On its Steam page, Mutazione bills itself as “a mutant soap opera where small-town gossip meets the supernatural.” This is wonderfully catchy, but this atmospheric story game is much more chill and relaxed than its tagline would suggest.
Mutazione is about a normal teenage girl named Kai who takes a ferry out to an island to visit her sick grandfather. Her mother, who left the island with her own mother when she was still a child, is busy with Kai’s baby brother and sends Kai in her place. When Kai arrives on the island after a short prologue, the player realizes that it’s a special place. The island is littered with the overgrown ruins of highways and office buildings, and many its flora and fauna – including its human inhabitants – have undergone dramatic mutations.
Playing as Kai, your goal is to interact with the islanders and their environment in order to care for Kai’s grandfather, whose health turns out to be connected to the health of the island’s ecosystem. Mutazione is divided into seven days, with each day being further divided into different times (such as morning, afternoon, and so on). Every character on the island offers a new conversation during each time division, which can perhaps be thought of, in gaming terms, as “stages.” The game is clear about which conversation will end a stage and move time forward, and the player is free either to explore as they wish or move straight from one objective to another. To my knowledge, nothing in the game is hidden or missable, and the player’s dialogue choices don’t seem to affect the outcome of the main story.
The landscape of the island is divided into a series of small areas, each of which is a static screen that scrolls as the player moves through it. Some of these areas are more central than others, and some are only unlocked later in the week, but the island isn’t that big. There are only about seven or eight areas that most players will visit with any regularity, so it’s not prohibitively time-consuming to go from screen to screen to check in with the island inhabitants.
Mutazione also incorporates a gardening minigame that isn’t so much a “game” as it is a natural element of the story. To simplify, there are seven small gardens on the island, and every garden is associated with a “mood” such as “harmony” or “wanderlust.” Every day Kai learns a new song that will help foster the growth of plants associated with a given mood. You can run around the island and collect plant seeds, but it’s not necessary to go out of your way to do so. The gardening elements are all very relaxed, and the player can put as much effort or as little effort into this minigame as they want.
The “soap opera” story elements involve the love stories of two adult women on the island. Although these two stories do indeed feature dramatic elements, they’re both actually quite mature and understated, as well as appropriate to the setting of a small community. Kai, who has a crush on a girl on her swim team back home, is mercifully free from being romanced or having to romance anyone, and she’s mostly a passive observer and casual confidant. Mutazione isn’t aggressively wholesome, as people’s emotions and reactions are genuine and relatable, but there are no dramatic slap fights or screaming matches. Thankfully, neither women nor men are nasty to each other, and everything is very friendly and chill.
Unfolding alongside these small stories is the larger story of what happened to the island, as well as what the older generation of people on the island were doing there before the incident that caused the biological mutations. Many of the details of this background narrative are never fully explained, and honestly, that’s okay – we get the details that matter and enough pieces of the puzzle to fill in the rest for ourselves.
All of the people on the island have interesting personalities even if they don’t have a full story arc, and I appreciated the opportunity to get to know a few characters whom I don’t often encounter in video games. I was especially intrigued in Yoké, an older man who runs the island archive. He’s been in a wheelchair all of his life, which is handled with a welcome degree of realism, and he’s also beginning to lose his sight. The ways in which Yoké processes the indignities of aging are handled with just as much nuance and sensitivity as the game’s two love stories, and the sense of community is just as integral. In addition, given the racial and ethnic diversity on the island, as well as the mutations of the inhabitants, the game contains a few subtle but pointed conversations about tradition and transmission from a perspective in which whiteness has been refreshingly decentered.
Despite Mutazione’s exploration of themes such as difference, aging, and legacy, Kai is still a teenager who is largely uninterested in such things, which prevents any of the conversations in the game from becoming getting too heavy or academic. The fact that Kai is a teenager with a concomitant lack of perspective is sometimes frustrating, especially in her occasional solipsism and lack of concern for aspects of the island that turn out to be dangerous. Regardless, she’s friendly and open-minded in a way that perhaps an adult character wouldn’t be, and she functions well as a point-of-view character in both lighthearted and more serious scenarios.
In terms of its graphics, Mutazione is unique and gorgeous. The character designs are distinctive, the environments are lush and evocative, the mutant animals are brilliantly fantastic, and the mutant plants are creative yet feasible. The game also contains its own herbiary that’s accessible from the main menu. It’s completely optional, but it’s really fun to flip through. I’m not an expert on plants, but I know just enough to be able to understand that there are some cool references to the real-world scientific field of botany in both the main game and the herbiary.
The Mutazione OST, which you can find on Bandcamp, is one of the best things I’ve discovered in This Wild Year of Our Lord 2020. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it’s an extended LoFi Beats to Chill To playlist mixed with a few Riot Grrrl style anthems. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the wordless punk songs, but the rest of the OST is lovely, both as an accompaniment to the game and as a nice background for writing or studying. My favorite tracks are the three “What’s on the Menu” pieces, which are super ambient and relaxing.
The closest comparisons to Mutazione are probably Oxenfree and Night in the Woods, but Mutazione is much more secure in its identity as a story game. It doesn’t require any platforming, puzzle solving, or reflex-based minigames, and it tackles real and interesting topics and themes without forcing the player to sit through extended scenes of teenagers being awkward and unpleasant to one another. Mutazione does have a few creepy moments, and some of the revelations Kai uncovers about the island are genuinely upsetting. These darker elements add stakes and momentum to the story, and the ending of the game is incredibly satisfying.
You can probably finish Mutazione in about two to three hours if you just want to get through the main storyline, but I spent about ten hours with the game over the course of three weeks, playing a bit at a time and making sure to check in with everyone to get all of their stories. That being said, because of the gradual building of narrative momentum, I got hooked at the end and eventually reached a point where I couldn’t put the game down until I saw how everything turned out. I played Mutazione on PlayStation 4 on a big HD television, where it was absolutely gorgeous, but I’d gladly play it again on the small screen of a Nintendo Switch if it were ever released on that platform.
As much as I’m currently enjoying Age of Calamity, I found that Mutazione scratched a specific itch left by Breath of the Wild, specifically regarding gentle exploration and patchwork storytelling that proceeds at a pace set by the player, with careful attention to the environment rewarded by strange seeds. I’m actually surprised that I haven’t seen more people talking about how amazing Mutazione is, because the game is engrossing and beautiful and original, not to mention a refreshingly accessible vehicle for an incredible story.
By the way, the writer and narrative designer for Mutazione, Hannah Nicklin, has a piece on Gamasutra about how her creative philosophy is expressed in some of the decisions she made regarding this game, and it’s a really fun read.