Ever since I played Dear Esther I’ve been on a quest to figure out why it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not like I don’t enjoy exploration games, indeed I’ve played numerous since then and typically found them to be quite entertaining, and you don’t have to look far to figure out that I’d favour a good story over game play. Dear Esther then should’ve been right up my alley but something about it just made me hate it in a way that I haven’t felt for many other games. Playing through Journal though revealed where my frustrations came from: the deliberately vague and abstruse way the story was delivered. Where Dear Esther frustrated though Journal used to great effect, although not without some initial frustration.
You wake up one morning to find your journal, the precious record of all your thoughts and experiences, mysteriously blank. Venting your frustrations to your mother seems to lead to no where and as far as you can tell everything else seems to be going on as normal. However it becomes clear that more things are happening outside the world that’s being presented to you, things that are having a big impact on everyone around you. It doesn’t seem to be changing you however something which seems to be equal parts weird and strangely welcoming.
Journal’s art is interesting as it feels like you’re playing through a cartoon of someone’s drawings in their diary. I can’t say that it’s hugely impressive, especially with the rudimentary animation and effects employed, but that’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from a game of this nature. The small circus sections serve as a visual break between sections, a good inclusion that heaps alleviate the fact that Journal heavily reuses nearly all the scenes throughout the entire game.
Mechanically Journal is a puzzler, requiring you to figure out who needs to be talked to, what needs to be said and which outcome you’re looking to achieve. In this respect it’s pretty simple as all you have to do is figure out who you haven’t talked to yet and go through the motions with them. Indeed even if you manage to forget exactly what it is you were supposed to be doing one of the characters will likely turn you around in the right direction which makes the pacing of Journal much more steady than other games in the genre. You’re also given a wide selection of dialog options to choose from which will shape what the story ultimately becomes.
Unfortunately Journal feels a little awkward mechanically as the main ways of interacting with it are always a little off. Things like the inclusion of a jump mechanic, which seems to have no other function but to give you something to do between scenes, make you think there are more puzzle elements than there actually are. Additionally the dialog options are hidden by summaries that are way too short to predict how your character is going to react and you’ll often find yourself wondering how the option you chose lead to the things your character said. This might be intentional (as I’ll talk about in a bit) but it still feels like this is a known anti-pattern in game design, one that needs to avoided at all costs.
From the onset it’s clear that the game isn’t telling you everything as there’s references to things that have happened or are in the process of happening that you don’t see. This is fine when it doesn’t involve your character, you can’t be there for every little plot detail, however since the whole story is centred on you this means the initial parts of the story are thoroughly confusing. Indeed even whilst you’re given control over how all the conversations play out it’s quite clear that one of the options is the “true and correct” one while the others lead to situations that just don’t quite to fit with reality. This also leads to your character being almost completely unrelatable for the majority of the game only coming together right at the end.
POTENTIAL PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
It’s obvious after the first couple days that this is a fantasy world, one that’s being recreated to fit an idealistic world created by the main protagonist, but the lack of critical information means that the majority of the initial story is just plain confusing. Whilst I was able to relate to the character’s struggles after the big reveal I could in no way do that before I knew what could lead someone to act in such random and unpredictable ways. To be fair it does represent the struggle that teenagers face, dealing with adult emotions yet not having the tools to both express and understand them completely, however that doesn’t mean it makes for good story telling. The pay off somewhat makes up for this but that doesn’t stop the majority of the game from feeling like a chore.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Journal is an incredibly personal story that reflects upon life’s greater themes through the eyes of someone who is not yet equipped to deal with them. The concepts are great however the game falls short of delivering a good experience with the main character obliterating any sense of relatability early on and the story remaining utterly confusing until the very end. Journal is a game that I want to like a lot more than I do but it’s incredibly hard to look past the faults even if the story will strike a chord with many of us. I bought Journal on the back that it was made by the man behind Kairo and, honestly, I can only recommend you do the same if you are also a fan.
Journal is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.7 hours with 60% of the achievements unlocked.