Behind the Frame presents itself as comfort food. For some, that's sorely needed right now. And for me, it's a welcome treat at any time.
A code for this game was provided by Akupara Games.
This review was originally published on August 9th, 2021. A revision, including a new section about the game's free DLC, was published on August 21st, 2023.
I've had my eye on Behind the Frame for a while now.
Not just because it openly styles itself after Studio Ghibli's wonderful sense of character & setting design – though that's a massive part of it.
It's also got a delightfully soft, slice-of-life air. It promises a slow, thoughtful, and relatively peaceful narrative. The moment-to-moment gameplay is driven by low-pressure, context-driven puzzles.
In short, Behind the Frame embodies the same gentle moodiness that can make even a brand-new story feel comforting and familiar.
For some, that may be sorely needed right now. And for me, it's a welcome treat at any time.
Behind the Frame gives us a window into the life of an up-and-coming artist. Between finishing her submission into a New York exhibition, we get tiny glimpses into her private self and a history with the soft-spoken neighbor outside her window.
And, as quaint as that is in the beginning, the game finds new ways to give a simple premise depth and meaning at every turn. The game established a cadence early on, and I couldn't help but drift right into step with it. It played played with that routine just a bit at first, lulling me in with gentle repetition. And then, ultimately, it used that familiarity to leave me utterly upended. Hook, line, and sinker.
It gave me breadcrumbs everywhere, encouraging me to play detective with the protagonist's well-lived-in and gorgeously-illustrated apartment. Then it added more and more detail until everything washed together, making less logical sense than it did emotional sense. And, for a puzzle game, the latter was often more important to finding my way forward.
The whole game plays out like an Escape Room that's at once lovingly mundane and provokingly abstract. Dozens of morsels of information are laid out around you; it's your job to put them together in a satisfying way.
The Right Framing
I feel like I should talk about something mechanical here, what with Behind the Frame being a video game. And while it may not be the most active of games – let alone remotely difficult – it provides a healthy mix of tasks that feel obvious and questions that ask you to pay attention to your surroundings. In fact, I found myself taking notes to fully absorb in a certain section, something I don't often do in puzzle games.
But, honestly, that's not the point of playing this story at all.
The point is in slowing down and taking it all in. The game gives you a full, panoramic view of the protagonist's living space for a reason; not everything here is meant to be solved. Some of it isn't even for you – it's a casualty of taking a vertical slice from this person's life, present only to leave an impression.
And leave an impression it did.
Behind the Frame runs the full gamut, from a light-hearted opening to a dread-tinged second act, and a finale that throws you through a whirlwind of nostalgia.
Not nostalgia for any specific thing, mind you. More the sense that you have a good past behind you, and that it can give you momentum to carry forth.
It's evocative, and purposeful, but leaves itself open for different people to view it in different ways.
And doesn't that describe the kind of art that really sticks with us?
Once More, Beyond the Frame
And if that describes the core story of Behind the Frame, Jack's chapter – included a free update – is a distillation down to its thesis and what little “game” is necessary to best communitate its messaging. Even the single room where this epilogue takes place feels like a reflection of the ideas here.
Where the backdrop of the main game is messy in a playful, lived-in way, here the mess is at once claustrophobic and cold. Echoes of the main story feel less like welcome callbacks and more just that – echoes.
If Behind the Frame is about coming out the other side of something, Jack's chapter is about learning to live in it.
And for some people where a wound is fresh – be it the end of a relationship or loss of a pet – that weighs all the heavier.
The storytellers here continue to do so so much with so so little. It may feel a bit lean, a sort of victory lap given their existing success, but even that feels like a very self-conscious response to their own work in its own way.
If this is the kind of handicraft they can sketch down as a little coda to a main piece, Silver Lining Studio will be hanging us all out to dry with their next title.
If anything, the greatest point of contention with Behind the Frame will undoubtedly be its length. Even on my first play-through, it took me less than an hour and a half to play from end to end, and another half-hour for Jack's chapter. Considering my ingrained habit of clicking on every square inch of a new room, it may take you even less than that.
But personally, I'm powerfully in favor of a game that's so carefully curated. This is the kind of story that I'd want to play through again in the same way that I watch some movies over and over. Every minute feels like time well-spent, either just enjoying its comforting ambiance or studying its more ambiguous spots from a new angle. From when I started to when the credits rolled, I couldn't put it down.
It just feels so playable in a way that other games can sometimes miss out on. Sure, point-and-click puzzles are well-trod ground, being around the block enough times to see a post-modern phase. But Behind the Frame shows that the genre still has new ways to delight us even in earnestness, to invite us into a space and send us on our way with full hearts and open minds.
This is exactly the kind of game I will be – and already have been – directly recommending to people.
And if anything in this article sounded the least bit intriguing, I recommend it to you, too.