Playing If On A Winter’s Night Four Travelers, reminded me of something. Many years ago, when I was just a young boy my mother told me about a movie, of which she couldn’t remember the title and that I would, years later, identify with Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. Anyway, the story goes that there are four people, travelling together in a train, each of them recounts a recently happened story that ties in with how they ended up there. In the end, it is revealed that one of the them is the devil, which would subsequently announce they were all dead and that the train ride would last for all eternity. Now, the movie was indeed a bit different, but still years after listening to that story, haunted by the image of a neverending train ride, I wrote a subject entitled Raum. I employed a similar narrative, exchanging the train ride for a single room bathed in modern ennui, coupled with that daily routine that slowly kills you.
Years after writing that subject, I played If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers (Italo Calvino notwithstanding).
IOAWN employs quite a similar narrative idea to that original story told by my mother: on a train, four travelers get together to retell their individual stories, what they remember before getting there. While developed with AGS and still featuring the basic mechanics of a classic point’n’click, IOAWN is not really what I would generally define as an adventure. At least, I do not feel it is meant to be enjoyed as one. First, because of the limited locations available to explore: objects are picked up and pretty much always used in the same location they’ve been found. Still, there are puzzles and some of them could surely be defined as average for the adventure genre. Honestly, the puzzles are one game mechanic I am bit on the fence about.
On one hand, I generally thought the puzzles were okay and did not mind them, but some of the choices employed – especially in the last story – felt a bit forced, like the developers were pressured to add some actual gameplay value in the package, instead of just resorting to interactive narrative. Especially of note is the one where the player is asked to read up on the order and significance of various planets, so that they can figure out the right interactions between leaves and pots, along with the correct order in which to carry out a ritual. It is a common design for an adventure title, different even from the few puzzles that came before and, in the end, I felt the narrative come to a grinding halt. It took me out from was, up until that point, a completely immersing experience.
Because indeed, IOAWN is thick with atmosphere and each of the story is not only very well written (even though I am puzzled by all the references to “unknown” Italian writers!) but also carefully planned around the AGS engine, with low resolution pixel graphics that fit perfectly, along with some incredibly lovely animations. But, most of note, is the sound design, which more than once I felt was inspired by Leyland Kirby’s work as The Caretaker and his exploration of the topic of Alzheimer and dementia on Everywhere At the End of Time. The way that the sound deteriorates as the memories of the character approach something traumatic or just the feeling of losing track of what they are doing is just perfect.
The narrative is very strong in all of the three stories, even though it is bogged down by the gameplay a couple of times; especially in the last story which needed better pacing through its incredibly powerful setpieces. Still, its overall effect is never diminished, at least until the end. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, since the game is quite short as it is, but the ending employs a kind of humourous twist that I wasn’t really expecting. The three stories are tragic, melancholic, sad and at times even horrifying, recalling to mind the similar experiences the characters go through in I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. But then, the conclusion is little more than a wink and a nudge, I wouldn’t go as far as to define it as unsatisfying or illogical, but even despite my personal feelings, the sudden tonal shift is easily a choice that might end up leaving many people unsatisfied.
Despite the mentioned tonal shift in the ending, IOAWN can still be defined as a disturbingly dark title, which will take no more than 2/3 hours to finish. The way that the developers managed to employ their narrative ideas, fusing them with gameplay mechanics that don’t feel forced is particularly admirable. Moments when the characters are distraught or close to losing their minds are rendered beautifully, using sound and the isometric perspective in a way that is not just derivative of the usual movie-like narrative of cutscenes, instead using the medium of gaming to show unique ideas.
Download If On A Winter’s Night Four Travelers for free from itch.io.