A growing trend in video games is to make a game that isn’t really a game at all. Interactive stories are becoming more and more common. A few make it to big name status, such as the works of David Cage, but most of them are pure Indie games. Journal is such a game. It is less about giving the player a goal to accomplish or mechanics to work with, and more about moving you through a story. As such, it really depends on a player’s connection with the story. If the story doesn’t hook you in, the whole experience will fall flat.
So, does Journal manage to hook players in?
You play as an unnamed teenaged girl. One morning, she awakens, only to discover that all the pages of her journal have gone blank. The pages are there, but the words are gone. If that wasn’t bad enough, she’s got all kinds of issues. Her best friend has been accused of breaking a window, the boy she likes might like someone else, her favorite shop has been vandalized, and so on. The story basically involves you moving her around and talking to people in an effort to deal with these issues.
Sadly, the game has some major problems. For starters, a significant amount of information is left unknown to the player until too late. For example, I had her express concern about her friend being wrongly accused of breaking a window. I then went to talk to her accuser, only to find out that I was the accuser myself! It turns out my character broke the window and then blamed her friend in order to avoid getting punished. My character knew this, but I didn’t. I was asked to have her react without all of the facts. This kind of thing happens constantly. Even more damning is a bit where she steals from a store without my knowledge while I’m controlling her. It completely kills any sense of character control. I’d also be choosing dialogue options that made her seem like a pretty nice person, but the game just didn’t care. It has an agenda and a predetermined path it must follow. It only allowed me to think my decisions mattered.
In general, the plot progression is erratic and inconsistent. The game can kind of be put into chapters. Eventually, you’ll have talked to people enough that you’ll recover a journal page or something. Then you go to your room, watch some puppet show about a carnival, and then the level sets up for the next chapter. However, the issues that seemed so important are completely forgotten the next moment. For example, I had my character admit to cheating on a test. The teacher then said she’d call my mother. The mother never said a thing. We just moved on to the next pressing issue. It just feels like nothing matters. The random, out of the blue ending doesn’t help much either. It kind of explains why the main character has been a selfish brat the whole game, but it stands as another example of the game hiding information from the player. There may be some point to this, or some message the writer wants to get across, but it doesn’t come across well at all.
The visual style for this game is nothing less than cool. The places you visit, the people you meet, and everything else is drawn onto a sketch pad. When you move to a new location, the page gets flipped on the pad. It’s a nifty effect, though it can be disorienting if you move rapidly between different locations. An interesting choice was made to not give the characters faces. Instead, they appear as if a group of department store mannequins got up and started walking around. This includes the main character. The levels, being drawn into a sketch book, range from normal to a bit trippy. For example, the girl’s house looks fine, but there are cars floating in the sky when you reach the parking lot. In this case, the inconsistency works. Another neat trick involves physical objects placed on the pad that halt your progress until you move forward in the story. For example, you can’t go out the back of the school until that ruler moves out of the way. Honestly, the art style is what first interested me in the game, and it didn’t disappoint. I can easily forgive the lack of animations and special effects.
The game works on an aural level as well. For voices, there is only the girl, and only when she’s making a journal entry/bit of inner monologue. She has this matter-of-fact style of talking that works well. If only half of the things she says weren’t complete surprises (“Oh yeah. I stole that snow globe.”). There’s a narrator for the puppet show sequences as well. He does a bang up job, and it feels like a proper story-time. The music is somber and moody throughout. This isn’t a particularly happy game after all. It can be quite nice to listen to though, and is a fitting soundtrack of the tumult that is the life off one troubled girl.
Journal is easy to control even by adventure game standards. All you need to do is use the right and left arrow keys to move. To talk to people or interact with an object, you need only press the space bar. You can jump for some reason, but it has no purpose. You don’t have an inventory to worry about either. You simply talk to people and move the conversation forward until it ends. Occasionally, you’ll have two or three options for how your character will respond. The game merely involves talking to people in order to open up dialogue trees.
When choosing a response, you don’t get to pick the exact words your character will use, but rather what kind of mood she’ll use. Options include things like “apologetic”, “defensive”, “dismissive”, and “honest”. There are no right or wrong answers. The story moves forward either way, and the worst that can happen is the current conversation ends sooner rather than later. You’ll also be able to talk to that character later on in the game, so you don’t have to worry about locking yourself out.
I could go on, but there really isn’t anything else to say. You simply move the plot forward. There aren’t any puzzles or mechanics to worry about, and the dialogue options serve only to give some semblance of interaction with the story. This game would probably best work as some sort of short story or short film. It only lasts about ninety minutes as it is, and most of that is wandering around. It would still be worth it if the story was up to snuff. However, the tale is rocky and inconsistent. It keeps you in the dark about things you should know, and drops plot lines at every level. The characters aren’t particularly likable, and there’s little attempt to make a real emotional connection to the player. It’s pretty forgettable overall. I’m sure it means something special to the writer, but unfortunately, he wasn’t able to convey that to the player.
Short Attention Span Summary
If you like games for the art style, Journal is worth a look. Sadly, Journal doesn’t have to strength of story to create a compelling adventure game. A plot that jumps around too much, unlikable characters, and poor creative decisions keep the player from creating a connection to to the main character’s plight. As such, I can’t really recommend this game to anyone but the most ardent fan of indie games.