Wot I Think: Journal

By John Walker on February 19th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

In 2011/12, Richard Perrin and his Locked Door Puzzle studio brought us the enigmatic and fascinating Kairo. Journal is utterly dissimilar – a minimalist adventure game about teenage life and loss, driven by conversation choices rather than puzzles or inventories. As RPS’s oldest teenager, here’s wot I think:

The largest issue with Journal is, well, I think this Mr Show sketch cruelly says it best:

It’s impossible to shake the sense that this is a story about teenage life written from the perspective of adults who think they know better. It’s a sad story, and it’s very obviously a personal story, and in that sense it feels awful to be critical of the project. But, critical I’m going to be. Puppies, I will stamp on them.

You play a young, probably teenage girl, rendered in pencil-crayon animation in a pencil crayon world. You walk her through a portion of her life, at home, in school, and the surrounding town, and on the way you make choices about how she responds to situations, which shapes the story as you experience it. It is, in concept, a charming idea. In delivery, however, it isn’t strong enough.

This isn’t a world of teenagers. It’s instead a deluded Judy-Blume-esque fantasy of teenage life, where your pubescent friends endlessly pass on pearls of wisdom. For example, when you first speak to your oldest friend Elena about how much homework she does, she replies, “It’s better than getting into trouble. Besides, I don’t mind it. Most of it is interesting.” And this No Adults Allowed vibe is really not helped by getting an obviously adult woman to voice the main teenage character.

However, perhaps the hardest narrative element to swallow here is the selective amnesia. You’re playing a girl who remembers her friends, her life, her school, but has somehow forgotten particular things she said or did as recently as yesterday. So, there was a maths test a few days ago. Your character apparently doesn’t know how it went, and seemingly isn’t aware that she cheated on it until she talks to the person from whom she got the answers, where she is the one to bring up what she did. It’s partially explained by the end, but not in a way that makes sense of things like the example above. I suppose it’s an attempt to have the player discover the events as the narrative progresses, but it creates the weirdest disconnect, with the constant sense that the game is just disinterested in your comprehension of it.

There’s also little logic to how choices progress. Throughout you make decisions about how you’ll approach situations. Shall you push this one particular guy toward Catherine or Anne? Those are the options presented, and you’re not given reason to want to do neither. Do one of the other and apparently your character is distraught, the game then only giving you options to be “bitter” or “dismissive” about the situation. Unless this is supposed to be a particularly mean parody of the fickle ways of teenage girls – which its sincere tone suggests it’s not – it just doesn’t make sense. Her diary entry for the day of the encouraging reads:

“It felt good to encourage Anne, even if Catherine would be furious about it. I hope she makes a decision she’s happy with.”

The next day she writes,

“Keith wanted to thank me for helping him find a girlfriend, but it just made me feel worse about it. I was pretty upset about what happened with Keith. I knew he didn’t like me the way I liked him, but it still hurt to think about it.”

Huh?

Then there’s the ‘sage’ advice, unendingly poured from adults and delivered as if in an infomercial. Like your older friend John letting you know that hey, school’s not so bad!

“Trust me, I’m not so old I can’t remember what it was like! But when you’re older, you’ll be thankful for what you learned at school.”

I sat through fourteen years of ninety-percent utter rubbish, and reflect on school – at which I was mostly proficient – as a cruel waste of my time and potential. But such a notion is dismissed by the plastic-grinned nostalgia. This is a low blow, but it sounds like something someone would say on The Archers.

Bigger subjects like the main character’s parents’ divorce also feel clumsily handled. We’re asked to believe that this is the first time she’s given the break-up any depth of thought, and the way she’s treated by both her mother and father seems to wildly fluctuate between the way they would talk about it to a cartoon seven year old, and to a cartoon sixteen year old. It’s rife with cliché, and as a result, feels trite. This is a girl experiencing the concept of divorce in a vacuum, with no perspicacity of the ubiquity of the circumstances. So rather than exploring her own personal devastation, she’s instead bemused by the concepts. She cannot comprehend the notion of parents moving on, rather than struggling with her dad’s moving on.

As I say, this is clearly a deeply personal project. Co-creator Richard Perrin has spoken about how much of it was inspired by his misery after the death of his father. It’s obviously a game that was cared about very much in many ways. But it is, I’m afraid, a game whose voice didn’t work. And since the game has no other interaction but for moving the character through the town and engaging in conversations, that those conversations feel specious is extremely problematic. It’s an ersatz world, and this removes the potential power of the game’s final reveal.

I’m aware that this review is a little like standing up at a funeral to critique the eulogy, and I feel like a dick. But it’s also a commercial product (on Steam for £6.29), for sale. Perrin is clearly enormously talented, as was shown by 2012′s excellent Kairo, but Journal is a labour of love that, at least for me, hasn’t come together.

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15 Comments »

  1. Buttless Boy says:

    That’s a shame, I was hoping this would be a good one. There’s not enough interesting stuff like this in commercial games, it’s pretty much entirely relegated to Twine and short indie projects. I’d love to see a longer, more detailed story about this sort of thing (growing up, family, etc) than what we’ve had so far.

    On an almost unrelated note but I’m gonna mention it ’cause it’s my post dammit, your reactions to this sound a lot like my reactions to Gone Home. Although the writing was always adequate, and the plot itself rather wonderful, I felt like the way it was presented was obnoxious and heavy handed. The entirely unnecessary narration just confounded me. Instead of letting me figure things out myself, which would have been, you know, FUN, the game just shoved the whole story down my throat. Wish I’d known ahead of time how much better it would be with the sound turned off… Except then I would have missed the awesome music and that would have been a shame.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Jeez, if you thought Gone Home was heavy-handed I dread to think what you’d make of some of the movies I mention in my post down below. I really, really liked Gone Home, but I’d happily admit it’s very often not particularly subtle – yet that isn’t always the same thing as heavy-handed. Someone makes what is arguably a really stupid decision at the end of that game, if you look at it from an “adult” perspective, yet the game isn’t remotely interested in pushing that idea on you. There’s looking at how a teenager views the world – all the good and the bad their particular worldview can see them end up doing – and there’s passing judgement on it, intentionally or otherwise, with all the delicacy and grace of a Very Special Episode. John makes it sound like Journal skews heavily towards the latter. For all Gone Home’s flaws it hardly ever went there, if at all.

      • Buttless Boy says:

        I meant that it was heavy-handed in its presentation, as opposed to Journal which is apparently heavy-handed in its judgment. The way Gone Home simply stated every revelation via the narration instead of letting me find out naturally by listening to tapes and stuff was aggravating, but I never felt like it was beating me over the head with any message or moral. For me it really undermined the whole game, all that telling instead of showing (actually it was more like telling and then showing anyway… Not sure if that’s worse or better).

        But it’s definitely a different problem. Gone Home seemed to think I was stupid and needed the plot explained to me, while Journal apparently seems to think its protagonist/teenagers in general are stupid and need life explained to her/them. I’m more comfortable with Gone Home’s assumption, but it still bugged me. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have tried to shoehorn in my opinion on Gone Home under this article, but it felt like it fit at the time. :)

    • The Random One says:

      You can turn off the narration in Gone Home, so you wouldn’t even have to miss out on the soundtrack!

      If only we knew that back then. But we were only kids.

  2. Eight Rooks says:

    Very good review. I haven’t played it, so I can’t offer an opinion on the game, but when I reviewed films – and so watched a hell of a lot of them in any given year – one of the things that used to drive me up the wall was those directors who obviously dearly wanted to say something profound and moving about adolescence but made the mistake of pitching it as an adult now convinced all teenagers were irredeemably stupid and needed to have this pointed out patiently and at excruciating length. (As opposed to the ones who acknowledged that teenagers were perfectly capable of doing incredibly stupid things but that this didn’t automatically make them stupid, or their experiences trite or ephemeral.) They plainly meant well, but the over-riding tone of “Oh, you’ll look back in a few years and laugh” just became insufferable.

    So, yeah, I find your take on Perrin’s game all too plausible and your arguments well put. The art had me wavering – I really don’t care for it – but this has basically convinced me I’d be better off giving it a miss. A shame. Never finished Kairo, but I liked what I saw of it a lot, and I was quite hoping there would be something in this for me. Guess not.

    • Widthwood says:

      Those movies were probably targeted at adults, not teenagers – so directors position was more in line with what audience might think… The same is true with this game – judging by John’s review a lot of people will probably be perfectly okay with it.

      Now that I think of it, as a kid/teenager I watched a lot of cartoon shows, and was about equally fond of for example Ed Edd n Eddy and Hey Arnold – even though the latter was definitely completely unrealistic and shoved its moral lessons with every episode.

      SO maybe only adults with better than average memory fall outside the target audience here :)

    • GardenOfSun says:

      I completely agree. The game lost me immediately as soon as John mentioned the “you’ll be thankful for school” line.

      • sinister agent says:

        Even if I hadn’t felt it strongly all the way through school, I’ve since worked in far too many “educational” establishments to think of school as anything other than total bullshit. Was never shy about saying as much to students, either. They already know, and if you pretend otherwise they’ll just lump you in with the other dickheads.

        Still. A shame if this game did indeed fall into that. It sounds like it at least has its heart in the right place. Better luck next time.

  3. jorygriffis says:

    No! I was on the eighteenth hole!

  4. allanschnorr says:

    Good review, I agree with you about the game. I bought it just to support Richard Perrin because I felt I paid too little for Kairo (I bought it for next to nothing in a Steam sale), and although I didn’t have high expectations, I was at least expecting an enjoyable game.

  5. ChrisGWaine says:

    “Unless this is supposed to be a particularly mean parody of the fickle ways of teenage girls – which its sincere tone suggests it’s not – it just doesn’t make sense.”

    I’m not sure quite what was going on there either, but I think it could make sense that the protagonist is supposed to have gone from being happy to think of herself as having done a good deed for someone else and then selfishly regretting it when the she sees the result and it makes her jealous, without this being intended to be a mean parody.

  6. ronerberg says:

    Great review, and great parallel with the Mr. Show skit. I can’t stand adults’ presentation of what “kidz” like. So cringe. Honestly, I thought Gone Home was pretty vanilla, and this seems like bleached white vanilla icecream melting into a sea of milk.

  7. frightlever says:

    FWIW, rumour has it that Kairo is part of blinkbundle2, which goes live in a few hours.Their first bundle was great, this one doesn’t look so good, so far.

    http://blinkbundle.com/

  8. sinister agent says:

    I’ve not played this, so you could be completely wrong, but I respect the stance taken. Reasoned criticism of a commercial game isn’t being a dick – it’s good reviewing.

    I think i’d probably still feel like a dick though, too. Logic! It does nothing.

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