When The Past Was Around is a gentle game, warm in tone and surprisingly tactile. It sits alongside you on those cold winter nights and gives you a manageable slice of emotional growth through the medium of satisfyingly interactive puzzles.
The game puts you in the shoes of Eda, a softly drawn girl of considerable whimsy – a lost soul looking to reignite some of her more repressed memories through the very visual metaphor of unlocking doors. You begin the game with a shadowy figure keeping you company – nothing sinister, but a person clearly composed of actual shadows. Eventually, you use your puzzle-solving skills to add tangible physicality to this presence, bringing with it all the pain and nostalgia that Eda feels. In unveiling this character, you go through the process of mourning – and chase the hope that waits on the other side.
It is certainly the kind of game that leaves itself open to interpretation. It eschews dialogue in favour of a delicate soundtrack, letting you piece together the feelings for yourself. My interpretation was that of a person initially so overcome by grief and disillusionment that they must wade through complex emotions to find the more comforting side of memory. Eda’s journey manages to be universal; it is a path we all find ourselves on at one time or another. The beauty of this game seems to sit in between the lines.
Can you hear that?
Eda’s journey is so entwined with her passion of music that the game itself seems to wrap around a single refrain – evoking a sort of accomplished glee when you find another item that jingles along with the song. The use of a repeating line in differing tones somehow manages to be both joyous and sombre, reflecting the mood of the game itself. It’s refreshingly simple but staggeringly effective.
It is unashamedly sad in parts, but with enough quirkiness to keep it warm. The environments have the comforting aesthetic of an upmarket coffee shop – with pot plants and music boxes and wooden furniture to mess with. Little keys and codes are hidden around the place – sort of like an escape room that you don’t quite want to leave. The only downside is the anxiety of messing up these gorgeous rooms when you inevitably tip over a plant pot or un-make a bed.
For someone who loves long, winding puzzle-solving games, the riddles in When The Past Was Around do sometimes feel a little simplistic. I assume, however, this is done so that the advancement of the story isn’t hampered by the familiarity of the player with problem-solving games. Many of them are as simple as clicking on and collecting items which, although basic, remains admittedly rewarding. The little animations and noises that objects make, coupled with the delicate illustrations lend themselves to the story perfectly.
It’s just good for you
This is the kind of game that rewards the soul. Much like Coffee Talk, a title from some of the same brains, it opens you up with its gentle coaxing so that the emotions can trickle in as the game unfolds. There is no great mystery – it’s fairly straightforward and almost reads like a picture book for adults – but it gives the player a perspective that is truly affecting.
Children’s books often cover topics like grief and loss and separation, using soft illustrations to convey a message of hope and genuine growth. For adults, unless we want to sink our teeth into the latest overpriced and surprisingly dense self-help book, there are few options out there that offer a better guide than story-based video games. This one specifically seems to benefit from its lack of dialogue and text – it doesn’t always follow a linear path, but it feels like some kind of internal monologue. It guides us through the steps we take internally when we lose someone or something dear to us, but wraps us in a blanket and slightly warms us up on the side.
Not to be too grandiose about the game – it won’t be for everyone, and it has very little replay value – but I do think there is room for When The Past Was Here alongside some of the story-based indie greats. It does what it does with utmost care and sensitivity, feeling like the sort of dream you have when you’ve just changed your sheets. We could all do with some more comfort after the year we’ve had, and When The Past Was Here – which comes out on console on December 16th – is the video game equivalent of a warm cup of tea by a rain-streaked window.
[Reviewed on Nintendo Switch]
Miri is an English grad with a fascination for sci fi, RPGs, grand strategy and point-and-click games. She also enjoys strong coffees and cats.