Adventure Gamers Awards
Adventure games tend to be wordy beasts, what with their dialogue trees and dramatic plot twists packed into verbose cutscenes. Even a solitary experience like Myst gives you a library full of books to read. Adventures that lean more heavily on story than puzzles are often referred to as narrative games—a categorization that assumes the existence of narration, and therefore, of words. This love affair with words dates back to the earliest text parser games, and even a full 40 years after Colossal Cave Adventure, a completely mute adventure game can be a hard concept to embrace. How, exactly, can a game tell a good story without words?
Last Day of June is one such experiment, and considering this article surpassed 100 words before I even got around to naming the game I’m writing about, you might have an inkling of why I was apprehensive about reviewing it. I don’t like games that leave me grasping for meaning. Ambiguity is not my friend. And let’s be frank: I like words. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Last Day of June turned out to be if not the best adventure game I’ve played recently, then hands-down one of the best narrative games I’ve played, period.
In some ways, Last Day of June is like a Pixar movie on acid. Imagine that sweet couple from Up, but their heads are huge and their eyes are missing and when they speak to each other, all that comes out is a gibberish cadence of titters, chirps, giggles, and gasps. The art style is deliberately painterly, with swells of oversaturated color, bright sunlight, and overzealous impressionistic blur. The music—haunting instrumentals adapted from the compositions of progressive rock musician Steven Wilson—brings an aura of wonder and foreboding to this somewhat ordinary and yet perceptively off world. (Developer Ovosonico actually conjured up the world around Wilson’s music, with the game’s core premise paying homage to the song “Drive Home” and its accompanying music video.)
As the story opens, the comically bespectacled Carl and his wife, June, are spending a quiet afternoon by a lake. Exaggerated animations and vocalizations allow the characters to successfully pantomime what other games would take lines of dialogue to convey, so it’s immediately obvious from their body language, nuzzles, and kissy noises that these two are deeply in love.
When June shivers, Carl stands to retrieve her sweater. His short walk to the car provides a chance to familiarize yourself with the 3D controls: you walk using the gamepad’s left stick or WASD keys and move the camera with the right stick or mouse. As you approach an interactive item, such as the car door, the hotspot lights up and an on-screen prompt shows which button or key you need to press to interact.
Upon Carl’s return to the dock, June presents him with a gift. Before he can open the wrapped box, though, time jumps to an earlier point in the day back at home, with June as the playable character. This is the first of many time and control shifts in Last Day of June, a game in which June may be the focus but gets the least screen time due to the fact that she’s, well, dead.
Oops… spoiler alert? Not really, if you paid attention to the title. Last Day of June—which actually takes place in autumn, judging from the ripe apples in the trees and red leaves littering the paths—plays out during a repeated loop of the hours leading up to this date at the lake, as Carl tries to influence fate and prevent his wife’s untimely demise.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As June tiptoes around her napping husband, looking for the perfect spot in their house to leave his wrapped gift, this early flashback initially struck me as a jarring and unnecessary interruption in the action. It turns out to be crucial to the storytelling. Pay attention to the characters you meet here: an old man who knocks on the front door, a little boy looking for a playmate, a man running around with his hunting rifle, a young woman awkwardly returning a can opener she borrowed. When you later gain access to a series of flashbacks shown from these characters’ perspectives, trying to pinpoint the one small change that might avert June’s fate, all of these seemingly inconsequential events become critically relevant.
First, though, the inevitable: back at the lake, Carl’s opening of his present is interrupted by thunder and lightning. As rain begins to pour, he and June run to the car. Carl gets behind the wheel. June slips into the passenger seat. They begin their drive home.
Then Carl awakens in his living room, alone.
At this point we don’t know exactly what happened to June—and we don’t need to. You’ll spend the rest of the game working out the details. For now, lighting, music, and animation deftly convey Carl’s loss. Except for a lit fire, the living room is dark. June’s easy chair is empty; a wheelchair sits beside Carl’s. The rooms of the house, bright and colorful when we first saw them in June’s flashback, have taken on a melancholy blue tint in the dark.
Looking for the can opener so he can eat a sad dinner, Carl wheels himself into June’s art studio. Initially there were five portraits on display here, but just as mirrors are covered up in a house of mourning, the easels are now draped in cloth. As Carl rolls closer to one of them, the cloth slips off to reveal June’s self-portrait. Roll closer still and you’ll see a simple on-screen prompt, one of only a handful of words you’ll see in the entire game: Remember.
Of course Carl remembers. When the love of your life dies, how can you forget?
From this point on, Last Day of June alternates between two realities: the dark, dismal night when Carl repeatedly wakes up without his wife, and bright flashbacks to the day she died, each featuring one of the four neighbors as the playable character. You begin Carl’s mystical nighttime sequences by navigating the dark area outside his house to locate the neighbors’ portraits, which have been transported there via the same dream-like, unexplained magic that has granted Carl the ability to manipulate June’s last day. Because he’s in a wheelchair, staircases and ledges form natural obstacles that make exploration a challenge and force Carl to locate these portraits in a linear order. When he reaches one, that character’s flashback is unlocked to show their inadvertent contribution to June’s death. Upon returning to the studio, Carl can now view and manipulate the unlocked flashbacks by approaching the corresponding easel and choosing, once again, to Remember.
Each flashback starts with a cutscene that shows the seconds before the accident, establishing that character’s involvement. This snippet is actually the end of the flashback—the fateful moment when that person’s actions collide with June and Carl’s car. Once we’ve seen the end result, Carl has the option to rewind time and control that character’s activities in an attempt to change the outcome.
The flashbacks take place in the same quaint neighborhood as Carl’s nighttime scenes but the scenery looks starkly different in the light of day. Cars, the neighbor boy’s soccer ball, and Carl and June’s furniture suggest a somewhat modern setting, as does Wilson’s music, which at points goes heavy on the electric guitar. Simultaneously the stone cottages, lush greenery, cobblestone paths, and steampunk interior of the old man’s house infuse the surroundings with a picturesque, fairy tale feel. I love this incongruity—Last Day of June unfolds in a completely unique place where mismatched elements somehow make sense together, a world that belongs to this story and vice versa. Another story could not be told here, nor could this particular story be told anywhere else. Everything about the experience, from the colors to the music to the turn-back-time gameplay, feels deliberately chosen.Continued on the next page...