I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month in 2019, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.
Old Man’s Journey (PC)
Developer: Broken Rules
Release Date: May 2017
Finished: April 2018
Released in the spring of 2017 by Austrian studio Broken Rules, a small independent studio based in Vienna with an ethos of producing meaningful gaming experiences, if ever an epitome and demonstration of a game as a form of artistry is needed I can think of no other recent title that so ably demonstrates that than Old Man’s Journey, whose every nuanced progressive moment is simply breath-taking to behold. Despite a relatively short run time, every location and vista, mountain climbed and town visited was a unique and memorable experience with an artistic style bordering on pastel creating a crescendo of colour and presenting an almost ethereal world to explore and reside within, for ever so short a time. My attention was drawn to this title from the review of the good folk at Northern Plunder in their review last year and became an addition to my library as Christmas approached, a short and promising title to explore and enjoy, without a shadow of a doubt it served its purpose admirably and left a very favourable impression of both the game visually but also as intended as a moving and meaningful experience. The intention of this endeavour was to clear games released and purchased on my home console collection to date, this was one of the few digital titles I had opted to include but narrowly falling within the confines of my collection it was one I wanted to explore further having gained high praise for its visuals and presentation and became an easy and relatively quick choice to pick up and play over the course of an afternoon. Certainly there were elements of the title that frustrated although to an extent forgivable given the size of the studio and resources available, but going into Old Man’s Journey I wasn’t quite clear what to expect, a moving memorable experience as advertised and intended but no clear indication what form this would take.
The central and main narrative is fairly straight-forward and largely, can be described as the title it’s based on, the journey of an old man. Having received a letter in the post, the central protagonist swiftly packs his bag and in short order has set forth across the land taking in fields, rivers, towns and lakes as he journeys towards his end destination. During his journey, the old man will take certain breaks and moments to collect his thoughts and reflect on key moments in his life, the screen changing to an assortment of images over the course of the game, each allowing you to piece together the history of the character under your remit. The game itself, a fairly simplistic environment altering puzzle based game as you manipulate the various terrain levels of the game to allow your character to progress from one point of the map to another. At no point does the game become to tricky or complicated, with a moment’s pause to think about your next step you do eventually work out the solution and carry on your journey, maybe on one or two occasions pulling and dragging the terrain levels to different heights and positions before realising I had over complicated the puzzle before me and quickly pressed on. As the game progresses different puzzle elements present themselves, generally I favoured the environmental puzzles over the practical but there is a fun bombardment style game involving barrels as the game nears its conclusion. Certainly there was scope to progress and see additional elements introduced, as had been noted on another review you do grow to settle into the game accepting its nuances and challenges before finding it suddenly come to a conclusion. The very nature and inclusion of the gaming mechanics, the barrels, transport and level adjusting for instance does break the illusion this is a typical journey but ultimately for me personally I enjoyed this perhaps because it was reflective of the typical narrative of a journey, a beginning, middle and an end, as the old man arrives at his destination the game draws to a close, there really wasn’t anything more profound or significant that needed to be said. As a title, it neither needed nor required a typical end game adversary or challenge to overcome, there was a gradient curve of challenge to overcome and resolve as you progressed but at all times there was consistency in the world helping the sensation of being as one within the textures and imagery, the earliest mechanics of terrain adjustment present towards the final moments, a game confident in itself to build upon its foundations up until the very end and utilise these effectively.
One of the most defining aspects of this title is the art design and implementation, using an aesthetic that is reminiscent of a number of styles with hints of the washed pastel colouring and shading, a brushed art style that has the finish of oil painting whilst combining elements of block painting, a nuanced detailed finished and hints towards cubism with the angular and defined style. Whilst the presentation of the game is fixed from the front perspective the engine itself was built as a three-dimensional model allowing the use of layers to be implemented and the character model to appear both in the foreground and background as and when the narrative required. Equally with moving vehicles such as vans and trains passing behind signal and lamp posts you see the layer of depth in the game that on first impression is hard to imagine. Discussed in far greater detail at Rockpapershotgun and breaking down the various elements that went into building up the design of the game its incredible to view and realise the process in the games creation began very much as simple line drawings and sketches before building up to a final realised presentation that is reminiscent of oil paintings at times with the brush stroke effect and bold strong colours. There are a multitude of styles and approaches used, a sign of a confidence and ability in the game’s engine to be able to deliver an immersive world. Have a rudimental knowledge and experience in using oil and water colours from the beginning when you first venture out from your home, the use of shading to imply depth on the ground, the light effects in the sky from the setting sun and incredible to witness. There’s a symmetry and resonance to the bold hues found in nature that contrast to the more rich and detailed aesthetic found in the various village settings your traveller finds themselves exploring and traversing as your journey continues. The nuanced, individual tiles for example on the image shown with the various hues and tones of reds and oranges certainly have a more real connection and perception to the user, the depth in the flowers and vines with tonal differences between the wall in the shade and the more bright sun exposed exterior. At moments during the game play your character takes a seat to reflect on moments in your life that as discussed by the games art director were designed from a gameplay perspective to create a visually distinctive perspective to study and reflect on the deeper meaning. These images, whilst static and simply to observe were visually and tonally distinctive and predicated the meaningful sensation as described by the studios intention. From the colours and hues of the northern lights, the vibrant blues and energy of the sailing boat to the forlorn departure from your home as you walk away, the use of lights and bright colours in the background contrasting to the darker tones and shadows in the foreground, I could wax lyrically about these images used as a reflective tool as they were all without fault and used well to structure the narrative of an individual contemplating the key moments in their life and the toll upon their personality and psyche. With the single figure sitting forlornly upon his boat staring at the picture of his beloved, you feel the array of emotions implied in that moment, a great use of imagery and artistry to convey the games message.
If I had to find fault and I am more than willing to grant a huge amount of grace and leeway with this title, it would probably be around the structure of the puzzles and indeed the journey aspect. Certainly, narratively there needed to be a mechanism to overcome and challenge the user beyond a simple point and click interface, however having enjoyed these styles of games immensely in the halcyon days of Lucas Arts et el whilst this was a mechanism to adopt it didn’t perhaps fit the tone of the game. Whilst this is largely if not entirely a subjective fault the concept of an old man having to mentally adjust landscapes and perform spatial awareness puzzles seemed somewhat contrarian to the individual involved. In the absence of characters to meet and interact with, traditional puzzles to resolve and buildings to explore, adopting the facade and presentation of a contemplative exploration title with landscape and environmental manipulation puzzles was an interesting mix, and certainly towards the end as the puzzles became slightly more complex with the introduction of the barrel mechanic the journey coming to an end felt somewhat abrupt. I would perhaps be tempted to go back and play the title again in the future for the scenes or imagery I missed during my first experience however this would probably best be described as a single experience game due to the relatively short run time, there didn’t seem to be a wealth of hidden options to discover or a just reason to go back into this world beyond the whimsical nostalgia and the emotions elicited through the artistry. However without a shadow of a doubt the art work used in the game, the design elements, the colours and tones and the associated emotions elicited are an experience worth sharing and championing. I did really enjoy the train section of the game, without spoiling the puzzle element it did mix up the pace and tone of the game from what had been experienced before and introduced a different dynamic I do wish had been shown or developed upon later. As your character travels by boat I was hoping something similar or challenging would be introduced but alas your voyage on the waves was relatively brief as you moored at your new and final land based location. I had read and taken note of the cost to length ratio in terms of content and would probably argue for the length of the experience I was satisfied, with gaming there is always the question as to whether you find it a justified purchase, it’s an entirely subjective point. The nearest comparison I always point out is watching a movie you’ve seen reviewed and discussed, whether you enjoy it or not you arguably spend more on a single ticket than you do with this game. It took me a good afternoon to complete this game, I was more than satisfied with the length and duration of the title.
In summary, I was more than satisfied with my experience playing Old Man’s Journey and the impact it had upon me, and the appreciation for the output of these smaller studios. Its biggest merits were a suitable and moving soundtrack and some gorgeous art work and imagery, one of the few titles I would genuinely support through purchasing supplemental material, art books or even print work, in my humble opinion they were that good and deserve to be celebrated and shared amongst a wider audience. To be entirely impartial and objective, an argument could be made whether the game was style over substance, the art was beautiful, the gameplay mechanisms repetitive on occasion and only showing some development and innovation towards the end of the game. Personally I would have liked to have seen more but given the resources available in development I’m more open to giving this game the credit of the doubt. In the best tradition of low-budget, independent movies that also utilise sound and colour to drive the narrative forward, there is a fine line between the successful elicit of emotions and the failure of overwhelming your audience with imagery and no context or explanation. Old Man’s Journey for me, got that balance right, a successful blend of imagery and sound, a well driven narrative and whilst there is scope for improvement and evolution in the methodology I look forward to trying the Studios next title.
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