The Longest Road on Earth Review
The vintage technology and grayscale colours give The Longest Road on Earth the feel of yesteryear, if yesteryear was populated exclusively by anthropomorphic animals. They can and do speak to each other, but we never hear their words, or otherwise see what they’re saying through text or images. Except for some store signs and the occasional newspaper headline, all its words come from (thus far unsubtitled) lyrics on the game’s soundtrack, a set of more than 20 original songs written and performed by one of the developers, Beícoli. The lyrics are at once specific and universal in the way melancholic songs like these tend to be, calling upon certain moments and images in service of a broader feeling.
I confess, I’m not totally sure what to make of the narrative here, though that also seems to be the point. The game features four principal characters, all of them connected either tangentially or not at all. They’re related in a more abstract sense, by the persistent feel of the music and the way it informs a similar isolation, even in the presence of other people on the train or in line outside the factory.
It’s as though the lack of words signifies a difficulty or a reticence to communicate. There’s no mystery, no clever wrap-up to reveal everything is tied together, but only the routine of their daily lives: they wake up, they make coffee, they commute to work, they pass by store windows. Presumably they are thinking, and we occasionally get snippets of what appear to be memories that fit right into the soundtrack’s backdrop of wistful indie warbling. What that is, however, is not often clear, their pixelated animal faces too distant to betray any concrete emotion. Beyond the occasional point-of-view shot of someone doing sit-ups or opening the refrigerator, we are very much outside observers, never quite privy to their inner lives beyond the impressions we project onto them.
Merely an outsider
Much like the game’s recurring motif of roads and railways, the characters mostly progress on a linear track. We move them forward and occasionally press or hold a button to interact, but they are otherwise going where they’re going; our main decisions are simply how long to delay their progress, choosing to linger on some small sight when the “interact” button brings up a detailed pixel art close-up of some flowers or an end table by the door where one character deposits the keys and spare change.. The Longest Road on Earth favours frequent changes in scenery, with passersby moving in the background, creating a graphical style of unassuming liveliness that rarely jazzes up the mundane, instead maintaining its distance and ambiguity.
For example, in an early scene we get a top-down view of what appears to be a railroad that, to me, looks like a smattering of wreckage among other ruins. But upon being made to sit with this view for an extended period of time, I’m not quite so sure—maybe that effect is incidental to the use of a top-down perspective seen in black and white, where some chunk taken out of the tracks can just as easily be coverage from the tree canopy.
Not that musical
Occasionally though, the game abandons its sense of reserve and dips into an incongruous level of flash, like one scene that begins as a close-up on a car radio, only for the vehicle to drive off into the distance while the camera seems to float through its back window. The same thing happens a few times, like turning a corner in the city. We primarily see the game from a two-dimensional, sidelong perspective, so these occasional bits of three-dimensional trickery are distracting. One scene depicts two characters in split screen, placing close-ups of their faces side by side in order to make absolutely sure that we understand the similarities between them. These touches suggest that The Longest Road on Earth, for all its unmistakable sense of care and intention, is not quite in control of its tone, like an eager film student still too enamored with flashy editing and camera tricks to use them sparingly and for appropriate impact.
This formal overzealousness is, unfortunately, most clearly realised through the music that’s meant to be the game’s main attraction. The songs are pleasant enough, but music is rarely used this way in games or other mediums—lyrics tend to inject an additional emotional heft or serve as the kinetic backbeat for a montage. The Longest Road on Earth is initially jarring for this disconnect, where some vaguely upbeat song will go “ooo-ooo-ooo” while a character slowly rises from bed and shambles downstairs to brew coffee. And as the game goes on, the impact of the lyrics only dulls, the initial power of the music fading away in much the same way that one might stop noticing some pretty wallpaper. Where other games insist on non-stop explosions and chase scenes, The Longest Road on Earth calibrates each moment to be poignant and profound, and although the results are quieter and artsier, they also aren’t much less exhausting.
And yet, emotional exhaustion seems as viable of a takeaway as any. After all, the small things we use to get through our days, to cope with the perpetual thrum of unexcitement in lives lived conservatively, do eventually fade into routine. We grow tired of the phone game we bought or that playlist we made and we find ourselves ready for the next thing, which tends to be similarly fleeting. By the time the credits roll for The Longest Road on Earth, I was more than ready to move on, but maybe that doesn’t have to be a criticism because it speaks to its own sort of emotional truth.