Old Man's Journey [official site] is a beautiful and thoughtful mild landscape puzzler which is at its best when it focuses on tiny details or on strange delights. The interaction can meander into dullness but there are moments of melancholy beauty to be found and which are arresting enough that it makes the whole thing worthwhile. Here's Wot I Think:
Old Man's Journey has you helping the character of an old man across terrain as he heads off on a memory-provoking trip. The exact purpose of the journey only reveals itself at the very end, but for the meat of the game it's a thread which binds together the vignettes which tell the major events of his life.
In order to navigate you use your mouse to drag pieces of scenery up or down until they overlap with one another. The old man can then use those intersections to hop from one layer of the vista to another which is an interesting perspective shift.
In terms of the interface, when you move segments a set of yellow lines is overlaid onto the screen which shows you which surfaces can be moved and little yellow blobs mark intersection points so there's more clarity as to whether the old man will be ale to move across your layout.
You can't twiddle with the layer you're currently standing on so for some puzzles you'll need to shuffle your grey-maned charge back and forth as you line up the pastures and mountains, or click a little flock of sheep so they get out of the way.
At its best it's a delight. I loved the section where the old man has boarded a truck and the truck vrooms along winding mountain roads in a really pleasing way as you drag them upwards and back down.
Other times it's a finicky frustration. A section with a train was prone to stop-starting in an irritating way because it was hard to make out my pastel-coloured mouse against the pastel-coloured scenery and thus I wasn't warping the land fast enough. There's also the problem where sometimes you'll click to move a sheep but it'll start the man ambling to that spot instead so you'll find yourself needing to undo that movement before doing the thing you intended.
The camera can also end up in some awkward spots, panning over to a different section of screen if you move too far or with a big chunk of land obscuring the screen for a little while because you've transitioned to a closer view while a swoop of hillside is in the way. I do wonder if this is a mechanic which is far nicer to use on touch screen, letting a child pull the ground this way and that with pudgy fingers or smoothing those bits out yourself while curled up on the sofa. On PC it just didn't really resonate.
Infinitely nicer are the tiny touches of animation or art. There was a moment – a tiny, tiny moment where the old man is suddenly in the eyeline of a young child as they both ride on the train and he does that little wave I always find myself doing when I meet a mischievous toddler's gaze on public transport. It was such an oddly familiar and human gesture and one I realised I haven't ever seen in a game before. He then turns and looks out of the window, remembering his own child. For me, those five seconds of a game that lasts maybe an hour would have made the entire thing worthwhile.
It's a slight game in some respects. The movement puzzles don't often feel like they add anything to the experience other than keeping you busy with "interaction" and the conclusion felt… rushed? I'm not sure if I quite mean rushed in the sense that it was fast, but it felt like it didn't have the emotional punch of some previous moments and that if you wanted that melancholy jolt you'd have to work for it. Without going full spoilers I'd say it's a section where I would have preferred the game dictate the pace rather than allowing the player to click through to make progress because I think lingering the wrong amount of time or failing to linger at all would both affect the emotion there. I also think having to cede control would be meaningful.
In terms of the overall experience, I found that although the game itself could stray into dullness or sentimentality, the artwork was consistently wonderful. A storm which sent the waves crashing against cliffs felt appropriately blustery and perilous, while a vignette set on a voyage far North had an absolutely stunning ethereal beauty and a contrasting human element which expressed an emotional cocktail of a complexity I don't associate with games. I've set that one as my desktop wallpaper because it felt important and beautiful.
Oh, and the hot air balloon segment! So pretty!
And so, Old Man's Journey is a game with all of these prickles of delight but where the interstitial matter often feels humdrum. It's short enough that you can still pick those delights out even if you're not satisfied with the rest of the interactions, but you can't help but wonder, what if it had found a way to make the whole thing shine?
Old Man's Journey is out now - it's £5.03 on Steam with the launch discount (£5.59 normally) as well as being available for mobile via the Apple and Android stores.