Review: Old Man’s Journey | A Bittersweet Symphony

old man's journey

TITLE: Old Man’s Journey
DEVELOPER: Broken Rules
PUBLISHER: Broken Rules
SERIES: N/A
RELEASED: May 2017
GENRE: Indie Puzzle
CONSOLE: PC (Steam)

KEY INFO: Casual games, single player, ‘puzzle adventure’, visual narrative, art aesthetics, short games, emotional

Synopsis: Old Man’s Journey, a soul-searching puzzle adventure, tells a story of life, loss, reconciliation, and hope. Entrenched in a beautifully sunkissed and handcrafted world, embark on a heartfelt journey interwoven with lighthearted and pressure-free puzzle solving.

A visual narrative about life’s precious moments, broken dreams, and changed plans, uncover stories of the old man’s life told through beautiful vignettes of his memories. Interacting with the serene and whimsical environment, solve playful puzzles by shaping the landscape, growing the hills to create the old man’s path forward.

During this compact gameplay experience, you’ll be transported to a vibrant and wishful world, exploring life’s complexities through the old man’s eyes. Meditatively delightful and reflective, Old Man’s Journey invites you to immerse yourself in quiet and inquisitive puzzles, and experience the old man’s heartache, regret, and hope.

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Old Man’s Journey is without a doubt one of the most beautifully cozy games that I have played, producing an immersive gaming experience which was relaxing and enchanting. It is a short game which can be played through in one sitting, taking me only 1.5 hours to complete, but was entirely satisfying. There is so much to love about Old Man’s Journey and I came incredibly close to giving it 5 stars yet there was something about the storyline that struck a wrong chord with me and resulted in me downgrading the overall rating to 3 stars.

So much to love…

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It’s difficult to know where to begin when talking about the positives of the game because there are just so many from the emotional story and stunning aesthetics to the clever puzzles and memorable experience. Overall, Old Man’s Journey is a pretty perfect package and a game that I would highly recommend to anyone, regardless of their interest/skills in games.

Our old man’s journey starts when he receives a letter at home which troubles him so much that he immediately sets off on a long journey with nothing but his backpack and walking stick. We accompany the Old Man as he travels through different picturesque settings, controlling him through simple point-and-click mechanics to help him navigate a series of 3D landscape-related puzzles. There is no tutorial, no text and no speech. Instead, players must experiment by moving through the 3D landscape and clicking on different objects and manipulating the landscape to solve the puzzles and complete the scene.

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Whilst there are no hints provided on how to solve each scene, the puzzles themselves aren’t too difficult. I am terrible at most puzzle games, often getting stuck for long periods of time and resorting to looking at cheat guides. However, I managed to progress through most scenes with ease and only got stuck once or twice on sections which I could figure out through experimenting with the scenery.

One of the reasons why the puzzles aren’t too difficult is that Old Man’s Journey prioritizes its emotional narrative over game mechanics, allowing the player to really experience and feel the game. At the end of each scene, we are treated to a beautiful cut-scene of the old man’s memories which give us clues about his life, his journey and where he might be headed. Presented as animated postcards, we piece together the old man’s life as he moves across the world heading to his final destination and at each stop we experience something different – regret, happiness, grief, love, hope…

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The style of the game was just so unique and so beautiful that it left me quite breathless not only whilst I was playing it but even now whilst I write this review. Looking back at screenshots and gifs of scenes from the game instantly transports me back to that beautifully calm place. With this combination of the artwork, soundtrack, story-writing and game mechanics it’s easy to see how and why Old Man’s Journey won so many awards in so many different categories.

 

…yet something was amiss. 

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It took me such a long time to work up to writing this review because I felt so completely conflicted about Old Man’s Journey. I hope that in my comments above you can get a sense for just how much I enjoyed this game and appreciated it on many different levels. One of the elements that did stand out to me was the gorgeous writing which was especially pleasing for a game that has no text or spoken word. However, there was something about the story that just didn’t sit right for me. 

Before I go on to explain my issues with the story, there are two quick disclaimers to give. Firstly, this section has major spoilers for the story itself and secondly, my response comes from my own life experiences as someone raised by a single mother.

The TL: DR version of Old Man’s Journey is that he receives a letter from his daughter who informs him that her mother (his wife/ex-wife) is dying and he needs to come quickly to say goodbye. As we accompany the old man on his journey, his still-life flashbacks paint us a picture of regret and sorrow. We watch as a young sailor falls in love with a beautiful young woman, gets married, has a little girl and seems to have the perfect life.

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Yet, the man can’t resist the lure of the sea and it’s not long before he’s plotting long sea journeys around the world again, leading to arguments and (eventually) the man leaving his home to go follow his dreams (or whatever). For the next few flashbacks, we see the man living up his life and experiencing unforgettable experiences yet there’s something missing… his family. By the time he journeys home, his wife and daughter are gone. The house is crumbling and there’s no note left behind. The man builds his own house on the edge of the cliff by the sea and lives alone into his old age.

This is the story we unravel as we push the old man onwards through sunny fields and stormy seas until he reaches his final destination – a room where his wife lays on her deathbed with their daughter watching over. Once the wife/mother passes away, there’s a moment of hesitation and grief. Our old man stands by, unsure of where this path will now lead him after all the wrong’s he has caused his daughter. But fear not! The last scene of the game depicts the old man on a boat with his sea-loving daughter and his grandchild as they set off on a new journey of their own together.

Boy does that make me feel complicated. 

On the one hand, I appreciated being able to accompany an older character as they looked back at their life and the decisions that they made. As someone who is (almost) 27 years old, there is still a lot I have left to learn and experience. I have no concept of what it would be like to make decisions about having a child or working through a marriage that is struggling or what it would be like to walk away from that life. But I do have experience of what it is like to have an absent father and this is where my difficulty with the story really resides. In this case, a father made the decision to leave behind his family so that he could return to the sea, only to return to find that his family had moved on. Once the mother, seemingly the source of the family tensions, has passed away the old man can finally reunite with his daughter. This is the thing that really upset me.

We live in a world where men can pretty much do what they want and not have to face the same consequences as women. We see fathers walk out on their families (or are asked to leave/are left for various reasons), leaving their children to be raised by single mothers and who later want to be able to come back into their children’s lives with minimal/no consequences. We see fathers who are “prevented” from accessing their children by mothers who end up being blamed. And we see stories which villanize mothers who are absent for work or other reasons who are depicted as selfish women who abandon their children and should never be forgiven, whilst many fathers who behave in the same way as someone who should be allowed to come back because he “regrets” his earlier decisions.

Whilst I recognize that these situations are not as black and white as I am depicting them here, I think that short games/stories which depict family relationships like this also lack nuance because there just isn’t enough time to go into the issue with any real depth and this was a real problem for me. When I realized where the story was headed my enjoyment of the game plummeted, the colorful pastel scenes no longer comforting but achingly bittersweet, the ending left me frustrated rather than warm.

 

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I want so much to be able to experience and remember Old Man’s Journey as the beautiful and award-winning game that other players experienced. I want to be able to step away from myself and into the Old Man’s world, opening myself up to his life experiences and allowing myself to enjoy the happy ending but sadly I just don’t think I can.

I would still 100% recommend Old Man’s Journey, especially as my take seems to be in an almost non-existent minority, and would love to hear other people’s thoughts on the game. In so many ways Old Man’s Journey truly is a masterpiece that can be played by all, regardless of your video game background/skills, and is a piece of art just waiting for you to step into. 


EST. 2015 (1)

 

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2 thoughts on “Review: Old Man’s Journey | A Bittersweet Symphony

  1. This is a great review and thanks for sharing your own thoughts on the story! I enjoyed this game well enough, but I felt like it was a bit too short. Make it too long and the game risks overstaying its welcome, but I felt like the puzzle mechanics were ultimately underutilized and there could have been so much more done with them with just another 30 minutes to an hour of game time. While I agree with your assessment that the narrative was given precedence over the puzzle mechanics, it would have been nice to see a bit more of the puzzles than we ultimately did.

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