In 2019, it surprises me that there’s still a debate as to whether or not games are art. Games such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, World of Goo, Mass Effect and That Dragon Cancer are just a few examples of how the medium of videogames has been successfully used to convey deep stories and artistic messages. But, as per Sturgeon’s revelation, for every good art-game there are nine others that fall short of the mark. One such game is *The Soujourn*, recently released for all consoles (on PC via a certain storefront that rhymes with “Nepic Bames”), and which describes itself as a “thought-provoking first-person puzzler”.
Now, first-person puzzlers of this sort tend to follow the same abstract formula: an abstract “story” combined with a few unique mechanics. I like to call these games “Portal-likes” after Valve’s seminal first-person puzzler that acts as an early example. The vast majority of Portal-likes tend to therefore end up relatively samey, and I’m sure it’d be no spoiler if I said that, to a degree, much the same is in effect with The Soujourn. In defence of it, its premise is actually quite interesting. Between the game’s levels the “story” is told by way of mysterious, thought-provoking quotes and statues, mainly of a young child whose parents are blindfolded, and who receives a blindfold of his own relatively early on. The game professes it’s main theme to be “uncover[ing] the nature of reality”, and it’s in this artistic merit that the game reaches its most interesting heights as you ponder just what everything you see is meant to mean.
Therein also lies the problem. While the game does have a lot of artistic merit and potential thereto, I find that a good Portal-like is one that is, more or less, like Portal: It makes good use of its gimmick, doesn’t feel like it’s too drawn-out and dripfeeds you story or thematic devices at just the right speed to make it not seem like a drag, being content to only last about 2 hours whilst still offering a unique experience. Some Portal-likes, like The Ball, try to stretch their unique mechanic across too many hours by padding it out with excess levels extra mechanics. As a result, it just feels like a bit of a slog.
Alas, The Soujourn falls into the latter category, in that there’s *too much* gameplay. The basic mechanic, in keeping with the theme of the nature of reality, is that you can switch between a “light” world and a “dark” world by stepping on special podiums, but you can only move a certain distance in the Dark World before you’re pulled back into the Light World. Whilst in the Dark World, certain pathways and roadblocks appear that are not visible in the Light World. You can also activate statues with various effects, such as creating extra bridges for a short period of time, and swapping places with said statue.
These are definitely interesting mechanics, but that’s more or less all I can say about them, and they are also where the game’s main problem lies. For lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, the game overstays its welcome. Between the actually artistic moments, while the gameplay is marginally in keeping with the nature of the mechanics, it kind of smothers the game’s artistic potential. After playing the game for about three hours, I felt that it could have easily told half of what it wants to tell in that much time without stretching itself too thin. Alas, it insists on using as many levels as padding, at the expense of its artistic merit. It’s as if someone poured a shot or two of bourbon into a pint glass, then filled it the rest of the way with tap water: there’s something good in there, but it’s still mostly filler. That said, in spite of the gameplay hogging the limelight a bit too much, the art style is at the very least pretty to look at, if not overly original. It reminds me to a degree of Bioshock Infinite with a hint of Rime.
Making an art-game is a very, very fine balance. You have to make it not too arty, lest it go over most players’ heads (e,g, Uriel’s Chasm), and not too gameplay-heavy, lest it dilute the artistic merit. The latter is, unfortunately the very pitfall that The Soujourn falls into. This game has so much artistic potential and yet it just gets drowned in the gameplay, which, while unique and interesting as well as being vaguely in keeping with the core theme of the nature of perception and reality, isn’t quite enough. The magic is there for a short while, and the way the game seems to pad itself out gets somewhat frustrating when what you’re trying to enjoy, being the game’s best feature, is the artistic merit. To that end I’m not sure I personally recommend it, although if you like games in the vein of Portal then you may be able to siphon some enjoyment from it.