Death and mourning aren’t explored much in gaming.
Sure, every now and again you’ll get some big budget, AAA video game where the main hero or heroine will lose someone close to them. The main character will shout, scream, maybe even cry, before they steel themselves and return to their gameplay activities.
You may get a little scene at the end of the game where they look longingly into the sunset and think of their lost friend or companion, but for the majority of games, the grief is tied solely to the moment.
It just so happens that I played a game earlier this year, When The Past Was Around, a point-and-click puzzle game, that tackles the issues around grief and death; the empty space, the silence now they are gone…and succeeds in perfectly evoking those feelings.
I wanted to share this game with you, its beautiful hand-drawn art, its excellent musical score, and small yet powerful story, and how it manages to capture the idea of grief into a way only games could do.
Mild spoilers ahead.
When The Past Was Around Dealing with Love, Loss, and Death
When The Past Was Around follows a young girl called Eda. She’s in her mid-twenties, recently moved into her own place, and is in a bit of a funk. We learn through her photos that she was once a violinist, but gave up when she was younger, and is now trying to get back into it.
It’s a simple scene, with only four photos chronicling Eda’s childhood, yet gives us so much on her mental state and her personality; talented, passionate, yet prone to criticism and overwhelming anxiety, all conveyed through through single snapshots of her previous performances.
Eda keeps a music box with an owl as the centre piece. One afternoon she hears the same tune the music box used to play (the one that inspired her to learn violin) being played on the street. She follows the sound, almost floating towards the music, and finds the violinist playing to patients in the child hospital.
The she sneezes, interrupting the performance, but coming face-to-face with Owl.
Yes, a man-sized owl, named, well…Owl. The game follows Eda and Owl’s time as a couple, until tragedy strikes, with Owl dying, and Eda being heartbroken.
Many stories that deal with grief usually personify it; a shadow, an item of clothing, something that ties the present to the past. So here, Eda’s lost love is an owl, and ties well into concept of grief and loss.
One of the main narrative signifiers is fallen feathers. The end of every chapter is signalled with one, such as in Eda’s finding one in a cardboard box when she’s unpacking, or when she is wearing Owl’s old scarf. Collecting these feathers are what unlock the next memory as she gets closer to Owl’s departure from the story, and that’s their real meaning.
The feathers are tokens of the memories that Eda and Owl have together, and as she collects them, more are taken away from him, until there can be none left. It’s and excellent metaphor for the passage of time, and yet cruelly bittersweet.
The game switches between the memories of Eda and Owl together, and Eda at the graveyard at the ‘end’ of their story. During her time at the graveyard she is seemingly haunted by a shadowy silhouette of a man, enclosed in a giant bird cage.
When Eda finally reaches the silhouette after reliving all of her memories and collecting Owl’s feathers, the feathers attach themselves to the shadow man, revealing that he is Owl. It’s a great moment, showing how Eda’s memory of Owl had changed over time, and how he effectively became ‘entombed’ inside her head, only being set free once she looked back over her time with him.
There is zero dialogue in the game, which I think is to its benefit. While it would have been easy to add voices to the characters, the silence of the protagonists allows the story to reach a broader audience and speak to more people. It’s that old adage of actions speaking louder than words, as Owl and Eda mentally and physically get closer (literally, they move closer to each other as the game progresses).
Some people may not be able to relate to Eda and Owl’s if they had talked about their love of the violin or the name of the stars in the night sky, but they can relate much more to a feeling or an emotion that the characters are going through, which the game captures perfectly.
Part of that excellent communication of emotion comes from the fantastic artwork by Indonesian artist Brigitta Rena. The character models have a stunningly simplicity to them, yet are incredibly expressive. The animations are through a standard fade effect between each character stance, bringing a dream-like quality to most scenes, but also capturing incredible immediate snapshots as there will be many moments of stillness, highlighting the emotion of the scene.
While the characters are simple, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and given the feeling of being ‘lived-in’.
Those backgrounds are a key part of the game’s core loop, as the player must find hidden objects to progress in the story by moving objects around. The game presents it as being constructive or destructive, clean vs. cluttered.
The cleaning and constructive might task you with tidying up Eda’s bedroom, putting posters on her walls, or hanging the washing up.
Construction is the main engagement when Eda and Owl are dating, including coffee and tea at Owl’s home, going to the beach together, or camping out overnight and looking at the stars.
In each of these scenarios the player has to ‘build’ the setting around them; collecting seaweed and shells to go in a glass bottle (which the couple keep in their apartment), setting up the campsite and building paper windmills, or even fixing Owl and Eda’s drink of choice at his house.
These little constructions exaggerate the fact that we are essentially going through Eda’s memories of Owl, and so she would focus on all the small things that she remembers from those times, the things that make it ‘her’ memory.
When the gameplay switches to destruction, you might find yourself smashing countless plant pots, throwing books off shelves, or pulling down curtains.
These aspects perfectly match up in the order of the story, with Eda being tidier when she is with Owl, but messier both before she met him and after he is gone, for different yet obvious reasons. Her final scene with Owl where Eda searches for his pills uses the clean vs. cluttered to great effect, as players have to frantically search the apartment, pulling books off shelves and knocking over chairs in a desperate bid to find them.
Music also plays a strong part of the story, with both Owl and Eda playing the violin, and music being the thing that brings them closer together. There is a leitmotif that runs through the entire game (the same one played by Eda’s music box), which subtly changes with each chapter.
At the start when Eda has given up on playing the violin, the stringed instrument is removed from the soundtrack, instead a mournful piano plays in the background. As soon as Owl enters the story, the violin features again, playing a much more cheerful tone. As their relationship grows more instruments and accents are added.
By the final scene when Eda is alone once again, the piano has returned, but her memory of Owl is so strong that the violin jumps in, with the entire song picking up speed as it reaches the climax.
Even the title references music, with a stylised repeat sign incorporated into it. This sign in sheet music indicates a section to be played more than once, referencing Eda’s journey back through her life.
When The Past Was Around is a whole package of a game wrapped up in around an hour, maybe little over if you are intent on finding all the hidden clues that inform more about Eda and Owl’s relationship.
For anyone looking for a short game with fantastic visuals, a great sense of gameplay as narrative, or just something a little different than anything else on the market, When The Past Was Around is heartily recommended.
Banner Photo Source: nintendo.de