As I struggle to persevere through God Of War Ragnarök’s overly bloated epic, a murder-y malaise washes over me. Is this really the best that modern games have to offer? While hundreds of talented creators poured their hearts into this blockbuster behemoth, the result feels admirable rather than spectacular: a commendable creative achievement, sure, but not an exciting one. Thank Christ then, for Season: A Letter To The Future.
Armed with a bike, your trusty polaroid camera, a pencil and an all-important scrapbook, this PlayStation console exclusive reimagines the end of the world as a meandering road trip. Joining our nameless protagonist in the quiet mountain village of Caro, you discover an overgrown world plagued by a terrible sickness. Gripped by a disease that forces people into a never-ending sleep, the earth now sprouts a crystal-like flora that slowly erases human memories. It’s up to you, then – under the protection of a memory pendant – to go forth and document what remains of this era, before this Season (and the people with it) are lost to the sands of time.
Leaving her village with little knowledge of the outside world, the player’s wide-eyed journey matches that of our sheltered protagonist. As I stop in awe of the painterly watercolor-esque vistas, our nameless heroine does the same – narrating our shared experience while I take somewhat middling photos. Part-Pokemon Snap, part-Attenborough sim, roaming this mysterious land as a cycle-happy historian makes me feel a bit like Charles Darwin, except I’m rendered in full 4K and riding a sweet-ass bike.
As you may expect, it’s all surprisingly calming stuff. Despite the looming threat of imminent annihilation, this is a journey about soaking in your surroundings, lending it a refreshing lack of urgency. While you cycle your way from locale to locale on this post-apocalyptic gap yah, a soothing score is all that signals that your solitary journey is underway. With little idea of where to go, no friends to guide you, and zero hint at what you’ll see next, every discovery feels genuinely novel.
In a medium filled with break-neck action and instant endorphin releases, becoming a virtual biographer may not sound like the most thrilling way to spend your free time. Still, I soon found myself utterly committed to my weird little role, entranced by the promise of uncovering more forgotten secrets for my increasingly messy scrapbook.
Seriously – you wouldn’t quite believe the lure this beautifully rendered scrapbook has. Forget Assassin’s Creed Parkour, the grappling hook, or Bayonetta’s Witch Time, carefully choosing photos, drawings, notes and stickers or each location in my book is secretly one of the most engrossing game mechanics I’ve ever encountered.
A big reason for that is that it’s up to the player to frame this journey as they see fit. Thanks to the lack of demands over what fills each page, everyone will come away with a vastly different scrapbook,offering their own unique perspective on their travels.I spent a worrying amount of time debating what musings would have the most impact. Should a thought-provoking comment about a touching wooden carving make the cut? Or could that precious page space be better served with a photo of the valley? There’s obviously no right or wrong answer (for the record, I’m team pretty picture) but documenting everything and uncovering new narration for certain objects swiftly became a reward of its own, your constantly-growing scrapbook uniquely reflecting your personal journey.
It helps, of course, that Season is a stunner. Sporting a soft, painterly art style that feels equal parts The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and That Game Company’s Journey, this lush and fantastical world is a constant treat for the eyes. Familiar sights hint at this being our world – overgrown wind turbines, abandoned telephone boxes, eerily quiet motorways. Yet the people you meet and remnants of the past you discover slowly piece together the tale of a satisfyingly strange story.
Like most of the best stories, Season never quite gives you the full picture, leaving you wanting more. From cycling past a curious-looking overgrown temple to discovering heart breaking remnants left by the deceased, I constantly abandon my bike to peer around studiously – not to make an on-screen meter go up, or to unlock a trophy, but because I want to learn more about this beguiling landscape.
Despite its fantastical elements, its stark parallels to our own climate emergency and the horrors of dementia has you ponder your own place in the real world. And who doesn’t play games to have a mild existential crisis?
Thankfully, Season tackles a raft of heavy themes in a gentle and oddly honest manner. As you pedal across meadows to wandering around overgrown villages, a soothing soundtrack ensures that there’s a quiet calm in celebrating the fleeting nature of life – offering comfort in the fact that though our time will end, the imprint of our memory ultimately lives on.
Season succeeds, then, because it makes exploration feel exciting again. With zero objective makers, skill trees or hidden trinkets to collect, it cleverly strips back the creaking machinations of the well-worn open world genre to focus on making its landscape the lead character. Still, there are a few friendly faces you’ll meet along the way. On Season’s inherently lonely journey, every encounter with its other Ghibli-esque characters feels like something to be treasured. Brilliantly written, these conversations conjure up vivid imagery of that individual’s life – and the world they inhabited before.
This feels like the first medium budget “games as art’ chin stroker since Journey, and Season’s clever meditations on legacy, mortality and the inherent fragility of life are ones I won’t soon forget. Where thought provoking games can so easily bore, this succeeds by having the gameplay substance to match the nasal-gazing, its sprawling environments doing justice to its ambitious tale.
My main criticism is that there isn’t more of it. While Season’s story can be rushed through in a handful of hours, if you’re anything like me, you’ll stop to take in every pixel. Yet even those ten hours of wonder weren’t quite enough. Just as the story teases yet more places for our heroine to charter, your time in this land abruptly comes to a close.But I guess that’s the point. Just like in our own lives, you experience people’s growth and stories as a snapshot in time, a brief glance into the window of a moment – and then either you move on, or life moves on without you.
There are so many magical little moments that I am wary of spoiling a single one, but the sense of wonder as you cycle across vast, alien-feeling vistas truly never gets old. For gamers who are after the immediate endorphin rush of fast-paced action, Season may feel like an affront to fun. Yet for those tired of the same old adventures and yearning for a beautiful, unique tale, you can’t really do better than this.
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