Old Man’s Journey is a masterpiece of environmental storytelling, and an utterly flawless game experience.
Looking at the store page for Old Man’s Journey, you can see exactly what you’re about to play: an indie game with an illustrative art style about a journey, which is unsurprisingly being undertaken by an old man. What you don’t know is where that old man is going, or where this game is about to take you.
Old Man’s Journey begins when a postman arrives on his bicycle, handing the protagonist a letter. Reading its contents, the old man packs his things and sets off with his oversized backpack. We don’t get to see his call to action—we must simply help him reach his destination, trusting that his motivations are true and hoping that the game might eventually satisfy our curiosity.
To help the man, the player must rearrange the countryside, dragging sunset-coloured hills to create paths for him to travel along. Moving mountains sometimes reveals surprises: a non-player character, a waterfall, or a flock of sheep. You can interact with the world in small ways—such as dragging a boat, ringing a bell, or opening a door—and all of these subtle movements bring the world to life. Each level has its own distinct aesthetic and colour palette, though all are equally breathtaking.
Rearranging autumn landscapes is the ‘puzzle’ aspect of Old Man’s Journey, although the levels are rarely challenging. They sometimes require thought and planning, but the slow pace makes each scene primarily a relaxing, meditative experience. Rather than asking the player to complete difficult tasks, the game offers you the rare opportunity to interact with art. The puzzles are polished—there was only one instance where I had to restart a level because I moved a little too far ahead and left a piece of the landscape outside of the camera’s view, and could not continue on without it.
My favourite scene involves shifting railway tracks so that the old man’s train can pass safely from one station to another. As you move the pieces up and down, the train goes faster, no longer needing to pause in front of each break in the line. There is no real tension—the train will not crash if you are too slow—but there is great enjoyment in the process. The music in this scene might also be my favourite in the game, although the entire soundtrack is phenomenal.
Using only illustration and music—and the narrative design that connects these elements so thoughtfully—Old Man’s Journey was a remarkable, emotive experience. Despite the lack of dialogue, I understood the story completely: I felt happy as the old man reflected on joyful memories, sad as he felt isolated and alone, and cried at the end. Old Man’s Journey demonstrates the true power of games as an art form, and it filled my heart and soul with something special. Although it only took two hours to play in its entirety, this game will stay with me for much longer than that.