Adventure Gamers Awards
Figuring out how to change the flashbacks isn’t taxing, but it is more involved than I expected from a game that could easily have slipped into interactive movie territory. To tweak June’s fate you may need to find and use a particular item, interact with another character in a specific way, or gain access to a closed-off area. These feats are simple compared to traditional adventure game puzzles. “Using an item” really means picking up one thing and using it nearby as opposed to collecting a large inventory of potential tools, and of course there are no dialogue trees. But the puzzles do require logical thinking within the context of your goal, especially as the flashbacks progress and dependencies between them grow more complex.
As you explore during the flashbacks, you’ll encounter bubbles with one of the four neighbors’ disembodied heads floating inside. (Creepy!) These optional collectibles are grayed out when they correspond to one of the other characters and bright blue when they correspond to the currently playable protagonist, making them easy to spot from a distance. Each bubble you collect unlocks a memory belonging to that person, which is viewable from the Options menu. While collecting these is totally voluntary, doing so provides insight into how these characters ended up where they are today, which, in turn, plays a role in June’s death. Thematically these memories neatly line up with the game’s overall premise, since each memory involves a loss that individual experienced.
Just as wheelchair-unfriendly stairs and ledges keep Carl from accessing certain places during the nighttime scenes, in the flashbacks some areas are gated off, requiring cooperation between characters to open up. The little boy can squeeze through holes in the fences that adults can’t, which allows him to enter a locked area and unlatch the gate. That gate then stays open in subsequent flashbacks, so the other characters can get into this previously off-limits area. Swinging gates that are too heavy for him can be opened by the adults, while the locked gates can be opened by anyone, but only from the side the latch is on. These conditions all contribute to several cleverly arranged spatial puzzles that can only be solved by coordinating the characters’ collaboration across flashbacks.
Inevitably, a game that requires rewinding time to test out trial-and-error possibilities runs the risk of growing repetitive. You’ll replay each flashback several times: first to see how the character’s original actions led to June’s death (which clues you in to what needs to be changed), and again to alter those actions, and maybe again if your initial attempt doesn’t pan out. Luckily, certain actions are pre-solved on subsequent playthroughs. For example: the first flashback begins with the boy waking up from a nap in his treehouse to find that his kite and soccer ball have been carried off by a gust of wind. You only need to navigate down and find the soccer ball once. The second time through, when you gain control over the boy he’s already in the yard with his soccer ball in hand.
Even so, a handful of establishing shots repeat every time the flashback restarts. Aspects of the car crash are also shown over and over, sometimes with small variations but often exactly as you’ve seen them before, and cinematics can’t be skipped. Another travel-through-time-to-prevent-a-death game, Shadow of Destiny, allows you to skip cutscenes you’ve already seen “verbatim” but prevents skipping ones that are slightly different due to a change you’ve made in the sequence of events. Last Day of June would benefit greatly from this feature, both to minimize the frustration of seeing the same scene over and over, and to reinforce when you should pay attention. A few times, while watching a scene I thought I’d seen before, I zoned out and missed an important new detail.
Following each attempt to change June’s fate, Carl wakes up in the living room eager to greet his wife. When he realizes she’s still not there, his palpable disappointment and frustration intensifies. Ovosonico has done an excellent job of conveying emotion through animation, gestures, grunts, and sighs. Some of the acting may be over the top, but at least it’s always clear what’s going on, no words required. Never during the 3-4 hour playtime did I feel lost or uncertain about what was happening—no small feat in a game that insists on muzzling its characters.
While the flashbacks strictly focus on the hours before June’s death, Carl’s nighttime scenes go back deeper, revealing how he and June reached this point in their lives. The area outside Carl’s house is littered with memories represented by translucent, statue-like versions of him and June acting out significant moments. As he moves through the garden, these memories progress from general snapshots to a specific trauma the couple experienced together. Like collecting the memory bubbles, viewing these vignettes is optional, but doing so will enrich the story by deepening your understanding of what has been lost in Carl and June’s separation.
These memories are an example of the care the developers have taken in ensuring that all elements of the game relate thematically to the story at its core. When someone dies, fragmented memories are all you have left of them, so it makes sense that the past Carl and June shared is depicted through these frozen moments in time, as opposed to fully rendered cutscenes. We recall these moments along with Carl, taking on his grief and growing to understand why he’s so desperate to save his wife. His fixation on changing the past becomes the player’s as well, even though the futility seems more apparent each time he wakes up alone in the dark with his wheelchair by his side.
Besides the repetitive cinematics, my biggest frustration with Last Day of June came fairly early on, when I couldn’t figure out how to progress through the second flashback. After replaying it multiple times and wandering all over the area I had access to, I went online for a hint. Based on the (wordless) guidance the game had given me, I was under the impression that each flashback was discrete and that I needed to move from one to the next to the next to tweak the chain of events leading up to June’s death. In fact, even after it seems you’ve “solved” a flashback, you’ll need to revisit each one a few times to keep fine-tuning events and make all of the flashbacks work together. In hindsight, I like this structure—as the threads get tangled up, the dependencies between the flashbacks turn into an overarching meta-puzzle to be worked out—but this was the one time I felt the game didn’t do a good job of setting up what was expected. (Hopefully by mentioning it, I’ll spare you the hassle!)
As so often happens in time travel stories, one small change can have a domino effect, disrupting the carefully constructed chain of events in spite of your best efforts. Each revelation of another small detail that must be reconciled raises the stakes, growing to a powerful crescendo when Carl encounters a final, insurmountable variable. In this devastating scene, the message seems clear: some conditions can’t be changed. Fate can’t be manipulated. You can’t prevent an act of God.
But that’s not the end of the story. Just when I thought Last Day of June was coming to a (depressing) close, with the car accident solidly unavoidable, the game takes a surreal turn—and here’s where the tale went from something I thought I had all figured out to something that genuinely surprised me. As Carl continues to tinker with the events resulting in June’s death, his grief transitions from denial (waking up expecting to find her beside him) and bargaining (the belief that her death isn’t permanent—that somehow, some way, the outcome can be changed) to despair and full-on rage. Still, he persists, leading up to an intensely emotional climax. At the same time it’s horrible and sad and surprising and painful and wonderful. I’m so impressed by the range of emotions this wordless game made me feel. As someone who tends to gravitate towards games that make me cry, that’s saying a lot.
Of course, with artsy games like this one, questions always come up about whether it “needs” to be a game at all, or if it wouldn’t be better suited as a short film. Last Day of June is by no stretch of the imagination a traditional adventure game, but figuring out how to change the flashbacks does give it some valid puzzle solving. You’re not just wandering around and clicking through video.
More importantly, I believe interactivity is a requirement for the story being told here. Trying to change the seemingly inevitable as the game throws up barrier after barrier communicates the gravity of June and Carl’s loss, along with the futility of trying to deny it, in a participatory way that words on a page or even moving images on a screen wouldn’t be able to. The repeated scenes can be annoying to sit through, but at the same time they demonstrate the impossibility of what Carl’s trying to achieve. And yet he—and we—keep trying. The player may start out as a third wheel along for the ride, but by the end of the game you become the agent pushing fate along its predestined course.
For a game about the day someone dies, Last Day of June ends up making a powerful statement about life, delivering its message much more simply and yet much more effectively than so many games with all those words. Even with its tragic premise, this is a hopeful story. All of the game’s characters are struggling with some kind of loss, and sharing their experiences gives players a chance to explore our own feelings about people we have lost. It also gives us context for what can happen after a loss—after the grief, the mourning, the denial, the rage. After tragedy darkens the world, the colors eventually come back, the memories we carry with us allowing the person we’ve lost to live on. Sometimes as ghostly fragments, as Carl experiences in the moonlit garden, reliving his life with June. Sometimes in other, unexpected ways.
Don’t believe me? Make sure to sit through the closing credits.