If you have been playing and reading about games for long enough, then you have inevitably come across a discussion about whether games can be art. My thoughts on the matter have always been that games can be art, but that games still need to be games too. No matter how beautiful it is, how wonderful its story is, or how important its message, a game still needs to succeed somehow as an interactive medium. This thought came to my mind while playing Seasons After Fall, a bright, colorful puzzle platformer that is available on a variety of platforms.
Seasons After Fall is, in some ways, a perfect illustration of the "games as art" concept. The game pours great effort into its beautiful visuals and its terrific score, which is highlighted by the work of a string quartet. The game enjoys great success as a work of art, but as a game, it suffers from a handful of major shortcomings. These problems frequently spoil the game's atmosphere, taking your mind off of the lovely graphics and music and redirecting it into feelings of tedium and frustration.
In Seasons After Fall, you play as a fox. Or are you a spirit posessing a fox? The game never makes it totally clear, which is a consistent theme and a problem with its story (the subject of the next paragraph). As the fox, you explore the forest at the behest of a Seed, some sort of young spirit girl who talks to you in your head, but doesn't show herself for most of the game. The Seed wants you to collect the powers of summer, fall, winter, and spring so that you can perform some sort of ritual. These four powers, along with some other basic mechanics like jumping and barking (this game's version of the "Use" button), form the foundation for the game's story and gameplay.
This story presents itself ambiguously, as if the game is challenging you to learn what is actually happening and who everybody is through keen observation. There is something to be said for this approach to storytelling -- it has worked wonderfully for games like Braid and The Talos Principle. Unfortunately, the approach fails in Seasons After Fall. A game with ambiguous storytelling may leave you feeling confused, but it should at least leave you with the feeling that it has left you with clues to a puzzle that you can solve. Seasons After Fall fails to meet this measure. Rather than feeling like a game that has a hidden meaning, it feels more like a game where all of the exposition was simply removed. The Seed wants you to perform some sort of ritual, but you never find out what exactly that ritual is for. That ritual goes wrong and you get your instructions for the rest of the game from a gigantic bear, who is one of the forests's four spirit guardians. The Seed later chastises you for stealing her "treasures", which are, in the game, some glowing balls of light whose purpose is never explained. The game constantly drops hints of world building and back story, but it never gets around to explaining to you what the hell it is that you are actually doing. Who is The Seed? What is her purpose? What is this ritual supposed to do? What do these guardians normally do? None of them besides the bear ever say or do anything during the game. Is the forest in some sort of danger? These questions are never answered and the story never gives you a compelling reason to move forward, other than that you need to do so to finish it.
One part of the game that does encourage you to move forward, however, is the promise of seeing something new and beautiful every time that you unlock a new area. Seasons After Fall is downright gorgeous -- a feast for both the eyes and the ears. The colorful, highly detailed, hand painted backgrounds are reminiscent of an Ubiart engine game like the recent Rayman titles. This strength is ultimately what carries this game. The screenshots show how the game's static environments look, but they don't fully do the game justice. Seasons After Fall also gives you the power to change the scenery early on with a season changing mechanic. Once you gain the power to control the seasons, you can change from the current season to winter, summer, fall, or spring at will. And, when you change the seasons, you change the appearance, the behavior, and the atmosphere of each environment. Winter in one area may appear cold and desolate, and summer in that very same area may appear bright, vibrant, and teeming with life. The wind picks up in the fall and the rain pours in the spring. Plants that bloom in one season wither in the others. These change are important for gameplay reasons, but they are visually appealing as well.
The game's sales pitch also highlights its soundtrack, and with good reason. Many of the game's climactic moments and important story beats are accompanied by the sounds of a string quartet. This music, especially when combined with the game's visual style, lends Seasons After Fall an entirely unique feel. It would be underselling the game, however, just to point out the music of the string quartet, because it also features some moody synthesized music in many areas that is just as effective at establishing its tone. On top of the music is a cacophony of magical sound effects that reinforce the game's mystical qualities -- whooshes, hums, and dings that underscore every one of your actions in the game. Seasons After Fall isn't the only beautiful 2D sidescroller out there, nor is it the only game that is so pleasant to the ears. It is, however, one of the more potent combinations of those two traits in recent memory.
Where this game falters is, unfortunately, in what counts the most. That is not to say that the gameplay in Seasons After Fall is a disaster, but level design has some major problems. The core mechanics of changing the seasons work well enough. Each season changes the environment in its own way, opening up paths and enabling advancement. Winter freezes water, spring rain can raise water, and the fall causes certain plants to bloom and provide platforms to support you. You will find that every season has its uses, and some of the ways that the game takes advantage of those uses may surprise you. Far too much time, however, is spent wandering around the maps wondering where you are supposed to go next and what you are supposed to do. Seasons After Fall has one small hub area with four connected areas that you will visit multiple times, leading to excessive amounts of repetition and backtracking. Each of these areas is fun to explore once, but traversal quickly becomes a chore as you solve and then re-solve the same mini-puzzle a half dozen times. To make matters worse, the vaguery of your objectives means that you will perform extra iterations of every simple puzzle to the game as you search for your next objective. The overwhelming majority of the puzzles are, indeed, simple, and require one or two season changes or other actions that are fairly obvious. Most, if not all, of the challenge in Seasons After Fall comes from figuring out where to go next, and not what you are supposed to do when you get there. Despite the game's area being rather small, it is surprisingly and frustratingly easy to get lost for significant periods of time.
Even if you do know where to go, the game can still occasionally be obtuse and frustrating. There is no better example of this problem than one horrible puzzle sequences that requires you to activate a handful of mechanisms in a dark area. The game does not tell you what your objective is in this area, so it is easy to presume that the objective is to just get through it. You can't figure out much more than that for yourself, since the game never communicates to you what the rules of this world are or how it works. It is only after wandering around in circles for a half hour that you finally figure out that you have probably missed something. In this case, that something is a series of switches that are hiding in the dark, up in the air so that you have to jump in the dark to activate them. How in God's name does an atrocious puzzle like this make it past playtesting? The game has its occasional highs, but far too often, confusion, boredom, and backtracking make the game a chore to play for more than a half hour at a time.
Seasons After Fall has its share of issues, but it has enough going for it that there is an audience out there that will gain some enjoyment from it. The game's production values are top notch, so if you can look past the game's problematic level design and simplistic gameplay then you may find it to be a very serene and immersive experience. It is a shame that those issues exist though, because the game's mechanics show some terrific potential. There are scattered moments when all of the game's elements -- its atmosphere, its gameplay, and its graphics -- come together to provide some memorable experiences. In the end though, the story in Seasons After Fall is too vague and confusing to be satisfying, and a game's graphics and music can only carry it so far. There is more than enough art in this package, but there is not enough game.