Old Man’s Journey is an instructively titled puzzle adventure game about an old man who goes on a journey. You don’t know where he’s going, only that he set off after receiving a bit of mail containing surprising news. He carries a rucksack and seems very determined to get to the destination, despite the fact he has to do a lot of travel by foot through unwieldy terrain and weather. It’s up to you to get him there by clicking a path for him across each level – you’ll just have to do a bit of landscaping to make the route accessible. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s pretty good.
Set in a hyper-idyllic rural western-Europe, it’s hands down one of the most beautiful games I’ve played. You’ll tramp through villages and fields, over mountains and storm-ravaged islands, crossing waterfalls and streams – all illustrated with bold curvy lines and strong colour pallets. It’s dominated by smartly shaded pastels that evolve with the mood of the narrative. You’ll come across hollows, hotels, men playing chess, lighthouses, windmills, hot air balloons. This is pure, delicious, sugar-high whimsy. I’ve never taken so many screenshots.
At the end of each segment, the old man stops to rest and ponder memories of younger days, opening up near freeze-frames of important moments past. These are somehow even more stunningly vivid and beautiful, fantastic impressionist watercolour stills that the player is allowed to dwell on for as long as they want. It’s through these that we learn the old man’s backstory, and through which we can begin to guess at what this journey is about.
The story is divided into about fifteen short levels. In each scene, the only goal is to get the old man from one end of the frame to another. There are no items to collect, no conversations to be had, nothing else. Instead, it’s all environmental puzzles. The player pulls parts of the landscape up and down, with the old man able to go from one surface to another so long as they meet at a point on the player’s 2D perspective. So, for example, in one level the old man begins on an isolated road in the foreground. You’ll notice there’s a brown field in the background that you can raise to connect to the road, which the old man can now cross to another hill in the foreground. Then you move the brown field back down, and the old man can traverse it to get to a grassy ridge, which connects to another field below – and so goes most of the game. You can also sometimes use waterfalls to travel downwards, because of course. It’s all very fanciful. The one caveat is that you can’t move a surface that the old man is currently standing on, which is where any difficulty comes from.
The act of pulling the landscape around with the mouse has a nice physicality to it that reminds me strongly of children’s picture books, particularly ones with pop-ups and tabs you can pull to move parts of the picture around. It seems like it would be a great game for a tablet, so long as you have one that can handle the graphics. For the most part, it’s roughly as challenging as a children’s picture book too. This is generally fine, as it doesn’t feel like it would benefit much from being harder, although some bits seem frivolous and repetitive to the point of tedium. It does get slightly trickier towards the end of the game and starts involving a little bit more trial and error to complete. Overall, I liked the novelty of this mechanic and the way it’s used, although I’d maybe have less patience for it if the game didn’t look so damn good. I feel like the developers haven’t gone all out to explore every possible permutation of it here, but I also get the feeling that’s not the point. It’s all wrapped up within a couple of hours anyway, which seems about right – any longer would be wearing it thin.
The story itself is well considered but not mind-blowing. It gets points for tackling subjects we don’t see much of in games, and particularly for featuring an elderly character, although it shares thematic elements of ageing, life branches and regret with e.g. To The Moon, even Braid. It’s a simple narrative, befitting a game entirely without words, but it’s artfully told using the pondersome flashbacks. There’s a nice understated melancholy to it all. I could feel it begin to warm the giant iceberg that encases my heart, without threatening to melt it completely. The music throughout is airy strings, woodwind and glockenspiel. It mostly works well as a mood-setting device and changes frequently enough to not get annoying, although I do feel like it’s occasionally misused to the game’s detriment – particularly in the penultimate scene, which would have probably benefited from silence.
I also can’t help but feel like the structure of the game means there’s a bit of a disconnect between the mechanical aspects of the journeying and the way the backstory is learned through non-interactive memories. I wonder if they missed an opportunity there to combine the narrative and play elements a little better. Sometimes a novel mechanic is just a novel mechanic, I guess. And as much as it’s all very pretty, I also feel that the pastoral-euro depictions are overly idealised and nostalgic, and the game doesn’t have much interest in self-interrogating or subverting these tropes at all, and this bothers me a bit. Also annoying is that the game seems to lack a way to actually quit out of it from the menu. Presumably this will get patched in at some point – I hope so, as having to alt-tab and right-click the icon button to shut the application feels a little ungainly.
Old Man’s Journey is a visually stunning, accomplished small game that mostly achieves what it sets out to do. If you’re looking for some gentle environmental puzzling, you’re bound to enjoy what’s being offered, and you may even get something out of the story along the way. What really stands out, however, is the artwork. It’s so exceptional that based on that alone I have no reservations in giving the game a wholehearted recommendation.