There are games that are created to stimulate your reflexes, sense of adventure, intellect, even to simply kill your time. Titles that are capable of provoking your emotions, even slightly, are preciously rare, and those that are designed specifically for that purpose (and manage to succeed in it without spiraling into sickly-sweet sentimentality) are nothing short of a miracle.
Old Man’s Journey is a prime example of that rare trend, a game that aims straight for the hearth. It was designed by Broken Rules, a Vienna based independent developer that already proved its creativity with a number of very original games. However, although they certainly broke (in a positive way) more than few game design rules during their career, none of their titles possesses as much charm, visual appeal and raw emotions as Old Man’s Journey.
The game had been alternately described as point-and-click adventure side-scroller and puzzle game, but because of the utter simplicity of its gameplay, its fluidity, as well as the brevity of the experience it offers, I’m hesitant to label it as either of those genres. Of course, it possesses the elements of both, but they are expertly distilled to fit the purpose and the style of this short, yet poignant game. In fact, just about the only thing that I can say with certainty for this game is that it is a bittersweet ode dedicated to life itself and all things it is comprised of: love and departures, joys and sorrows, missed opportunities and reunions, broken hearts and forgiveness, guilt and redemption.
The Journey Begins
It starts with a beautiful view of a house located on the edge of a cliff, with an eponymous old man gazing at the sea. Then a postman arrives and delivers him a letter. At first, we aren’t familiar with the contents of the letter because there is no speech, subtitles, or voice acting (or any of those standard elements, for that matter) in this game, and the only texts are various noticeboards. However, the letter must’ve contained something important, because the old man seemed visibly shaken when he read it and went into the house.
Next time you see him, he’ll be dressed for a journey, with a sturdy walking stick in his hand and backpack on his back. What was the content of the letter? What is so urgent? At this time the game isn’t quite generous with information, and even when you finally get them, they will never be really too explicit. That’s why, for the time being, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with absolutely gorgeous scenery that surrounds this unnamed old man and you, his invisible helper, on every step of the way.
We can only guess where the game takes place, but, judging by the noticeboards, and the features of its landscape, it must be somewhere in Southern France, perhaps Provence. Wherever it may be, you’ll walk through a beautifully rendered countryside of perpetually rolling hills, cypresses, quaint villages and lavender meadows. The graphics are cheerful and bright with delicate light colors, thanks to which everything seems to be infused with light and sunshine even when the sky is overcast. The overall style actually seems as if it was done by pastels (even a slight granular effect is there when you close in on the objects), which works great in combination with music that manages to be sublimely sweet and sad at the same time.
Over the Hills and Far Away
Of course, this game offers much more than just gorgeous graphics and moving soundtrack. It also boasts one of the most original gameplays we’ve seen in a long time. Although he’ll use various transportation means whenever he has a chance, the old man will be hiking cross-country most of the time.
As you might’ve guessed by now, your role as the player will be to aid the old man on his journey. There are a couple of ways you can do that. First of all, you’ll tap somewhere on the screen where you think that old man should go next, thus effectively planning his route. You’ll also solve a number of straightforward puzzles that usually include activating some mechanism (of a bridge, for example) or chasing flocks of sheep in the desired direction. The old man has the ability to jump over (he’s remarkably nimble for his years) from one layer of terrain to another, providing that their outlines are connected in the right way.
However, problems occur when the old man is standing on some isolated spot. In that case, you’ll have another option available. Remember those rolling hills I mentioned? They aren’t there just for show, but are, in fact, an integral part of the gameplay. When the old man finds himself stuck in his current position and he seemingly has nowhere to go, you’ll help him by manipulating the contours of the hills, thus adjusting the elevation and shape of the terrain. When you adjust it, the old man will be able to carry on. To make things slightly trickier, you won’t be allowed to manipulate the section of terrain where the old man is currently standing, so you’ll be forced to make various interesting combinations.
The Journey of a Lifetime
It’s not quite clear whether this terrain manipulation feature of the gameplay has some greater significance (perhaps it is a subtle metaphor for overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life), but it certainly perfectly agrees with this journey. For a game without a single word, Old Man’s Journey sure has an extremely touching story to tell, with narration that’s performed in a unique way.
Every now and then, the old man will sit down, take off his backpack, and, usually stimulated by a detail or person from his immediate surroundings, recall some defining event from his past. For instance, when he stops beneath the lighthouse to rest, and you tap the bell, its melodious sound will remind him of something. You’ll be transported to the time when he and his pregnant wife were standing on a wharf, young and in love, presumably on the day of their wedding (this imagery is complete with white dress and bells resonating in the distance).
Through series of striking and moving flashes, you’ll witness his life and relationship with his wife and daughter, from the first sweet moments, through increasingly darker episodes, to… Well, let’s not give away too much of the story. Suffice to say that it is a rare achievement, simple, full of warmth and genuine emotions
Old Man’s Journey is a very short game – most players won’t need more than a couple of hours to complete it. It might even seem too short to some (especially for a title that’s not free), but that duration actually suits it perfectly. Without the aid of words, this wonderful game manages to eloquently recount a story of one man’s life and his separation from family, losses, regrets, and solitude. In fact, a story of general human conditions.
It might seem otherwise, but Old Man’s journey isn’t devoid of optimism. The message that developers wanted to convey is positive and even encouraging in a way. Although our troubles might seem insurmountable, our lives irreparable messes, although we might seem beyond all redemption, sometimes all it takes to make things better are good will and affection – they literally can move hills. This is a beautiful journey in every possible way, with gorgeous graphics and delicate music score, tinged with profound sadness from start to finish.