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.”
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.