One of my favorite things about reviewing is that it leads me to try games I wouldn’t otherwise have tried—or even heard of. Sometimes unusual and interesting games come from unexpected places, perhaps from developers unmoored from the conventions of the genre in which they are working. A List of People Who Went Missing in the Scheleirland National Forest, a horror visual novel from solo developer F.SDRI, is just such a game.
So I Watched, Hoping to Understand
What is A List of People Who Went Missing in the Scheleirland National Forest (henceforth shortened to A List of People)? An isolated woman living on the edge of the Scheleirland National Forest watches the roads, counting the campers who enter but never come back out. She thinks of the forest, of her community, of herself, and of the missing—of the nature of the world and their place in it, of the paths that led them to their current lives, and if they might all somehow be saved from their terrible fates. One might think A List of People is about solving the central mystery of the missing people. Rather, as the developer puts it, it is “a narrative that shifts and buckles under the weight of past lives”.
A List of People is technically a visual novel in ADV format, though the developer also describes it as interactive fiction, and it doesn’t follow most of the conventions associated with ADV visual novels. There’s very little dialogue. The text consists primarily of visceral descriptive passages and stream of consciousness narration with an emphasis on the structure and rhythm of the language. Nor is the art used to illustrate events. Occasionally the CG window shows the view through the protagonist’s eyes, usually in a distorted version of reality. CGs are more often imagery, symbols, or even abstract lines and shapes.
So I Spoke, Wanting to Be Heard
The narrative of A List of People is difficult to explain or even describe. Perhaps above all, I found it oppressive and disorienting. There’s no shortage of body horror, but the truly chilling moments are psychological. Even as the writing moves between fantastic imagery, introspective musing, and simple action, it always seemed to me to evoke the way regrets, painful memories, and broken dreams crystalize into an insidious poison that gnaws away at the soul until there is nothing left but an empty person in a shrinking world, with no reason to stay but not yet ready to go. This is how I read the protagonist, or at least the terrible fate she hopes to avoid, and the way the writing delves into her psyche and memories is compelling.
A List of People is also unconcerned with reality. Substantial passages march off into wildly different worlds or impossible memories with little explanation. Sometimes this is part of the horror. At other times it’s simply accepted, like magical realism. The protagonist might live an eternity in a twisted universe only to wake up and find that nothing has changed. This style takes some getting used to and is often intentionally disorienting. Once you learn to focus on the impressions and ideas, it can also be powerful. F.SDRI has a real talent for using imagery to give complex feelings physical manifestations that never would have occurred to me yet feel intimately familiar.
The story is told over 15 main endings plus a true route that unlocks after viewing all 15 main endings. The ending you reach depends on several choices along the way, though not in any obvious fashion. I navigated the game via trial and error at first and eventually reached out to the developer for guidance, which he kindly provided. I hope that he (or someone) provides a guide, as the structure of the game is not obvious and will likely serve as a significant hurdle to finishing the game for those playing unguided. 15 is a large number of endings, and finding them via trying all combinations of choices would have been tedious. Furthermore, it’s not always obvious the narrative is in fact building to something. Your one clue is that each ending you find adds an extra frame to the opening.
I found A List of People to be more generally too sprawling in scope. Each of the endings features a lengthy section of dense descriptive imagery, and often there’s so much detail and so many words that it’s hard to keep track of the main ideas. This is compounded by both the limits of ADV presentation and the fact that there’s a great deal to be gleaned from how the endings play off each other. Sometimes the rhythm of the language provides focus. A phrase might repeat again and again, solidifying into a mantra. I liked this. It helped keep me grounded. Other times I felt the story become increasingly unmoored and difficult to follow.
Even outside the endings, the writing becomes slower and denser the deeper you dig into A List of People. The craftsmanship of individual scenes can be exquisite, but sometimes without a sense of larger purpose. Instead, the morass of wordiness grinds everything to a halt. There’s also an overreliance on abrupt transitions and keeping things just out of view. The protagonist frequently falls asleep in the middle of some fantastical experience only to awaken in another and then repeat the cycle. Characters, visions, and ideas are always a little out of frame. I understand A List of People wants to evoke things that are ineffable, but it needs more variety in how it does so.
I think A List of People would have benefited greatly from content editing that reined in some of the excesses. As it is, there are strong moments, but also lots of meandering, and reaching the highlights can feel like work. To give another example: each time you restart after playing an ending, you’ll find numerous small changes to scenes you’ve read before. It’s a neat concept that reflects how different ideas and perspectives might change the protagonist’s thoughts and actions in subtle ways. It’s also impractical. To get the full effect, you need to carefully read through the same dense passages upwards of a dozen times. That’s a huge ask in a work where dense passages are the norm.
So I Closed My Eyes, and I Could See
The way A List of People uses its visuals is novel and creates an incredible sense of metamorphosis and momentum. The game contains thousands of unique CGs, and your view changes every time you advance the text. The individual CGs are often simple. They leave a strong impression though, particularly through their sparing use of color and shifting compositions. Small variations to an image make it writhe, grow, and twist as the text builds an idea or memory, reveling in inertia ready to shatter under its own weight. Sometimes the art recedes without ever becoming clear, like a view through textured glass or a memory half recalled. Other times it crumbles and reforms in an instant, sharp lines on empty space or a sudden splash of color accompanying a moment when existential terror surges up from the depths. The visuals are consistently evocative whether the text focuses on action, dialogue, imagery, or ideas.
The narrative is also supported by sparing music and sound effects. Some moments have discernable atmospheric music, generally the measured, creepy kind used to set the mood in horror films. Others might simply have a subtle but oppressive drone you don’t even notice until it stops, and you find yourself relaxing muscles you didn’t know you had tensed. There is one sound effect of a repeated popping noise that’s very unpleasant. I think it’s supposed to be unpleasant, given how it is deployed, but because it can take a while to wade through the text, it overstays its welcome.
The final piece of presentation is the flipbook-style animations that accompany the main menu and chapter breaks. Beyond the clear outline of a person, these are again impressionistic, conveying a sense of spinning one’s wheels in place. It’s a cool touch, but as the Steam page notes, they could trigger individuals sensitive to flashing images. Unfortunately for such individuals, there’s no way to disable the flickering effect.
A List of People Who Went Missing in the Scheleirland National Forest is clearly the product of a strong vision and in its best moments a deeply interesting and haunting experience. It can also be incredibly demanding. What insights might be gleaned into the intersecting and ever-shifting lives and stories must be won through careful attention to the details of dense and often disorienting passages thousands of words in length. Simply finishing the game, to say nothing of deciphering it, feels like running a marathon. Of course, one could forgo the details and instead immerse oneself in the impressions created by the distorted art, vivid description, and modulating mantras. Not everything is meant to be picked apart and reassembled into an exact sequence of events. Lives, memories, and traumas may not be so simple.
Would I recommend this A List of People Who Went Missing in the Scheleirland National Forest? I’m glad I experienced it, but it won’t be for everyone. I think it requires an openmindedness to experimental art and storytelling and a willingness to engage the work for what it is rather than what it might be. Those who do will be rewarded with something that is, if nothing else, entirely different.
A LIST OF PEOPLE WHO WENT MISSING IN THE SCHELEIRLAND NATIONAL FOREST IS UNSCORED
Many thanks go to the publisher F.SDRI for a PC review code for this title.
Support High-Quality And Detailed Coverage
Want to support the cost of us bringing you these articles or just buy us a coffee for a job well done? Click the Ko-fi button below. You can even find some digital goodies in our shop~!
A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.