Who am I kidding, Mean Girls already is a psychological terror. But, if it was heavier on the morbidity and lighter on the pink, it would be a pretty decent film adaptation of the new narrative game from Locked Door Puzzle, Journal. I must compare the game to the greatest chronicle of high school experience because you spend more than a few conversations as the main character discovering you are the reluctantly cruel sidekick of one Regina-esque classmate. After exploring the many ways in which you terrorize a nerd and lose your friends, the story turns into a dark tale of psychologically morphed tragedy.
The premise has you initially wandering a 2D world modeled after a sketched journal, searching for answers as to why your journal pages have mysteriously gone blank. A few minutes into the game, this mystery is dropped completely, and you begin wandering through conversations around your town that explore a spectrum of emotionally sensitive subjects from divorce to cheating to death. As a faceless (literally) teenage girl, you experience firsthand the struggles of youth. Often adults speak down to you and withhold “dirtier” information, too well simulating that time as a child when nobody would tell me anything. You’ll also struggle in dealing with your own thoughts and feelings, because you’re a teen and life is complicated.
From the schoolyard to a graveyard, you wander through conversations with characters whose stories just trail off abruptly, and you often receive important story information in retrospect. This was a bit frustrating, because anyone I took an interest in faded away, and conversations I wanted to go well uncontrollably turned sour. Annoying as it was, these moments make you feel a meaningful futility in your thoughts, actions, and relationships.
The music is a haunting, childlike melody that sounds like a possessed toy music box. Meanwhile grim-toned sketches paint a complicated world through the innocent eyes of a child. The music and visuals carry Journal‘s emotion through the constantly fading plot lines, so that the tugging on your heartstrings is continuous.
Intermittently throughout the game, the screen shifts to the side and plays a strange puppet show that vaguely shares circus tales before the main game resumes. I love odd, creepy analogies like (insert creepy character here) loves (insert creepy object here), but much like that simile, the occasional circus side stories lacked content and were too abstract to seem relative. A creepy allusion could have given interesting emotional layers if the analogy was more comprehensible, but having my screen zoom away and play a Tim Burton-y shadow concert didn’t concern me much beyond a nagging curiosity that was, disappointingly, never satisfied with an explanation.
I’ve been spending the last few days walking around, avoiding my keyboard, because I wanted to let the game set in and find out what the spiral of creepy, unintelligible circus analogies and fumbling plot lines mean to me. They certainly had a meaning to the creator, Richard Perrin, but I wasn’t sure if I could pull anything out of the bottomless pit of depression the game left me with before it was immediately filled with less depressing things like television and cake. Journal spews ‘feels’ all over the place, and, as poignant as that seems, it translates to the player like an emotional ice bullet. That is to say, the impact hurts, but the substance of that pain melts away and you’re left with an abstract sadness that, without any clues to its purpose, leaves you confusedly aching.
An offbeat game like this hopes to make a greater impression than the typical sad story by putting players in a position of vulnerability, making them interact with pain in a unique form, and create a more lasting experience. To my discontent, Journal tried to replicate the confusion and emptiness of tragedy a little too literally by filling the narrative with dead-end plot points, passerby characters, and meaningless choices that make me feel the character’s hopelessness with uncomfortable accuracy. I can see how this messy game format is meant to mirror the psychological turmoil of tragedy, but I can’t help but wonder if equal emotional points can be made through non-literal, less confusing design.
Now, why would I recommend Journal after having shared all of these emotional qualms? Because this game gave me emotional qualms. This game made me fidget uncomfortably and, I’ll admit, brought me to tears with some scenarios and dialogue that felt all too familiar. Journal understands and translates, maybe through arguable means, the turmoil and distraught of human experiences. This game doesn’t get a pity score because it’s a sad tale; it earns its grade by being one of the more relatable games I’ve touched in a while. Every musical note, whimsical drawing, and piece of dialogue pulled me down an emotional road I still haven’t forgotten, and walked down a second and third time (seriously, play the game twice. Don’t ask me why). A haunting story about life’s struggles, Journal might as well be my own diary, or yours.
[+Powerful music] [+Whimsical Art] [+Moving Themes] [-Unsatisfying Ending] [-Futile Plot Lines]