Severed's strength comes from its sadness

Welcome to the latest in a series of columns on Pocket Gamer. We’ve sought out the best writers and most experienced gamers in the industry and given them a platform. Today we welcome back Susan Arendt and her journey through hidden gems and indie classics. This week she’s enjoying the sadness and loss of Severed…

Video games are supposed to be empowering vehicles for escape, where we’re the hero or chosen one or whatever rushing in to save the day.

Severed isn’t like that.

Your goal isn’t to save your family, because that ship has long since sailed. They’re dead, and no manner of questing or fighting or puzzling will change that sad fact. The best you can do is reclaim their bodies from the monsters who took them and lay them to their final rest.

It’s a lonely task, and one that you may not be able to complete, given all the obstacles in your way. But you make the attempt because it’s the one final thing you can do for these people you loved.

It’s a worthwhile quest, but not a glorious one. Your arm has been ripped off, and the creatures that inhabit this world are grubby, strange, and vicious. They are at best indifferent towards you, but more typically hostile.

You’ll have to fight your way to your family members, cladding yourself in armor made from the body parts of the monsters you’ve defeated. No songs will be sung of your deeds; no-one but you will even know you did any of it.

It’s a sad, grim, and solitary mission you find yourself on, and it’s why I love Severed so very, very, much.

Strength in sadness

I don’t normally engage with sad media. In much the same way people avoid horror movies because they don’t like being afraid when they don’t have to be, I shun movies and books and games that will take me to unhappy places.

But Severed’s sadness is its strength. It gives protagonist Sasha’s journey a weight that transforms what is really just a series of fetch quests into a beautiful tribute to the bonds of love.

It seems a bit silly to suggest that a game with two-headed birds and collectible monster giblets grants the opportunity to review one’s own life choices, but Severed does just that.

As you slash and slog your way through worm intestines (yeah, that happens) and eyeballs, you have time to ponder just how far you would go to do something simply because it should be done. Something that would never be considered a victory, something you would rather forget once it was complete, something that no-one would blame you for avoiding. Doing the hard thing not because you must, but because you choose to.

Bleak but beautiful

None of that is spelled out in heavy-handed writing, thankfully. Sasha has no heartfelt conversations about What It All Means with anyone, and there aren’t flashbacks to your mum bouncing you on her knee as she sings a lullabye. You’re not told you have to do this because you love your family and leaving their bodies in the claws of disgusting animals is simply not on – it’s just understood.

Severed abounds with the quiet certainty of purpose, and a maturity that anyone who’s lost someone dear to them can understand on a cellular level.

It’s certainly possible to play through Severed solely to admire the exceptional visual flair and unique approach to combat. Like all good art, it has layers that are yours to behold or not as you see fit, and you’re not a shallow jerk for just enjoying it on a mechanical level.

It’s a great game that takes clever advantage of its touch screen controls. Seriously, you don’t have to care one whit about Sasha’s family in order to love your time with Severed.

But to drink of its sadness is to better see its bleak landscape; to feel the loss of what used to be and never will be again. To accept that you cannot change what is, but can make what is into something you can bear.

Severed’s ending isn’t happy in the traditional sense, but it’s the best possible outcome Sasha could hope for. Sometimes, that has to be enough.

We first reviewed Severed on PS Vita but it’s also available for your iPad and now Switch. We’ll be sharing more insight into indie classics next Wednesday and every week. Bookmark Susan Arendt’s page now! And be sure to check out Jon Jordan’s weekly dive into mobile gaming trends.

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