Since he is able to literally move mountains and, in one sequence, traverse effortlessly the bottom of the ocean, the eponymous central character in Old Man’s Journey – despite the game’s mawkishness – appears not forlorn or sympathetic, but powerful and able. If one were willing to co-operate with this game, they might argue that dragging and dropping sections of landscape, to clear a path, represents both the significance of the old man’s voyage and his will to complete it; to reconcile with his wife and daughter, whom he abandoned some years prior, the old man will do anything. But the complexity of the old man’s experience, implied via the titular “Journey”, which suggests tribulation, hardship and exploration, is undercut by the straightforwardness of his travels. At no point does the old man seem doubtful or overwrought. Equipped with the power to, it would appear, telepathically lift and reshape an entire landscape, why should he? Occasional puzzles suggest some internal turmoil. If Old Man’s Journey involves a character endeavouring to reunite his family and obtain inner peace, our struggling to click into place its brainteasers, composed of vaguely evocative imagery, provides allegory, albeit reductive. But one wonders how effectively puzzles can convey a person. There is no speech in Old Man’s Journey – deftly some might argue, evasively others might reply, the character’s past mistakes and present ruminations are relayed via static, almost watercolour pictures. Better than puzzles surely, in a game about emotional pain, would be some words, some energetic expression from the character himself, some vocalised hurt. Considering they barely make sense of the old man’s journey, it seems perverse the effort dedicated here to mechanics. A literal cartoon, who also doesn’t speak or emote, it is difficult to empathise with the old man via his actions when they are so fantastic.
More concerning, given videogames’ penchant for simplifying emotions, so they may be easily marketed, are the cleanness and tidiness of the old man’s journey. Considering its laughably earnest title, comprised entirely of faint, adumbrative words, one shouldn’t expect from this game a heartened interrogation of loss, ageing or redemption. But – by its makers who call it “soul-searching,” its reviewers who praise its protagonist as a “whole human” – that is precisely how Old Man’s Journey is being sold. Whimsical and smoothly mournful, it speaks of videogaming’s low self-regard that Old Man’s Journey be promoted as anything more than a weepy story for children. Or maybe something more sinister. Rather than the unelevated standards of critics, players and makers, or a disheartening contemporary scene wherein, after decades of patent dross, we are pathetically grateful for anything contrary, Old Man’s Journey represents a developing trend for praising games in games’ defence. Surely we all know this isn’t high – or even low – art. Trapped inside an online press where only the most sensational and trite articles get attention, the people saying this game made them cry must be embellishing – if not, the feelings and experiences glossed over by Old Man’s Journey have been resonantly captured by other, better game-makers, and they are more deserving of your tears and their publicity. Old Man’s Journey is not a soulful game. But the gaming industry bribes us using emotional comfort. It’s comforting, to think this culture we were once ridiculed for enjoying is now legitimately artistic. It’s comforting also to think art is uncomplicated, has a “message” and can be easily understood; it helps us feel cultivated. Most comforting of all is the idea that life and all its privations can be directly solved, that, for example, an old man who abandoned his family can return to it unimpeded, and that eventually any pain he caused or endured is constructive. These things are all comforting. But undisturbed comfort means entropy. Old Man’s Journey vicariously, humbly, condescendingly espouses for games an artistic future. By that token, along with innumerable, similar games, it contributes to a blindsiding sense of satisfaction – captiousness and the will to vehemently confront shortcomings are the means to improve.