It’s a tale as old as time: boy meets girl, boy starts a beautiful family… boy leaves them behind to go sailing for 10+ years?
Old Man’s Journey
May 18, 2017
Old Man’s Journey is the story of a salt-weathered old sea captain living in a coastal cabin atop a steep cliff. One day, the Old Man is delivered a letter that inspires him to set out on a pilgrimage across the countryside. He travels towards his unnamed destination by foot, train, truck, and boat, while the player is tasked with guiding the Old Man through colorful landscapes by rearranging the hills to create connected paths.
While there’s no tutorial, the system is intuitive and the puzzles are straightforward without being repetitive or boring. Natural surfaces like hills and cliffs are movable, but concrete, metal, or stone surfaces provide an immobile framework for every level. In the playful world of Old Man’s Journey, waterfalls become slides and quaint ponds become portals to creative underwater levels, where the player must move aside old sunken ships to unveil the path ahead. The gameplay is delightfully consistent while throwing in interesting variations; under the player’s guidance, the Old Man opens vaults, connects train tracks, and herds sheep.
At the end of each level, the Old Man stops to take a rest. While he settles in on a bench, chair, or a nice flat rock, the camera pans out to give the player a better view of the surrounding landscape. The aesthetic of every level is pleasing to the eye, and the cute art and expressive characters call to mind a children’s picture book combined with the interactive nature that makes video games a unique and influential medium. To use the words of the developers, Old Man’s Journey is “beautifully sunkissed” and “meditatively delightful.”
As the rich colors of the backgrounds in Old Man’s Journey soak through the screen, the Old Man begins to reminisce. The screen fades and we get small snippets of his past through intricate flashback images.
The story is wordless, but clear.
While the puzzles grow slightly more complex as the journey goes on, they never bring the player to a point of frustration. What did frustrate me, though, was the plot of Old Man’s Journey. I found myself guessing from the beginning that his journey would have a sad ending, and I was frustrated with the base premise of the game. This poor old man is walking across the countryside (most likely towards a less than fantastic fate), regretting the decisions he’s made in life that have taken him away from the family he once had.
From that perspective, the message is clear: don’t gamble the things you already have on a dream.
But from the viewpoint of a twenty-something struggling with the idea of finding my life’s greatest “passions,” the message turns sour. What I see is a man that has an unshakeable love for sailing, but is unable to compromise to ensure that both sailing and his family remain in his life.
Do some deeper digging, though, and you’ll find that the developer’s notes say that the team behind the game was “inspired to create Old Man’s Journey upon struggling to find balance in their own lives between family, career, and following their dreams”. With that in mind, Old Man’s Journey becomes a story that warns against ultimatums and encourages its players to avoid the common misconception that it’s impossible to do what you love and be with who you love at the same time. They want players to take note of the Old Man’s mistakes, in hopes of helping us avoid making those same mistakes in our own lives.
The ending to Old Man’s Journey is bittersweet, and that’s how it left me feeling, too—which, it turns out, might just have been the developer’s intention all along. How clever!