Every once in a while there comes along one of those little artisanal puzzle games, a short-yet-high-production-value treat more zen meditation than brain-tickler. Think Monument Valley or Prune: mobile games that exist more as exquisitely crafted music boxes than as permanent residents of your smart phone.
Old Man’s Journey occupies much the same niche. Lovingly designed by small Austrian studio Broken Rules (And Yet It Moves), this is a short (60-90 minutes) adventure game set at a sedate pace, in which players push and pull at landscapes in order to create a path for their traveling protagonist. It looks and sounds nothing short of amazing. Whorls of paint coalesce into the old man’s memories as folksy melodies match the mood of his progress. Drag your finger over waving telephone lines and windchimes and they’ll twist and swing wildly in the breeze. Tap open doors and windows and you’ll find residents going about their quiet lives within, exposed like the innards of a pop-up book. There’s an untold number of tiny asides like these, stuffed in the game’s many nooks and crannies for no other reason than to better realize its storybook feel, and on that level Old Man’s Journey totally succeeds.
It’s just… How do I put this without spoilers? It’s kind of insubstantial.
Take away its sliding horizons puzzle design (which is undeniably Super Neat), and Old Man’s Journey is the story of — I apologize for the unkind phrasing I’m about to use, but there’s no way around it — a deadbeat dad. Through static flashbacks, we learn the man found himself called away from the trappings of domestic life and parenthood in order to pursue adventure. Catch up to the present, where the man is now old as the title implies, and he receives some bad news concerning a loved one, hence the journey part.
We’re meant to sympathize with our protagonist’s guilt and grief as he reminisces about his youth and what motivated him into self-exile in the first place. Only there is no real redemption arc here: he makes the journey, which is onerous but actually pretty laid back, all considering; he reaches his destination, and then things are… all patched up, I guess?
True, Old Man’s Journey is a small game, one that doesn’t have a lot of room in which to tell a complex story. I’d much rather a game come in on the short side like this than find it overstaying its welcome. And it isn’t simply that I feel not enough time is put into our protagonist’s character development — it’s just that if you are telling a story through sparse and nonverbal elements like this, it ought to add up to something interesting, or at least unique.
For instance, in one of the early flashbacks we learn that when our protagonist marries his wife, she’s already heavily pregnant. Perhaps a less scandalous revelation nowadays than it would be during the characters’ youth, but even this small touch invites a moment of reflection: what does it mean that a sailor gets a young woman pregnant and gives up a career of travel to commit to someone? It also casts later memories — in which our protagonist is seen ignoring his young daughter — in a more complicated light.
That stuff is compelling. That’s the stuff of rich storytelling. It might make Old Man’s Journey into yet another “game about a dad,” but it at least partly inverts the absentee father trope by then showing his return. Yet when we catch up to the present, the only emotional arc we get is the old man feeling bad. There’s no reckoning with the family he’s left behind; no account of what his absence did to them. If anything they seem to have done pretty well for themselves, but even that is a story we don’t get — just a guy who dropped out of his kid’s life when she was still small.
I’m a bit tired of stories (in all media, not just games) which center a dude’s feelings as the most important, the most interesting, the most worth writing about. What about this man’s story couldn’t have been told from a different perspective? Hell, even that of the postman who brings him the letter in the beginning — that guy looked like he was really struggling on that hill.
Old Man’s Journey‘s plane-sliding mechanic is great fun, its visuals are splendid, and its soundtrack is gorgeous — but the story these elements come together to tell is frustratingly unimaginative. As a boutique game, it’s certainly worth a sliver of your afternoon, but don’t expect it to take up real estate on your hard drive for very long past that.
Old Man’s Journey is available now for iOS and Android phones as well as on PC via Steam.