the time to have Asya and her mother more explicitly mend their relationship or drop this relationship conflict entirely. The story certainly doesn’t need them to have fought for their separation later on in the game to be heartbreaking.
The ways we tell a story
My other issue with Torn Away is much more personal and subjective, but I do find it notable — I struggle with the gamification of this tragic story. These kinds of stories — the realistic accounts of people living through the worst moments in history — should 100% be told. But at times it feels inappropriate to be getting annoyed with game mechanics when also immersed in the world of a girl going through a horrific tragedy. I don’t feel great sitting at my desk, clicking my mouse to activate cute little animations that nail together shoes in a Nazi work camp. This is especially true considering the previously mentioned slowness and clunkiness of those scenes.
The nature of this story is that it will be uncomfortable. Considering all the consultation the developers got in the game, Perelesoq worked very hard to find actual diaries during this time period and emulate the real stories of refugee children from World War II. The problem lies not with the story but the way it’s told. When the discomfort comes from a place of watching and experiencing and respecting the tragedy of reality, that is important and justified. The discomfort of juxtaposing said horrible moments with idle gameplay irritants — getting frustrated at a little girl running from Nazis because the sewing machine prompts are confusing — can make a player feel annoyed, guilty, then annoyed again without making any notable impact on the actual story being told.
The way those moments splinter the game’s tone makes Torn Away’s story feel uncomfortable in ways it shouldn’t. If you aren’t a fan of cognitive dissonance like that, this might not be the game for you.
An honest moment in history
After playing through perelesoq’s heartfelt game, I think Torn Away is an important story made with nuance, thoughtfulness, and respect. The gamification of such a tragedy can be a little bit difficult to swallow, but if you seek sentimental, hard-hitting stories in your indie games, Torn Away is still a powerful experience. The game has some clunky mechanics and tonally difficult scenes, but the story overall? It’s heartbreaking and honest. Torn Away doesn’t tell Asya’s story as if it’s some happily ever after, but it tells something true.