Videogames are a medium for interactive storytelling. Some games expand artistic boundaries by telling smaller, more intimate vignettes–personal stories that aim for the heart and are not made to be a franchise. That’s the world that When the Past Was Around invites you to.. It’s a deeply personal story that sticks with you long after it’s finished and the credits rolled. When the Past Was Around is a self described point and click narrative puzzle game. Each scene represents a specific time in the relationship of Eda and her partner Owl, a being with a human body and an owl’s head. In a non-linear fashion, you follow their relationship through snapshot memories of their time together. From a chance meeting in the park to a camping trip out in the desert, it’s clear these two shared a lot of special moments together.
Their companionship is highlighted with violin duets and coffeeshop afternoons. When the Past Was Around has beautiful presentation with lovingly crafted, hand drawn artwork. The soundtrack is also put together well with subtle hints orchestrated to fit the themes throughout. The main theme song is similarly altered and adjusted to fit the current tone of the scenes as they change. When the Past Was Around’s main theme is catchy and whimsical in the best ways, and will leave you humming it after the game has finished..
The gameplay itself is though straightforward hand drawn scenes with minimal movement or animation. Within the scene, there are interactable objects and puzzles to solve that will move the scene onward with a slight animation. The puzzles require a standard set of actions, like picking up objects and using them on other objects, or finding hidden codes in the environment that will open the next door. It’s a clean interface, though a hint system could improve it slightly. But what stands out above everything else is the story of Eda and Owl.
Eda and Owl’s relationship is one of ease and happiness but takes a dark turn that is foreshadowed early on. I won’t spoil it, but it does tell a heartbreaking tale with a slow burn that feels organic if not a little obvious. These stories bring heavy emotional impact. In this particular darker section, the often silly and fun hidden object can feel out of place or in slight poor taste. Their presence wasn’t offensive, but when the story got serious, I didn’t necessarily feel a want to find four hidden keys by solving riddles. When the urgency of the story kicks in, the pace of gameplay doesn’t and gives an incongruous feeling to the proceedings.
The story of Eda and Owl is one of hope and tragedy, bringing a rise and fall in an interesting nonlinear fashion. It’s up to the player to put the pieces together and make the story complete. When the Past Was Around tells a very personal story with a calming gameplay loop that sometimes feels at odds with the story, but otherwise fits its overall vibe well. When the Past Was Around doesn’t do the story experience better, but does bring its own specific vibe to the genre. It does folk whimsy well and has earned its own place in its genre despite a few stumbles.
When the Past Was Around is available today on Nintendo Switch and will be releasing for PlayStation 4 on December 17th and Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S December 18th. It is also available to play on PC via Steam.
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