This article was originally posted on The Oakland Press.
As a medium that values player interaction as a way to tell a story, video games tend to send the message that the choices we make are tremendously important. In some, a singular binary choice could mean the difference between saving the world and destroying it. We tend to look back on our decisions and say, “If I hadn’t done this a certain way, things could’ve turned out different.” “Journal,” a story-focused PC adventure game, explores the idea that our memories are fallible, and the novel idea that sometimes, our choices don’t amount to anything.
You play as a troubled young girl who opens her journal one day to find the pages blank. But you won’t be platforming around her house to find the missing memories. Recovering the pages is more about coming to terms with those memories than it is actually finding a lost item. In fact, there’s little physical interaction in the game. There’s a jump button, but it’s never really needed. Instead, the story progresses only as you talk to the other characters.
In the first chapter, a window is broken at the main character’s school, and her friend has taken the blame. As you talk to her and various other characters, it becomes clear the main character is the one who actually broke the window, but your choices affect whether she’s regretful, ambivalent, or defiant about doing it. The larger story deals with why the young girl seems to be acting out, and why she suffers from sudden panic attacks.
It’s an emotional story, and one that most people can relate to. But don’t check out Journal looking for a feel-good experience. The story touches on themes of loss: losing friends, losing family, losing innocence. I had a hard time sympathizing with the troublemaking main character, who seemed at times to be acting mean just for attention, but the game’s ending cast everything prior to it in a new light and affected me on a personal level.
The art style is unique, utilizing hand-painted backgrounds that look like a child’s artwork. The landscapes have a sort of lived-in quality to them that sometimes affects your progression; for example, a coffee stain on the picture might act as a roadblock and restrict your movement until certain story elements are revealed. It’s a cool effect, but ultimately you’re limited to traversing a two-dimensional plane through each picture, which keeps the story moving, sometimes literally, in a straight line.
Since there’s little opportunity for exploration, the story can be finished in about three hours. At a sale price of $10, it’s a good value. But be aware, this falls into the same category of recent titles like Gone Home that are less a game and more an “interactive narrative.”
Journal is an interesting story, and one that can really only be told through an interactive medium. I hope to see more experimental games like this in the future, maybe with a more polished and accessible presentation.
This review was written using a review code for “Journal,” provided by developer Locked Door Puzzle.