I very rarely look at itch.io. Whilst it hosts a myriad of indie games, they almost always appear to me as either very rushed or basic games when they aren’t just memes and references to internet humour. But when I saw If On A Winter’s Night: 4 Travelers in a video from the youtube channel Back Pocket, I knew that I had to play it for myself.
If On A Winter’s Night: 4 Travelers is an anthological point and click game set in the 1920s. The framing device is a masquerade party on a train, where each of the characters meet and discuss their personal life and how they got where they are. I love anthologies and I want more anthological series and games in the industry; The Dark Pictures is shaping up to be an enjoyable series and Life Is Strange has proven itself over and over again. But beyond those two I struggle to think of any gaming anthologies that aren’t games with full standard coherent stories, rather than experimental experiences.
The game has four stories; The Silent Room, The Slow Vanishing Of Lady Winterbourne, The Nameless Ritual, and If On A Winter’s Night – the story that ties them all together. Each of the stories took me roughly around 30-45 minutes to play through, and they all deal with similar themes of death, isolation and the desperation we feel when we are presented with those things. There is variation between these stories of course, for example one story has you playing as a gay man waiting for his lover for a secretive meetup, and another has you playing a scorned black doctor who is sick of being treated as lesser than his peers. Each of the stories have excellent nuance and subtleties to them, both in the dialogue and the design and visual look of the places they take place in.
The game is composed of pixel art, but it doesn’t feel like the developers just sat on it without thinking much about it. There is surprisingly so much detail packed into each screen, with every object telling you more about the circumstances and history of the characters. The art style and design of the game also strikingly reflects the twisted magical-realism aspects of the story; utilising symbolism simultaneously unsettling and wondrous.
For example, the second character, Lady Winterbourne, takes opium for reasons I will not spoil here, but everytime she does, the environment around her transforms from a rainy, glum, downtrodden day, to a golden and radiant afternoon in a shock wave that is somewhat reminiscent of how Wandavision introduced colour into it’s initially black and white town of Westview. There are more examples of this kind of this notable use of pixel art, but I dare not spoil them here considering the game’s short length.
As for the gameplay, it is a very basic point and click puzzling; taking information or objects gained from one location to another to solve a puzzle, requiring experimentation and exploration. The puzzles are fairly simple, and it was rare that I was stuck, but I commend the game on weaving the puzzles into the narrative in a believable manner. The tone of the game would not have suited the usual cartoonish circumstances and solutions to similar point and click games like Sam & Max or The Secret Of Monkey Island.
The music is fantastic and is mainly composed of creative commons songs from the period, and I only encountered a minor bug once in the entire game. The game is moody and delightfully eerie, and I wish there were more stories to play through. I would’ve made this review much sooner if it wasn’t for a few weeks of uni-work keeping me busy, and as a result the game has already generated a tiny amount of buzz, but it still feels criminally under-exposed considering the quality of the game. The game is freely available without charge, in fact there doesn’t even seem to be a donation field which is usually on every game on itch.io. Beyond these points, there is very little to talk about with this game without spoilers, and I dare not place too many screenshots from the game in case I spoil it too much, it is only a couple hours long after all.
If you have a Windows or Linux computer, I implore you to download the game and play it. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else, paid or otherwise, and it is a game that I wish I could forget so I could play it all over again.