This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all games, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
In more recent times, video games have tried exploring ways to stand out and become more artistically satisfying when it comes to their narratives; one trend I keep going back to is the “wordless” narrative. When the past was around is the latest in this trend, and since I love games like Virginia, I thought I would give it a shot, since at the very least I would get beautiful hand-drawn art (having gone for the 11-euro version).
Simplified to a bare minimum, When the past was around is a narrative-driven, ‘spot the difference’, puzzle game that is about 2 hours long with an extra half an hour if you want to get all the achievements; this isn’t going to blow anyone away, but isn’t really trying to either. What it is trying to do is tell a story using beautiful art, simple game mechanics to reveal or contextualize information, and convey a personal tale of easily understood themes, through an unconventional and fitting technique.
Without really spoiling anything, this is the story of a relationship starting, flourishing, and then ending; that is such a universally relatable theme that words are not really needed and through the lack of them, the game manages to convey emotions and situations in a personal manner, which creates a more meaningful reaction and resonance. That’s not to say it is exceptional, but it is different and well done, which does make it worthwhile. In gameplay terms, it is a simple ‘point & click’ affair and puzzles aren’t really challenging or notably novel. It’s a shame that gameplay was not as well integrated or conceived to be a part of the narrative like in games such as Florence, which is partly why I feel this game is so lackluster. Unlike Florence, which is a must-play for those interested in the concept of a video game exploring a relationship, When the past was around is skippable, not only due to its weak gameplay, but its story being so “normal”. I hesitate to even use “normal”, because it is well told and conceived, but it is lacking in moments of excellency, where the player is left frozen or stunned by the sheer brilliance of what they are experiencing. One area where the game comes close to achieving that is the presentation; the art style is beautiful to look at and to see animate in the game. Furthermore, the soundtrack may not be plentiful, but it has quality with some nice mellow, violin-centered tracks.
If this were a critique of the game as art, I would not be so kind to When the past was around; it’s not as bold as it should be, not as intelligent or thoughtful with the medium’s advantages, not as progressive and worthwhile as its peers. This is a review though and given the low price, lack of any real drawbacks, and excellent work in presentation, I would still recommend the game to those interested in the concept and the art; the best word to describe it as a whole is FINE. For 11 euros, I got some great art for my pc wallpaper, some nice mellow tracks to add to my playlist, and a couple of hours of seeing a very personal story come to life; it’s not wholly original or extraordinary in any way, but it is a nice addition to a small library of games from a genre that deserves to see some riskier and alternative takes on it. Also, there’s an owl man in it, so you know I’m going to have a hard time being mad at it!