Old Man's Journey is a simple yet charming game that recently launched on PC and mobile. We played this lovely little title on the small screen of our iPhone 6 - the old iPad Mini wasn't up to the task, sadly - which is worth mentioning up front and centre, because a bigger tablet would have been the optimal way of enjoying this artistic experience. Never fear if you don't own a decent tablet, though, as it works fine on mobile (and, we presume, on PC too).
Lasting only an hour or two, Old Man's Journey is not a particularly long experience, however, we think that this thoughtful narrative-driven puzzler is perfectly paced, and we were more than satisfied when the credits started to roll and our time with it had come to an end. The story, which we'll not spoil beyond what you can interpret from the title, is an increasingly moving one, delivered in between puzzles via what can only be described as digital tableaux; living pictures that, when considered together in series and in the context of the gameplay, tell a touching story.
It's a very simple setup, yet it's also quite hard to explain in words. The old man mentioned in the title is going on a journey, and your job is to help him get from A to B through a series of scenic environments. Each scene is a literal piece of art, but developer Broken Rules has cleverly turned that art into the puzzles themselves. Each of the rolling hills in this picturesque world is a layer in a picture, and where the lines in the pictures intersect, the old man can hop between them, essentially stepping between the layers, if you will. Then, using your finger/cursor, you can drag and contort the lines that define the ground that the old man walks on, changing the shape of the landscape so that the intersections between the layers of scenery move, and the old man can carry on walking.
There are a few mechanics thrown in as you progress, things like waterfalls that drop you to different layers, or sheep that block your path and need to be moved along, but although these obstacles will give you something to think about for a few minutes, they're probably not going to offer up much more resistance than that. Old Man's Journey isn't a particularly challenging game, and even if you do get stuck once or twice, it won't take long for you to work out how to progress. This isn't a criticism, though, as the gentle pacing and focus on narrative and artistic cohesion means that the overall experience benefits from slow but steady progress.
When you get to certain points in the journey, a memory is stirred in the old man. This is done by the player, who initiates this trail of thought by interacting with a certain piece of scenery at a clearly indicated moment. It's at this point that you're whisked away to a different time and place, as a distant memory is shared with us for a few seconds. The story is subtle, and the player complicit in its telling, because at no point as you walk through the world or when contemplating the past is a single word spoken, with the player left to absorb and interpret events as they see fit.
Throughout the experience, we're accompanied by a relaxing and emotional soundtrack. If you're playing on mobile/tablet it's worth playing with headphones on and finding a quiet corner where you can get through the entire experience in one sitting. The simplicity of the music gels nicely with the elegance of the art style, and these creative elements are enhanced by purposeful design choices (like the absence of voice acting) to create a truly engaging experience.
Old Man's Journey might be fleeting, but it's also something to savour. You might get some replay value from revisiting it at some point down the line, but its true emotional power can be found chiefly in that first play-through, when everything is fresh and, at times, delightful. It's a small game with a big heart, and if you're looking for something with charm and elegance to play on your touch screen (or even on your PC, but especially on a decent-sized tablet), then Broken Rules' wonderful game is well worth experiencing.
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