By Jen Carman on January 13, 2015 at 2:49am
During the Steam Summer and Winter Sales, I try to expand my gaming resume. It’s a perfect time for it because the great deals allow you to take that leap with a new genre or lesser known title without all that financial commitment. When I browse the sales, I try not to let the category or tags dictate my choices. I’m a little timid about trying new games (I’m not sure why), so sometimes something that is visually original in some way makes starting a new title easier for me.
And that is how “Journal” caught my eye.
This interactive storytelling game by developer Locked Door Puzzle is very pretty. The environment is depicted as watercolor or pastel drawings in a notebook on someone’s desk. Your character, a young, unnamed girl, moves from page to page in the notebook as you guide her through the neighborhood. The majority of most of the scenes are still-frames except for a few objects that flicker between two sketched versions, giving the otherwise static locations a bit of movement.
The premise of the game is…well…in the beginning you don’t know. “Journal” opens with the girl in her room and all you know from the opening narration is that the writing in her diary has disappeared. As you move from scene to scene and talk to different people, you get the feeling that there are pieces of this story that are not being revealed and they never are. That makes the game a little frustrating and, honestly, to me a bit boring. If I can’t get a feeling for what is going on and can’t even be sure of where I should go next, then I end up wandering and rehashing conversations I’ve already read through until I stumble upon the one little option I missed.
I suppose the disjointedness of the story being reflected in the fractured landscape depicted in the illustrations you travel through is neat, but you’re still sort of flailing in the wind. That is until some journal pages flutter by overhead in said wind. This happens four or five times during the course of the game once you’ve encountered the required conversations to complete the story portion for that day. Following the pages leads you back home to watch a shadow-box short story about an event at a circus. These shorts are also very pretty and an interesting way to drive the main story forward…though I was never really sure where they were driving it. The only one that seems to relate directly to the story is the very last scene and you don’t realize how until you’ve completed the game. Once I uncovered the ending and, I suppose, understood why the main character had been acting out so much (breaking windows, cheating on tests, stealing), I still didn’t really understand the connections to the first few circus shadow-box shorts.
Speaking of acting out, you basically cannot chose not to. The broken window and the cheating happened before the game began, but the stealing happens without any input from you, the player. At one point you tell a policewoman that, “No, Officer, I haven’t heard or seen anything about the theft but I will surely let you know if I do,” and immediately after that conversation the character admits to the player that she had, in fact, taken the item because she just couldn’t imagine living without it. The choices you make during the story do not seem to change the outcome of anything at all, not just the ending. I played through twice, first making an effort to apologize and fix all of the bad decisions the girl had already made (the game still made me steal the item) and then again with the intention of making all those bad decisions even worse. The only change was that a boy at school ended up dating the snobby, popular girl instead of the sweet, smart girl and I discovered that I could get into a locked classroom. Turns out that classroom didn’t have more game in it, just a secret, immediate ending with a music video about a beret. The ability to get into the room wasn’t a result of my changed decisions; you just have to play through a second time to reveal that conversation option.
I understand what this game is trying to be. I understand the emotions and the solitude it is trying to convey, but you only figure any of that out after you play through the ending which completely blind-sided me rather than connecting me emotionally to the protagonist that I was basically annoyed with the entire game. I can't be more specific without spoilers and if you want to give "Journal" a try I do want to leave the big reveal for you to experience for yourself.
This game is beautiful, the voice acting is fine for a bratty, angsty, clueless teenage girl, but I really wish the story was as interesting as the art.