At the start of the game, the old man in question receives a letter, and travels across rural France. Through rests he takes at the end of each level, his story is told piecemeal through his memories. A budding romance with a beautiful woman quickly dissolves into a relationship on the rocks. They fight, make up, fight again, he stages grand (if unsuccessful and self-serving) romantic gestures, and they eventually have a child together. He never fully commits to his family, and one day, he leaves to sail around the world. He returns home years later and is shocked to find that his family have made their own vanishing act. Heartbroken, he moves to a coastal town to live alone. When he finally reaches his destination, we discover that his daughter sent the letter. His wife is dying, and she wants to see him one last time. She dies shortly after their reunion. By some miracle, his daughter lets him into her and her own kid’s life, and he’s able to finally have a family again.
Since this game has no dialogue, Old Man’s Journey makes use of music, symbolism, and the man’s surroundings to bolster the plot and create strong emotional impact.
The soundtrack, and art are fantastic, and help create an optimistic, cheery mood at the start of the journey. The background, if at times messy, is filled with warm colours, and busy villages. As the player moves the landscape around people and animals peek into view, pop-up book style. Reassuring us that this will be a sweet, light-hearted game, the music and art work in concert to lull the player into a false sense of security. The rolling hills and upbeat music begin to darken, as we learn more of the old man’s story .
Old Man’s Journey allows you to interact directly with this captivating art, as you shuffle around the landscape so the man can progress to the next stage. I thought this was really unique puzzle design, but I wish they’d gone even further in terms of interacting with the environment, especially for a game that draws so heavily on natural beauty.
The only other issue I had with the gameplay were the two minigames where you need to clear the landscape for a speeding lorry, and train. I found it impossible to rearrange the background before the vehicles overtook me, and it became frustrating to have to stop and start so many times. I have no idea what these repetitive exercises in futility were meant to add, asides from undercutting the game’s overarching conceit. A speeding train and lorry have nothing to do with the entire point of slow, painful journey that reflects the process of reflection and accepting your past. But, as much as I nitpick, they couldn’t ruin the game for me.
By the time the man reveals that he abandoned his family, the landscape has changed from rolling hills peopled with colourful villages to desolate coastal ruins lashed with rain.
In the emotional climax of the game, the normal mechanics of the landscape are suspended. Usually to progress across a level, the man falls down waterfalls to reach a new area. However, the man misjudges and falls down a waterfall too large, and passes out. Progressing through an eerily quiet water level, the man reaches a grate with a large padlock, symbolising how he’s repressed painful memories and his guilt. As the padlock falls away, the man thinks back to how much he missed his family- only to return home to find their house abandoned.
Until now, he pushed his abandonment of his family to the back of his mind, only to be forced to come to terms with his past in order to meet it in the present.
While leaving so much unsaid does draw the player in, leaving so much up in the air made the conclusion feel shallow, not bittersweet as intended. If Old Man’s Journey had elaborated on his wife, and daughter’s experiences, the emotional impact of their reunion would have been heightened. His family have certainly chosen to be estranged from him, since neither visited despite knowing his address, although this isn’t highlighted. Without the obstacle of a family that feels hesitant, and conflicted about reuniting after so long, the game’s conclusion feels undeserved and their poignant reunion falls flat.
But all in all, I thought this was a really charming game that is well worth your time. The art, and music are fantastic, and the game’s plot, while told in a simple way, tugs at all the right heart-strings. I’d give this a 7/10.
Featured image is from Steam.