Journals are personal things; housing our thoughts, experiences, and deepest secrets as we pour our hearts out into their pages. In a similar way Journal the game is also deeply personal to its developer, Richard Perrin, being kicked around for nearly a decade and only just coming to fruition after passing through numerous different forms and surviving setback after setback. It's a passion project that needed to see the light of day regardless of how long it took to do so, but as any artist should know, after spending so long with your creation it's easy to lose sight of where it's headed and what it has become. For all the time and devotion put into it, Journal is not the masterpiece its creator no doubt envisioned it to be, unfortunately materializing as something far less profound and memorable.
Journal is the story of a girl. A girl having a very hard time attempting to come to terms with the recent upheaval of her life, as well as the general pains of youth attempting to find who she is in the world. It's a melancholy tale that attempts to deal with heavy problems in a realistic, relatable manner, but for all its endeavors to tell a more down-to-earth story than you often see in games, it overplays its hand by throwing its character through far too many hardships without ever elaborating on any of them. It comes off as disingenuous and almost exploitative, like an outsider trying to explain someone else's troubles without anything more than a surface knowledge of what someone experiencing them actually feels like. It's hard to feel empathetic when events unfold like those of a soap opera; without any explanation or justification, only serving to move the narrative onto yet another contrived moment.
The cliches extend to the characters themselves, all of which encompass some form of clique or extreme to better fit into their role of providing the protagonist with a wall to bounce questions off of, with the answer being largely insignificance. One of my biggest issues with the characters and narrative on the whole is how it presents an illusion of choice with no real changes or consequences to speak of. Something you say may affect a handful of lines of dialog (usually not beyond the immediate scene) but the plot itself remains the same, with the most important moments being completely out of the player's control despite the dialog options continually alluding to something more, as if you actually have some control of the outcome.
The worst of these moments are those that retain pertinent information until after you've had to make seemingly important decisions, without being given the facts to do so. For example, early on a friend of your character is accused of breaking a window, an act she denies and you are inclined to agree with, only later finding out that you were the one who accused her in the first place (and as is soon revealed, actually broke the window and were hiding the blame). These revelations come too late though, as you are forced to choose a side prior to being made aware of what actually transpired. It's like walking into a play during the second act; you're expected to already know the characters, their motives, and the the events that have occurred.
By the end of the game I was thoroughly detached from the protagonist, as her actions became more selfish and out of character as the game progressed, and I was helpless to influence any of it or even be clued in as to WHY she was doing what she was. For what is essentially an adventure game with the puzzles and exploration removed, for the dialog and characters to be so uninteresting and half-baked made for an experience that felt hollow.
It might not seem it, but this was a hard review to write. I wanted so badly to be drawn into the beautiful artwork and somber soundtrack which seem so ready to compliment a deeper story than we've become accustomed to, but it all fell flat. Perhaps it's a side-effect of Journal's tumultuous development process, but something went awry and the end result is less than amazing. It's hard for me to pan something that was obviously close to its creator's heart, but when it is flawed at such a fundamental level I can't write it off as something that can be overlooked, but instead have to dismiss it as a whole. Like the journal from the title, it's almost as if large portions of the game simply vanished, leaving you with a shell of what might have once been.Full disclosure: this game was reviewed using a copy provided by the developer.