I wish I felt more confident about my understanding of Fallow, a new lo-fi adventure game by the artist and musician Ada Rook. There’s such a fine line between interpretation and projection, and sometimes a game can be so withholding it can be hard to tell if what you’re seeing is actually there.
There’s something almost functional about Fallow’s vagueness, though. It both pulls you in and pushes you away. And for a game that seems to be about alienation, loss and loneliness (at least in part), the metaphor these dueling forces create is suitable. It’s as if it wants to be understood, yet is terrified to be known.
Fallow is mostly an exploration game, and takes place over the course of three days, depicting the fragmented memories of its lead character, Isabelline Fallow. Having been cast out by her mother, Isabelline flees to the city and joins a band of mutual survivors, others who, like her, are under a strange curse that causes society at large to reject them. Calling themselves “sisters,” they move to a farm in the country, as the world around them begins to decay and forget itself under the influence of an everburning furnace in the sky. Once the strange, hostile land forgets her sisters as well, Isabelline sets out in her grief, perhaps trying to be reunited with them. The resulting adventure is disorienting and unsettling, rarely achieving narrative cohesion but conveying a deeply sympathetic pain.
While that summary sounds competent, I’m still not sure I have the details correct. It may take a few more playthroughs to feel as though I understand the events. But whatever the game lacks in directness, it makes up for in sheer atmosphere. Visually, its art direction is a faded pixel style reminiscent of the Game Boy era, conveying oceans of texture and depth despite the minimalist palette. The story is a little more experimental when it comes to structure, shunning a typical linear narrative to deliver memory fragments in a disorienting, almost dreamlike progression that mirrors the hostility of the game’s dying world. Add to that the designer’s impeccable use of audio and an inspired and melancholy soundtrack, and you don’t need to fully understand Fallow to enjoy it.
That said, meaning can be found in the absence of clear details. And to me, Fallow seems to speak in code, its prose littered with phrases and scenarios a layperson may not understand but those of us on a certain fringe can decipher easily. In its barren wasteland, twisted with strange biotechnical artifacts and arcane machinery, I see a reflection on the deeply traumatizing effect of social and familial rejection and how aggressively lonely the world can be when you just want to be accepted and loved.
I hesitate to reveal too much or speculate more on what Fallow means to say. But its narrative does raise the question of transhumanism, about the separation of soul and body, and of identity. What makes a person: the collection of neurons responding to stimuli encased within human flesh, or the human flesh itself? I think Fallow makes the case that our corporeal encasements are constraining, perhaps unnecessary. And that this imprisonment can be a deep source of pain.
As an expression of grief and alienation, Fallow resonated with me deeply. But more importantly, although I don’t know if I fully understand the game, it emphasizes something that shouldn’t be forgotten: you don’t have to understand something to truly love it.
You can find Fallow on itch.io and Steam.
Holly Green is the editor-at-large of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.