Season: A Letter to the Future is the disappointing evidence that beauty is only skin and texture deep. This slow-paced explore ‘em up, in which you must chronicle and journal the end of an era, is rigid-jawed with sincerity, though lacking in anything meaningful to say.
To set the scene, it’s apparent from the very start that, despite how much the world and characters look familiar, this isn’t our reality. This is a place where memories can exist externally of a human body, and be given up or regained once lost. Meanwhile, a timeline of “Past Seasons” refers to the “Season of Modernity” occurring in the year 500, while “The War” took place in 770. Our character—a young woman, probably around 20 years old—was born in 780, in a season yet to be named. However, a prophetic dream suggests that this era is almost up, and with her mother’s blessing, she is the first to leave her village in many years, in order that she can record the current times for future knowledge.
Before she goes, her mother sacrifices five memories, each associated with one of the traditional “five senses,” in order to create a pendant that will protect her daughter from the mmmph mmph mumble mumble. Then she gets on a bicycle and is off, to explore the big wide world.
Immediately, the game is spectacularly pretty. It’s a vibrant, vivid, wonderfully detailed, and splendidly animated world, rippling with life, and dappled with carefully muted color. I gasped out loud as I cycled down the game’s first hill, the huge sunrise sky over stretching hills. There is nothing that can be taken away from Season’s art.
It’s then time to begin a record for the future via your camera, audio recorder, and personal thoughts. Each section of the game has a spread in your journal, which you fill with photographs, sketches, notes and (somehow) recordings, until a meter on the page is filled and some more musings are unlocked—along with a bunch of decorative extras to make your journal page all pretty. At first the game is linear, taking you through these sections in order, teaching you the ropes. Then, for its dominating middle act, you’re let loose in a large valley you can explore in any order.
The issue is, while constantly visually adorable, there’s just no substance beneath all that style. The valley is being abandoned, due to some incoming flooding that will permanently fill it, destroying everything inside. On your arrival, there’s just a day to go, and some stubborn or disorganized folks still yet to leave. This is the last chance to record the valley whether the season is ending or not, and to talk to the scant inhabitants that remain. What insights will you learn? What meaning will you take from this incoming destruction? Um…
For the most part, you’re left fighting the game’s abysmal controls of the bike, which catches and clips on every rock, paving stone or bump in the road, and has the turning circle of an ocean liner. Along the way, you need to stop and take photographs of anything interesting you see (or just the same photograph of a patch of empty sky five times—the game doesn’t actually care) in order to fill the journal. Snapping pictures of interesting objects or recording a distinct sound will trigger dialogue, which feels like ticking some sort of box, but even these can be dumped in the journal in a haphazard, overlapping pile, and it makes no odds to anything.
There are five characters to talk to, and a few areas that need to be more properly explored in order to allow the time of day to advance toward evening, but beyond this it becomes too apparent that your main role here is to keep turning the page. Where the game could have been interesting would have been to require you to essentially “solve the puzzles” of which sounds to record, which notable features to photograph, in order to satisfactorily complete each area. Instead, but for five or so exceptions out of dozens, you mostly inadvertently cheese your way through any page just taking a couple of photos and adding three of the automatically generated comments, then the meter dings even though most of your journal is empty space. (Or worse, you can just paste in five recordings of literally nothing, and still “pass.”)
I tried to avoid this. I instead worked incredibly hard to complete every area, and most of the time arranged them in ways that looked nice, even decorating them with extra details, just for the sake of doing something. Because, despite an enormous amount of well-delivered dialogue, and against what felt like a lot of effort (the videos included are also amazing), I was just so bored.
Rather unfortunately, the game behaves as if it has astonishing wisdom to share, as if each thought and reflection is a pearl for us to treasure. Everything is presented as if it’s a great insight, a revelation, abundant profundity that will blow our minds. But sadly, it delivers only banality. Everything’s said so incredibly earnestly, but it all conflates ambiguity for intrigue, and sincerity for sophistication.
We’re asked to wonder why the current season is ending, but never given even a sliver of information to work from. We’re asked to care about what season might follow, but have been given no knowledge of what the current one might be like. Our character has lived her whole life in one village, from which no one leaves, and yet acts as if her exploration of only the immediately surrounding area will be the most profound and vital wealth of information for future generations! It’s the most astonishingly colonial mindset, ignoring the possibility that anyone in the neighboring town, let alone the rest of the world, might have already thought to do the same. That what you collect is a bunch of tourist snaps and thinly developed thoughts on the nature of memory further frustrates these attempts at poignance.
If you had to summarize what Season is ultimately about, it boils down to memory and grief. Which is, for whatever reason, by far the most over-trodden ground by chin-stroking indie gaming. But at least the best examples of this—Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, To the Moon, Night in the Woods, RiME—are impactful, even therapeutic. Season just points toward the subjects and hopes that will be enough. Sure, I’m delighted to do a fair amount of interpretative work when playing a game, but I’m not prepared to do the establishing narrative too.
There’s an effort in the writing to be flowery, as if this might replace worth, leading to swathes of oxymoronic lines like discussing, “a dulcet tension in the air.”
“Tell me about your mom,” I asked one character on meeting her. The reply? “These symbols and gestures were layered with meaning. There are signals in the way you might move your hands, or close your eyes. Her job was to manage the meaning behind the symbols.” There had been no mention of symbols or gestures before this, nor indeed after, so it’s all nonsense to hear, no matter how emphatically it’s written. When you ask the same person what it was like growing up on a cruise ship, the reply is that the rocking motion was soothing. It’s so demoralizingly trite.
At the absolute nadir of the game, there’s a flashback sequence in which a character tells you about a dream, and it’s just as awful as when that happens in real life. Just utter drivel about apples moving through time, tortuous to sit through, made worse by the game presenting it all with a black screen, as if a wondrous opportunity for us to use our vivid imaginations to picture those time-traveling apples.
None of this is helped by our character, honestly, being decidedly not bright. I desperately wanted to like her: a clearly well-loved young Black woman, setting out beyond the boundaries of her previous existence. She should be an inspiring avatar to occupy, but too often has leaden responses to most she encounters. At one point you look at an artist’s sculptures, and for two different works her response is a vacuous, “I’m not sure what to think about this.” That, or she’s smarmily arch. There’s an old CRT television in one area. Look at it and she says, “We learned about this box in school. People looked at it instead of talking to their neighbors.” Oh fuck off.
I really disliked Season. But the odd thing was, I felt bad about it almost all the time. It was trying so damned hard, and crapping on it like this feels like teasing the struggling kid in class. Damn, he’s a good artist, but his contributions to discussions really take the air out of the room.
I also imagine I’d have been a little more generous if it weren’t so miserable to control. As mentioned, the bicycle is unforgivably atrocious, but even on foot is clumsy. She moves glacially, her jog almost comically slow, and she’s prone to getting stuck on the corner of any nearby object.
But more than anything, I disliked Season’s belief in its own profundity. Its mysticism felt like cod-Buddhist leftovers, while its nonchalant efficacy of prayer undermined its attempts at agnostic universalism, all crushed under the weight of the sheer banality of all your actions being delivered as if creating a vital tome of historical significance.