By Nathan Grayson on July 18th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Journal is the latest game from Richard Perrin, creator of brilliant abstract puzzle/madness-fest Kairo. It’s also absolutely nothing like Kairo – at least, on a surface level. Journal is the story of a young girl lost in a temple of trials that’s perhaps even more desolately lonely than Kairo’s cavernous halls: growing up. It’s an adventure about human relationships, but even with that in mind, Perrin’s main inspiration for it is anything but expected. Last year, he lost his father. The week Kairo launched, his world fell apart.
Richard Perrin is flitting from place-to-place like a mockingbird.
It’s Rezzed, and he’s either watching people play his latest game, Journal, fielding questions about it, or asking players questions of his own. His slice of booth is proving surprisingly popular, though not unmanageably so. This is Rezzed, after all. If E3 is the handshake followed by a knife between the ribs of game conventions, then Rezzed is the warm, intimate hug. There’s time for everyone, and Perrin’s making doubly sure of that.
Journal is a bit of an odd game to bring to any show floor, though – dimly lit insides brightened by a smiley sun of Good Feels or not. It’s about a young girl whose meticulously kept journal suddenly goes blank, but that conceit’s largely a vehicle to explore the everyday trails and tribulations of her and those around her. Journal is quiet, contemplative, and warrants a pair of extra-strength prescription reading glasses.
So I walk over to play it after wrapping up a hands-on session with Hotline Miami 2. Naturally.
It’s exceedingly simple – merely requiring me to walk between a few sidescrolling locales and converse with my character’s mother, awkward school friend Elena, and a park worker named John – but I find myself immediately growing fond of it. Instead of throwing me in a rotting drywall arena full of killers, it’s just… life. Sure, it’s no Gone Home, but that’s fine. It does its own thing. Journal puts a young girl through the hellacious woodchipper that is human relationships, and depending on the choices you make, she might not even end up entirely guilt-free herself. By the time I’m finished with day one, I’ve successfully accused a friend of a crime I probably committed and unknowingly made my mother upset about a romantic relationship that went sour.
Welcome to young adulthood. TURN BACK WHILE YOU STILL CAN.
I approach Perrin with a bit of friend-betrayal-based guilt weighing down my smile, but he greets me with fast-talking enthusiasm.
“Kairo actually came out of Journal failing on a previous attempt,” he says of his previous game, a highly abstract first-person puzzler, which I confess to being a pretty big fan of. “I was working on Journal with another artist, but it didn’t work out. I prefer to work with collaborators, but it just wasn’t happening. So I decided to work on a game on my own, and Kairo was three years of struggle of working on my own. It’s not really like, ‘Kairo and then onto this.’ Journal actually started first.”
Magnificent! It’s at this point, however, that things become exceedingly confusing, because you have to understand, these words stream out of him like a parade of giggling rainbows. Maybe he’s just caught up in the festivities, but his disposition quickly becomes rather at odds with his words. I ask him where exactly Journal came from, and he replies:
“So Kairo was a game about hope. The idea that when the worst has happened, there’s still hope. Journal is about the loss of hope. During the development of Kairo – last year – I lost my father. There’s a lot of issues in my own life that have come out of that, and I want to channel that into my work. I want to make a game about dealing with things that are impossible to deal with.”
“Finishing Kairo at the time when all that was happening was very difficult for me. It’s a game about hope, and I didn’t have much. Kairo shipped the week after my father died. It was the worst period of my life. There was nothing good. Kairo was a situation where it came out and people were like, ‘Oh, you must be so relieved to have it finished!’ But no. It was just numb. This horrible feeling. I had a pretty rough time, and rather than writing angsty poetry or Livejournal posts, I’m trying to focus that into Journal. Trying to share that with an audience.”
But still, he cracks jokes and occasionally chortles between whiplash-inducing sentences. I wonder if maybe he’s reached a point of acceptance, but no. It quickly becomes apparent that that’s not at all the case.
“I’m still dealing with [my father’s death],” he explains, speaking honestly but with startling rapidity. “It’s been a year, and it’s not been the best year of my life. All I can do now is capture some of that and share it through someone who isn’t exactly me. I mean, she’s a young girl. But it’s still trying to express some of the themes.”
“The demo, the first day, is just about dealing with a rumor about your friend, but I want to deal with the harder things – things that are especially difficult to deal with as a young child. How that effects you, how that makes life difficult for you. I want to express the things where it doesn’t feel like there’s hope. It doesn’t feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t feel like there’s going to be a happy ending. I mean, I don’t want Journal to be a tragedy, but I don’t want it to have a happy ending either. Life is tough and sometimes things are difficult to deal with. Sometimes you just can’t deal with them.”
I want to give him a hug. I don’t, because that’s not a terrifically reporterly thing of me to do. Also, because he continues to exude a frantic sort of energy, like a man possessed by his own ghosts. “Why a little girl?” I wonder aloud. Richard Perrin, for those wondering, is most certainly not a little girl.
“The themes I’m trying to deal with – issues of loss and alienation of friends – are universal in life,” he offers in reply. “But the thing about channeling it through a young girl is it allows me to do this progression of dealing with simple mundane things and then scaling upward into increasingly difficult things to deal with. Childhood innocence makes these issues even harder. You can sympathize, too. Seeing anyone struggling is tough, but seeing a child struggling is even harder.”
He’s also teaming up with artist/writer Melissa Royall, he explains, and since she’s handling the actual writing of dialog (on that end, Perrin’s only directing and deciding which issues the story deals with) the perspective makes more sense than, say, a young boy. He adds, however, that he doesn’t think the story would change all that much if he swapped the main character’s sex. Maybe Royall would disagree, maybe she wouldn’t. Sadly, she’s not in attendance.
But on that front, at least, things are good. Perrin’s working with other people again, and they can pick up the slack even when he’s having a down day. Journal’s taking shape nicely, too. It’s on track to release by the end of the year, if all goes according to plan.
So maybe, just maybe, things are looking up. His life hit its lowest point ever, but he’s finally finding a way to remove that noose from around his neck. It might sound cheesy, but Journal’s functioning for him in a way that an actual journal might for somebody else. He’s channeling his feelings into something good. Something he cares about. Difference is, this thing comes with the added bonus of being able to affect and even help people just like him. I suppose if I were in his shoes, I’d be pretty darn excited too.
“The games that mattered to me most growing up were the ones that told a story that reached me personally. I play a variety of games. I love action games, but they’re not the ones that leave me thinking for weeks afterward. I’m trying to make that experience where I connect with an audience.”
“Journal is the project I really always wanted to make.”