I’m generally not a fan of environmental narrative games. These are also known as “walking simulators”, a term that’s meant as a bit of an insult, though one that’s stuck for good reason. Considering how I’ve felt about those I’ve already played, I wouldn’t normally have gone for a game like Sagebrush. However, it was included in that 1,000+ game itch.io bundle from last year that I’ve still barely made a dent in, and lately I’ve felt like giving a chance to something I typically wouldn’t. Open my mind to new possibilities and all that, which is something I usually don’t have an easy time doing.
Well, I’ll just say it straight out — Sagebrush didn’t change how I feel about this genre. Released in 2018 for PC and later ported to the Xbox, Switch, and PS4, this game received quite a lot of praise from reviewers and players, but I found it frustrating, all the more so because the story it tries to tell seems like it would be an interesting one if it were told as it happened. But as is so often the case with these kinds of games, we only get to see the aftermath of that story. Sagebrush does try to justify that with its ending twist, but it still doesn’t work so well for me, partly because the twist itself didn’t work for me either.
Note: I will be spoiling the hell out of this one, so if you don’t want to proceed further, here’s my bottom line: I didn’t like Sagebrush, but its story and characters have potential, and if you like these sorts of environmental narratives I can see how you’d enjoy it. But I didn’t. Now on to the horrifying details, because this isn’t a pleasant story in the slightest.
In Sagebrush, you play as an initially unidentified protagonist visiting an old abandoned cult compound, the scene of a mass suicide. The player isn’t let in on why we’re here at first or even about who we are, but we at least know our objective is to explore this abandoned compound and put together what exactly happened here — or rather how it happened, since the game tells us the conclusion of this story at its beginning.
The player is therefore required to piece this story together by working back from the end and seeing how it happened. Sagebrush leaves a lot of clues around for the player to do just this, with plenty of notes, pamphlets, and journals to read along with more physical and visual forms of evidence, all having to do with the head of the cult, a preacher referred to as Father James Israel, and his followers.
The compound is divided into several distinct areas, most of which are initially locked off and have to be accessed with keys and sometimes with other tools you’ll come across during your explorations. This allows the story to build gradually, showing more and more of the true horror behind this Perfect Heaven cult. What first seems to be a strange but perhaps harmless group of ascetics (starting with a few notes in the community hall, including a meal schedule with “fasting” listed two out of seven days) turns out to include a “cleansing” practice involving self-harm and self-mutilation as penance for sin and an “alternative cleansing” method in private with this Father James, which just happens to only involve certain young women in the cult. The inclusion of a schoolhouse and references to children at the compound makes the situation all the more horrific.
No one who’s looked into the history of cults will be surprised by any of this. Developer Nathaniel Berens took inspiration from real-world cults, some of the more likely examples being the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas that ended in a deadly standoff with federal authorities, the California-based Heaven’s Gate that ended in mass suicide, and the FLDS polygamist Mormon sect that still hasn’t ended despite its leader being imprisoned for sex crimes. However, the marks of a cult, and especially of this sort of millennial religious cult — fanaticism, militancy, and unquestioning devotion to a leader who claims he has special powers or speaks with God — can be found throughout history. The earliest example I know much about is the 16th century Anabaptist commune that briefly took over the German city of Münster (even if the link wasn’t intentional, Father James surely has some Jan van Leiden in him, especially with his more sexually oriented “revelations”) but there are certainly even older examples.
All this could make for a compelling story, and I had the feeling from reading all the correspondence and journals in the game that the cult featured in Sagebrush might have been a great subject for a game. However, the usual problems of these environmental narrative games show up yet again here. We only see the remains of the story, its characters and conflicts, through the written and physical evidence left sitting around the ranch. These do fill out the story and suggest what some of the characters are like and how they related to each other and especially to the false prophet James, who is about as big of a shithead as you might imagine and maybe even bigger, considering what you find in his journal near the end of the game.
But again, I would have liked to see this all play out in real time. That’s always one of the problems I have with these games. Clearly there are people who enjoy this sort of forensic style of gameplay, but I’m not one of them. I have seen Sagebrush described as having a puzzle element along with the exploration one, but the puzzles in this game are the most basic “go to location x and find item y to open door z” sort of stuff you could ever imagine, to the point that I don’t even think you can call them puzzles at all. It’s not all just finding keys to unlock doors to find new keys, but it’s close enough that there’s no real challenge involved.
So all that’s left is the story, which is again told well after it’s happened. And the way it’s told feels a bit cheap. Initially, the player has no idea who the protagonist is or why they’re exploring this cult compound. Near the end of the game, however, it’s revealed that the protagonist is Lilian, one of the former cult members and the only survivor of the mass suicide by fire that puts an end to the cult. After coming to her senses and escaping the flames into a bunker built by Father James to ride out a police/military standoff, Lilian returned to her family and to society. But it’s implied her time at the compound was so traumatic that she’s repressed many or all of these memories, which return to her in the course of her explorations.
I know nothing about psychology, so I can’t say anything about how realistic or unrealistic any of that is. However, hiding Lilian’s identity from the player up until that point feels pretty damn cheap. She hasn’t forgotten who she is, after all, and by the end of the game it’s revealed that she came back to the compound specifically to come to terms with what happened there and with her role in it. You’d think we would at least get some kind of internal monologue when we find Lilian’s living space in the trailer park set up to house the cult members, but we don’t. We only clearly enter Lilian’s mind near the very end of the game, when we get a cryptic message about “facing your past” just before entering the chapel, the final area of the game.
The only other clue before this point that the protagonist is Lilian is the old-fashioned tape deck that keeps showing up in various places. These act as save points, but they also play recorded monologues that turn out to mostly be Lilian’s recollections. My read on it is that these tape decks don’t actually exist at the compound but are just representations of Lilian’s thoughts — or it would be if there weren’t also a tape deck in the middle of the game that plays a monologue by Father James. Maybe this is supposed to be Lilian recalling what James told her, since it does take place at the site of one of his creepy as hell sex pervert “alternative cleansings” that it’s implied she took part in. But this also kind of breaks the rule the game set about the tape decks being Lilian’s thoughts alone, assuming it set that rule at all and I didn’t just imagine it in an effort to make sense of it.*
In any case, none of that changes the fact that the game does pull a surprise reveal about the protagonist being Lilian, despite this separation between the player and protagonist not really working. That kind of separation can actually work — I’d give examples but it would naturally spoil those games’ endings somewhat, so I won’t. Some ambiguity like this in a story can be extremely effective if it’s done right. However, I think it’s very difficult to pull off well, and in the case of Sagebrush it simply feels like the game is hiding the ball. Again, maybe it’s just me being dumb or not picking up on something extra-obvious (and if so please let me know what you saw that I didn’t) but I don’t appreciate this approach.
I wish I could be more generous to this game, because I like the basic story it sets up, and I think Mr. Berens treated his extremely sensitive subject with a lot of respect, but as far as I’m concerned it really is just another walking simulator in the end. If you’re into this sort of game, you might like it. Sagebrush has some atmosphere to it and it does deal with some heavy issues, and I can see a cult survivor or someone close to one connecting with and getting something out of the game.
But I don’t know. Aside from the narrative issues I brought up, I just like to have more game in my game than I got here. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, since I’ve highly praised stuff like Yume Nikki that’s also essentially a lot of walking around and exploration, but surreal dreamscape games like that are so interesting and weird that I’m willing to give them a break. Sagebrush gets no such break. At least it only takes a couple of hours to get through, so not too much of a time commitment if you plan to try it out.
So no, my return to this itch.io bundle didn’t start so hot, but I will be going back to it for a few more interesting-looking games. Among those I have lined up to play are a visual novel about two girls driving around a desert, a weird-looking meta RPGMaker-style game recommended by Frostilyte, and a few others I might pick out if they’re lucky (or not lucky?) But hopefully it is all good stuff that I can use to break up the bigger games I have going right now. Until next time.
* It’s also possible that the whole thing occurs not in real life but in Lilian’s mind, and the entire game is just her sorting through and coping with her own memories. A real-life cult compound and site of a mass suicide like this wouldn’t just have all that evidence left lying around by authorities, after all. Or maybe I’m overthinking it? See, I really don’t mind some narrative weirdness, but the rules set have to be consistent, otherwise it’s just frustrating.