Have you ever wanted to visit the memories of a woman’s relationship with a man with an owl’s head? Well, do I have the utterly perfect niche title for you. When the Past was Around follows Eda, a young woman who lost someone important to her at a point in the past and is trying to come to terms with the life that remains without them.
This tale is told through her memories with a figure who is initially represented as a scratched out drawing before slowly revealing their appearance through her time with them. You join them on dates to the beach, while drinking hot drinks in their home, and playing music together, but while these are joyful memories, there’s an atmosphere of sadness and inevitability that hangs over them all.
The gameplay sees you solving the various puzzles in these memories to progress. These puzzles follow the blueprint of the classic point and click titles of the 90s, but with all the elements needed to progress isolated within the area you currently find yourself. It creates an almost escape room-style experience, as new layers of the puzzle revealing themselves as you complete each task.
When the Past was Around does add some other features for ease of play, such as the ability to see all objects that can be interacted with at the touch of a button. This means that you can easily locate the often completely mundane items that you need to progress. Furthermore, it should be noted that most of the puzzles are not as distressingly esoteric as other games in this vein.
So, if you see a cardboard box that is sealed to interact with, you will generally need scissors or some other sensible item to open it and not, you know, a lobster claw or something stupid.
This doesn’t by any stretch mean that the game is flawless. Divided into levels based on memories, these sometimes fall across several locales or screens, meaning there is a fair amount of backtracking between puzzles in different parts of the memory. You will occasionally find that a required item or solution to a puzzle is several screens away.
Also, just because most of the puzzles aren’t esoteric that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occasionally dip into this well with some of its solutions. I would definitely recommend having a pen and paper nearby or a note in your phone because if you have an awful memory like myself you will struggle to retain some of the more complex or numeric puzzle solutions in your mind.
There’s not much more to the gameplay than this, although there are some hidden puzzles throughout that garner you achievements if you discover and solve them. But this isn’t really the point of When the Past was Around. The idea, much like similar other titles like Coffee Talk or If Found…, is to portray realistic emotions and a tangible story in a fantastical and otherworldly way.
The visuals in this game are stunning, pulling in beautiful watercolour illustrations with simple animations to give the impression of a story book in motion. The music leans on the same motif throughout to give the whole game a superb sense of flow, but will strip it back to just the key notes or cause the instruments to swell at points for emotional impact.
Also, as both Eda and Owl wrote music together and both played instruments in the story, we witness the music track playing in the game being composed by the characters together. It gives the song additional weight and ties the music to the narrative in a cohesive way, especially in instances when you are following a faint rendition of the music through an area.
The greatest triumph here is how well the visuals and music alone portray the story, and how the themes of love and loss are conveyed without any spoken dialogue. The emotional weight of the story beats comes in moments as simple as a visual stripping of colour or a change of key in the music, and this simplicity lends power that dialogue would struggle to match.
When the Past was Around isn’t a long title by any means, but what it does with its run time is definitely worth the look. The puzzles throughout are challenging, but not to the point of frustration (mostly). The beautiful visuals and music tell a wordless tale of love and loss with such deftness and care that the game’s emotional moments feel earned. If you’re looking for a great indie title to while away a sombre afternoon, look no further.