Season: A Letter To The Future review: a melancholy travelogue of a gorgeous post-war world
A new cycle begins
Season: A Letter To The Future begins with a goodbye. You wander around your home for the last time, choosing five objects which inspire deep memories that spur each of the five senses. You then place them into a cauldron one by one, your mother keeping a watchful eye. The ritual comes to an end and the result is a small glowing pendant that will protect you from the dangers of the outside world. “You must promise me never to take the pendant off,” your mother says. The Goodbye ritual is finished, and you leave, knowing you’ll never see your mother or your hometown ever again, all as the prophecy foretold.
It’s a fantastic - if sad - start to Season, and gets straight to the heart of the adventure ahead of you. This is a world where prayers, rituals, and prophecies hold great weight, and where you'll be exploring the fragility and fickleness of memory. Underpinning everything is a deeply profound sense of melancholy - and here I was expecting some relaxing two-wheeling through lovely-looking landscapes. Well, turns out Season is a lot more than a pretty travelogue.
You play as Estelle, a young woman who sets off to record the last moments of the titular 'season'. In this world, a season is best understood as a period in history, and right now the current season is ending. Setting off on her bicycle - not exactly sure where she’s going or what to expect - she arrives at Tieng Valley, a giant gorge that will soon be the casualty of a flood of biblical proportions. She decides to explore the valley on its last day, recording as much of this curious place as she can to preserve its memory for future generations.
Hopping on your bike and cycling around is an absolute treat, and simple controls make peddling easy work. There’s no order or itinerary to what you do, giving you free rein to follow your nose, cycling around the valley until you find something that piques your curiosity and stop for a look-see. You'll be stopping a lot because Season is, in two words, bloody gorgeous. During my first free-wheeling descent into the valley, my eyes had a major workout. A majestic, stone temple to the east, twinkling lights from deep within a forest to the west, a giant stone head of a god resting on an upcoming hillside, a humble farm with cows and goats resting on an embankment, and so, so much more. Landmarks jutting out from the horizon are just begging to be explored.
Preserving the memory of each area means whipping out some equipment. First up is your polaroid camera which lets you snap limitless pictures. You also have a tape recorder to record noises like the chirping of a bird, running water in a nearby river, the twinkling of chimes - whatever noise strikes you. There are also small objects to pick up - flowers, stamps, photographs, letters, and the like - to embellish your findings. All of these can then be arranged in your scrapbook, with two pages dedicated to each area you visit. There's a certain number of things you have to collect to complete an area, so to speak, but otherwise you're free to add, arrange and accumulate as much as you can fit on the pages. With a final flourish from Estelle’s sketches and written words, everything builds up into a visually pleasing record of the place you’re in. I honestly loved the scrapbooking in Season. Delicately arranging all the photos you've taken and the stuff you've found is fun and makes you reflect on your playthrough. All the cool places you've visited are perfectly preserved within the book's pages.
After visiting a few areas, chatting with the valley's remaining folks and filling out your scrapbook with found treasures, a bigger picture starts to present itself. Why is this season ending, and more importantly, what's causing it to end? In this way, Season is as much a mystery game as it is a gentle bike sim. Within the first 30 minutes, you learn that the previous season was one of a great war that shook the world, so there’s a lot of pain and trauma in the stories you collect. Eventually, the reason behind the end of this season becomes clear, a tale that's artfully told through the people you meet, and the memories you collect.
Indeed, you can feel the desperation of people wanting to move on from the letters, notes, diaries, and charms you find, but they also reveal that the valley's residents aren't quite sure how to do that. People want to be free from the past and look toward a brighter future, and there's a poignancy in only being able to record these memories rather than take concrete actions to address them. After all, your concern isn’t really about why the war started or what happened, but more about how its ripples can be felt right now in the present. Recording the landscape and the collective memory of its people is how you’re preserving this valley.
This post-war story was the last thing I expected from a pretty bicycle game. The way its story unfolds feels highly engrossing, like watching a photograph slowly develop until you have a complete picture of this curious, beautiful place. It’s all told very poetically and at a deliberately relaxed pace, too, which might not be for everyone. This isn’t a game where you can pop a rad wheelie or yeet yourself off a ramp-shaped cliff, Evel Knievel-style.
I don't think people would expect those kinds of GTA pranks from Season in the first place, but there is something about it that's still quite hard and difficult to pin down. I'm treading lightly here as I don't want to spoil much. There’s lots of talk of gods, rituals, and dreams. There are flowers that capture the sounds of people’s past lives and documents that warn of a dream sickness. It's a strange intersection of beauty and weirdness, and personally I'm utterly in love with it. Some of my favourite moments were snapping a pic of a smashed vending machine that had been turned into a shrine for a dead loved one, or meeting a monk who, instead of traditional robes, wore polka dot socks and a bright pink trench coat around his shoulders. Giant metal cranes covered in brown rust and ivy are treated with the same grandeur and brilliance as the holiest of shrines. A scene that will always stick with me is coming across an empty, derelict car park filled with soldiers stuck in an eternal slumber, each one laid to rest in their own parking space. It’s beautiful, dream-like, and completely grim all at the same time.
It may be thematically dense, but crucially, Season never overwhelms you with too much information at once. Instead, it drip-feeds the history of Tieng Valley in manageable chunks, and gives you plenty of room to ponder, absorb and come to your own conclusions about how its people are gradually untangling themselves from their past. Sometimes, forgetting is as easy as snuffing out a candle's flame, other times it’s not just about mentally moving on, but physically moving on at the same time. And there are moments when you simply don’t have a choice in the matter, unable to release the memories you hold tightly within a fist. Grief is weird in that way.
Ultimately, Season is a mercurial game that will likely hit different for everyone who plays it. For some, it will be about how the meaning of certain places change over time; for others, it will be a study of how communities can continually build on top of themselves - how what was once the sacred grounds for a god can become a tourist attraction with car parks and gift shops, then a warzone filled with bloodshed, a landscape haunted by a melancholic past, before finally settling into a soon-to-be sunken town lost to a watery grave. Season is a striking portrait of place that's wonderful to explore, and the tools it gives to you chronicle that journey do a brilliant job of letting you forge deep, personal connections with its world. Everything will be swept away in the flood, but Season ends on a hopeful note: even when it seems like everything is gone, something will always remain.