Fuzzy memories — An interview with the creators of Journal

This article was originally printed on my other website, The Dialogue Tree.

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As gamers, we’ve been trained to think that every choice we make shapes the world to our whims. With every decision, someone’s life hangs in the balance, a revolution may be sparked, or the fate of the multiverse may be concluded with a single button press. We’re so used to our power fantasies that it’s easy to feel entitled to that level of agency over our mini realities. You need look no further than the fan outcry following the ending of Mass Effect 3 to see evidence of that. Doubly so, since fans complained loud enough for BioWare to rewrite the ending to their own fiction.

But does this in any way resemble reality? Does it need to?

Richard Perrin doesn’t think so. With his upcoming game Journal, your choices may not shatter a universe, but they still tell a personal story with universal themes.

“I don’t think it’s honest to imagine the choices you make as a child necessarily have this huge impact on the world around you,” Perrin said. “If your parents want you to get a haircut and you throw a huge tantrum about it, you’ll probably still end up with the haircut but it would change how they talk to you later in the evening. Sure some choices are a bigger deal and have a more lasting impact, but I think it’s a very video game thing to imagine we get to change the world with our every choice.”

Developer Locked Door Puzzle begins by telling the story of girl who discovers that the pages in her journal have gone blank. In the basest sense, Journal is a story-focused adventure game. In the process of looking to recover those missing memories, you talk to people through dialogue tress who help you piece together a narrative.

How you choose to interact with those people is what shapes your personal version of the story. The end result of the story won’t necessarily be different, but your personal experience may be.

At its core, Journal is a game about the perception of memory. For the same reason, the actual conversations are not voice-acted, while the internal monologue is.

“The game is about recreating these journal pages, these moments in a girl’s life,” Perrin said. “So I want it to be not so much that she’s actually having these conversations so much as remembering them.”

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Perrin has been working on Journal in one form or another for a long time, but decided to revisit the project after completing his last game, Kairo. Perrin teamed up with friend Melissa Royal to write the dialogue for Journal. Perrin and Royall had previously worked together on a game for the Ludum Dare game jam.

Journal is purposefully vague about many of its plot points. It’s not clear if events actually happened as they’re remembered, or if it’s a self-rationalization.

There’s a certain ambiguity about the truth that comes with memory, and that’s something we’re trying to emphasise in the course of the game,” Royall said.

Though you have dialogue options when you talk to characters, you’re not inhabiting the main character of Journal as you would Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard. You’re experiencing the story with this agent as an extension of yourself.

“As many of the events that happen are mundane, everyday incidents, there’s probably a lot that a player could extrapolate from them to their own lives, but we’re trying to make it feel as though you’re seeing a window into someone else’s life rather than your own.”

Shrugging in the face of modern game design conventions, there won’t even be alternate endings.

“I think both Richard and I feel quite strongly that we don’t want the game to have multiple endings, as that would diminish the impact of the ‘true’ ending.”

“I don’t really want to give the game lots of branching endings in terms of the main story thrust because that wouldn’t feel right to me,” Perrins said. “The game is about the difficulties of childhood, how you deal with the problems you face and how you treat the people around you. The choices you make will affect your relationships with the characters and how they interact with you over the course of the game.”

Royall also worked on the “sketchy painting” aesthetic that lends itself to the game’s themes of memory remembered through the lens of childhood. While Royall wasn’t the first artist to work on Journal, she put her personal touch on the aesthetic.

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“Each of [the artists] has changed the look of the game slightly, though they all followed a similar theme,” Royall said. “Originally the game was much sketchier than it is now, more like ballpoint doodles than the coloured pencil look.”

Perrin said they’re hoping to launch Journal later this year on PC, Mac, and Linux, with the possibility of Android and iOS versions later on. Locked Door Puzzle’s last game, Kairo, is out on Steam on April 24th.

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