It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play, we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
It may be called Old Man’s Journey, but this game is really a leisurely stroll through beautiful coastal hills and towns. The story begins with the titular old man receiving a letter in the mail that sends him on his travels, during which we learn the reason behind his solitary, introspective pilgrimage. Your job as the player is to help him navigate the rolling coastal landscapes by bending the terrain so he can break the laws of physics and travel between the hills in the foreground and those in the background.
Warning: some story spoilers ahead.
The two-dimensional world of Old Man’s Journey looks like it has the depth you’d expect in the real world, but it doesn’t really. Instead, in an M.C. Escher-like way, if one hill crosses another hill, the old man is able to travel between them as if they exist at the same depth even though they don’t appear to. While this sounds a bit confusing to explain, it’s much more intuitive in practice.
After making it through a few landscapes / puzzles, the gameplay feels easy enough. As the game progresses, the puzzles don’t get more challenging. Instead, you’ll come up against increasingly clever ideas regarding how you can interact with the physical makeup of the environment. At one point, you’ll be moving the hills to get a large stone disc to roll and break through a wall blocking the old man’s path; later, you’re moving a railroad track so it’s in line with the train you are on before it has to slow down.
Since he’s an old man, he can’t just walk endlessly. And whenever he stops to rest, the scenery and people he encounters remind him of things from his past. These memories are beautifully rendered images that are sort of like live photos or cinemagraphs that show a frozen moment in time with just a small amount of selective animation. For instance, in one memory, a younger version of the old man is looking intently at the sea, while his daughter pulls at him for attention. The water outside moves slightly, causing the reflection of light off of it to change, all while the framing of the image shifts around slightly as if mimicking an unsteady video. It gives the scene the illusion of being three-dimensional.
It’s through these memories that we learn the story of the old man, and how he came to be living alone. It’s a tale that is meant to make the old man’s plight sympathetic and his journey feel something like an introspective pilgrimage, allowing for the end of the game to be an emotional, redemptive moment. For me, the end of the game was emotional, but it wasn’t for this reason. Once I learned why the old man is alone, I lost any sympathy for him.
We learn through his memories that he left his wife and young daughter to go sailing, returning years later to find his old house abandoned and decrepit. That’s when he moves into the precariously placed house on a sea cliff face that we find him in at the start of the game. The game ends with him finally visiting his daughter, now an adult, and his ex-wife on her deathbed. The letter that kicked off his journey appears to have come from his daughter, telling him that her mother was going to die soon. It seems like it’s meant to be a redemptive moment for the old man, as he finally returns home, but I could only find myself sympathizing with the daughter.
We only see this story play out in brief memories, but it’s fairly clear that this is a situation entirely of his own making, one he seemingly made no effort to correct once he returned. Rather than the old man being redeemed at the end, this moment felt like one where the daughter hopes to reconnect with a father she thought she had lost after having lost her mother. It’s an opportunity for redemption, as opposed to one where he is somehow redeemed for just showing up.
But that’s just my interpretation of what was going on. The ambiguous story means that someone else’s take might be very different. There are no words telling you exactly what is happening, only brief glimpses of memories from the old man’s perspective. The gameplay and puzzle design act as something of a distraction, but not a frustration, while the game’s painted vistas and ambient music lull you to be almost meditative. The nature of the game invites you to be introspective, much like the old man you’re controlling.