Sometimes, video games draw controversy by daring to try something different. When it comes down to it, games are based around digital interactivity, regardless of how that’s utilized. I say this because if you’re the type who dislikes games that weren’t designed with pure entertainment value in mind, then it’s likely Journal is not a game to have on your radar. If, however, you’re open to more nuanced experiences that may very well be expanding the canon of video games as we know it, then Journal is worth playing.
Journal tells a very specific story. As players, we enter into the world and mind of a young girl who writes daily in her Journal. One day, she comes to the unfortunate realization that the pages she’d written were now blank. What happened to all of her entries? Initially, the primary focus is the mystery of the missing journal notes, but it’s not long before other, more relatable issues begin to crop up. Our lead must not only navigate her own troubles, but also try to handle the friends and family that surround her.
This isn’t a game that paints a blanket picture of human relationships. Just as in reality, it can be difficult to deal with others. As we are all likely aware, it’s also impossible to please everyone. In a way, you could view the game as reliving the tough moments from the original Journal entries. With that being the case, you quickly find that it is hard to stay completely separate from the on screen issues. If you readily empathize with others, emotions are sure to flare during your time with the game as well.
Having an emotional response — other than rage — stoked while playing a video game is a pretty rare experience. As such, many people will probably dislike playing through Journal, and possibly never reach its conclusion. That’s not the only reason, but it would definitely be a valid one. Not everyone turns to playing games for the same reason, after all. Sadness, one of the inescapable emotions that gushed over me while playing Journal, wasn’t a solitary reaction. There was also shame and confusion, perfectly illustrating the pains of growing up in a tough situation. And those emotionally charged times are expressed brilliantly through Journal.
While emotional resonance makes up much of the game, there is actual gameplay worth discussing. Fans of point and click adventure games will feel most at home here. You control the character by moving her left and right across various scenes. Talking to other characters is accomplished by simply pressing space, which promptly presents the discussions available. Sometimes, there are multiple topics of interest to check out, and other times there’s not much to be said at all — not unlike real life.
Basically, players work through a series of days, wherein they talk to characters and investigate various matters. As the days progress there may be new issues to talk about or areas to explore. Overall, the game is quite short, taking around two hours to complete. It doesn’t feel like it rushes by or ever overstays its welcome, which is wonderful. There is a secret ending to find and this can add a few more hours to the gameplay if you’re interested in squeezing Journal for all it’s worth.
Not everything is as enchanting, however. Characters will often repeat dialogue that make little sense once their required task has been handled. Exploration, too, is best when performed in the way the developers intended. Attempting to investigate beyond the confines of the story typically reveals how compact the game truly is. In my playthrough I also encountered an issue where the “page flips” stuttered which, unfortunately, shattered the mood a tad.
The experience is, by all means, enhanced by its hand-drawn appearance. Journal’s world, for better or worse, looks as if someone took to a sketch-pad and colored in the surroundings with hints of tumultuous emotion. As such, sometimes things don’t look quite right. For example, there are trees floating above ground with their roots tangled in the air. It’s obvious from that point that something big is going down, but players must get through the entire game to unravel the truth.
All of this should prove without a doubt that Journal is a video game that will work for some people, while others simply won’t see the point. As such, I cannot even attempt to score the game in a way that would jive with the general gaming populous. Some players won’t find themselves as emotionally invested, or perhaps struggle to care as I did, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, Journal is a highly successful attempt at making a personal story into a video game. Here’s hoping more developers will be as brave in the future.