One of the things I have enjoyed about growing older is how my perception has changed when it comes to fiction. There were a lot of stories that I read as a boy, but didn’t fully understand. With time however comes experience, and the older I get, the more the tales of films like Gladiator, Road to Perdition and Layer Cake resonate with me.
Yes, I watched these movies before I was eighteen…to the surprise of no one.
There are some stories that young’uns can enjoy, but are made for an adult audience. And in the realm of video games where ‘adult’ means a lot of false gore and the best pixel approximation of breasts and asses money can buy, an actual mature story for an adult is hard to find. This is what separates visual novels and interactive fiction from gaming. It isn’t the format or its Japanese roots, but it is versatile enough to tell stories that go beyond the archetypical mainstream game. The question is whether or not developers outside of Japan are willing to experiment with the formula and while that is a murky subject in North America most weeks, Europe doesn’t have that problem.
European developers have had no issue at all experimenting with the format of this medium and have put out stories that defy convention. Moacube, We Are Muesli, Atelier Sento, Nova-Box, Coffee Stain, Red Thread, and Hell, DONTNOD. These developers have been the tip of the spear of a narrative renaissance in gaming: putting out award-winning games and moving the goal post forward for our medium over the past five years. Today we talk about another in that lineage: Broken Rules Games and their inaugural release – Old Man’s Journey. Let’s jam.
Somewhere along the Mediterranean Sea, an old man receives a letter from someone only he knows. Moved by emotion, he packs up and begins the long trek from his home to an unknown destination. As he travels, he thinks back over his life and the choices he has made over the years. Whatever waits at the end of his journey, it has certainly been a long time coming.
Now, this review is going to be short because even a slightly detailed description of the plot can give away some spoilers. In a way, that is probably the game’s biggest negative: it’s a very simple story told completely in flashbacks. That brings a bit of predictability to the proceedings and rob any sense of surprise from the story. So, if you’re coming into Old Man’s Journey looking for a wholly original tale, I’m sorry to say you’re out of luck.
However, this is addressed in a few unique ways. The first is that there is no dialogue or narration in the game. This is to focus on the atmosphere of the journey itself, what the old man experiences as he travels and the solitary nature of the journey itself. This sense of isolation is meant to put you in the same mental and psychological state as the Old Man. It creates a strong emotional connection than dialogue or outright monologuing could and it was a smart move by the developers.
The second unique way is that the entire plot is told through Event CGs that show up in flashbacks. Again, this feels organic to the game, but what separates this narrative strategy from others is that there is no attempt to provide a lot of context. We don’t get a lot of extraneous detail. Each picture tells its own piece of the story and we as an audience can only speculate about the context as the game goes forward.
The speculation here is key because without it we wouldn’t have an emotional attachment to the character. After all, written dialogue removes the audience’s participation in the narrative and puts the full power of the story in the hands of the writer. In that scenario, it would be more likely for us to sympathize with the Old Man, but it would be clouded by the writer’s interpretation of the character’s life. Without dialogue and with the subconscious duty to fill in the blank pages ourselves, the audience is able to empathize with the Old Man because we have to fill in the blanks of his character, only for it to be trumped down the road.
It isn’t an easy or automatically successful writing strategy, but here it works. Regardless of how your internal development for the Old Man goes, it will be subverted somehow as the game counters the audience’s internal narrative with the truth about him. It’s a fantastic piece of storytelling that can only work in this genre of gaming where the focus is heavily on narrative instead of complex gameplay. Hopefully, other developers will learn from this going forward as the Old Man is easily one of the most human characters I’ve ever experienced in gaming.
My only problem with the story is that my main praise for it is how it is told. The actual story itself is straightforward and, really, kind of predictable. The pathos of the tale comes from confirming your suspicions about this journey. This isn’t a bad thing by itself, and I certainly don’t require every game I play to have a unique or innovative story. However, it does affect if I’ll play it again now that I’ve gone through it once. We’ll cover that in the appropriate section, but for now just know that I consider it a negative, but not a deal breaker.
And that’s where we end this section of the review. Yup. Any more than this, and I’ll be spoiling the game. I know that is somewhat odd, but hopefully my desire not to get too heavily into the story will encourage you to seek it out for yourselves. It really is worth going in as blind as possible and experiencing for yourselves.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation for this game is what steals the shows. Just looking at the screen captures I’ve provided here doesn’t do it justice. It is nothing short of a visual feast with vibrant backgrounds and unique characters that will make you want to stop playing it and just appreciate it. The music works perfectly and builds an almost fantastical atmosphere for the game. This comes in handy when it does indeed dip into fantasy with certain sequences that never feels out of place.
The Event Graphics are an important factor here as they have the dual tasks of feeding your predictions about the plotline as well as evoking as much of an emotional reaction from the audience as possible. It thoroughly succeeds at both with some of the most heartbreaking pieces of artwork you will ever see in a game. You will hate and love this Old Man by the end of the game and it’ll be thanks to the story told entirely in pictures.
The same goes for the soundtrack for this one. It is a musical masterpiece focusing mostly on music box compositions that fit the picture book world Old Man’s Journey created. It’s very Disney-esque and adds so much to the atmosphere of the game. I don’t know if I’d say you could listen to it on its own, but it is a joy to listen to as a part of the larger presentation here.
Technically, this is where I started finding faults. The gameplay ideas were good as you must manipulate the environment to allow the Old Man to move. It’s essentially a puzzle platformer where you have to get the landscape just right to move forward, with some minor difficulties in the way that you can also manipulate. The biggest issue is that, at least for me, the click detection for obstacles is randomized. This doesn’t affect moving any landscapes, but for things like moving sheep, a consistent obstacle in the later levels, it can become a pain when you try to move them to one spot and they go in a completely different direction.
Click detection clearly isn’t an issue here, so it turns into an annoyance that I can’t seem to directly control the sheep and instead I have to get the landscape just right for their cycle to eventually put them in the spot I need them to be. There aren’t enough sheep in this game for it to be fully game-breaking, but it is annoying.
What IS fully game-breaking are the bugs that haunted the early release of the game. I played Old Man’s Journey for a stream and it would crash after every level. It was so bad I had to stop the stream and it hurt at the time because the game is incredibly beautiful, but played like crap. Since then, it has been patched and gotten better. I personally haven’t experienced another hard crash since then, so hopefully there are some lessons from that Broken Rules can take away.
Old Man’s Journey retails for $7.99 on the PC and on the App Store and Google play for $4.99. The different amounts here reflect the game in visual fidelity and while I’m sure it’s nice on mobile devices, it would be a crime not to experience this on the biggest screen you can get your hands on. Well, the biggest that won’t break the aspect ratio anyway…
Here’s the thing; the replay value is somewhat limited. I can certainly see myself picking this up every now and then for a replay, but once you’ve gone through its brisk two-hour run, there isn’t much to pull you back. That’s not bad, as it is a satisfying end and I feel it’s more than worth the asking price. But, you should know going in this one will take up a spot in the Steam library for a minute before you decide to do another playthrough.
Old Man’s Journey fascinates me in all the best ways. It is a familiar story told in a very intriguing way that fully invests me into the character of the Old Man. His story is a mature one: one that can only be comprehend and empathized by an audience that has a few years on them and a few regrets that they can look back on; which is rare for gaming these days. I said it in the review and I mean it: you’ll understand this Old Man and sympathize with him about as intensively as you’ll get mad at him and that is a hat trick that could only be accomplished with an excellent story.
The presentation speaks for itself. One look at any of the promotional material for this game tells you everything you need to know about how you will feel playing this game and getting wrapped up in its atmosphere. I do have my nitpicks, and usually game breaking bugs for me are fatal, but I’d be lying if I said it only tripped up the experience: not put me off it entirely. Yes, you’re not going to manically play this every few weeks or months. However, whenever you play Old Man’s Journey, you’ll find yourself caught up in a unique narrative experience that deserves all of the praise it gets.