The sun sets over a sparkling lake as two lovers, Carl and June, stare out into the dusk. June catches a chill as Carl goes to fetch a blanket. As he climbs the slope back to the car he picks up a flower and plays a game of ‘She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not’. He returns, with both blanket and flower in hand, and is then given a drawing in return. June is a talented and prolific artist, and later on, you find her house is adorned with her portraits and landscapes. The sketch she hands him shows Carl as her Superman and he too holds a flower.
The drawing is malleable within the game’s narrative. If you choose not to pick a flower, she won’t illustrate it. It’s one of many little ways the game tailors itself to fit your experience. It’s the subtle ways the game expresses the moods of the characters that make it such a special prospect. The quest givers in the game aren’t NPC’s reciting paragraphs of text, briefing the player as to how to progress their story, but the involuntary gestures of the characters’ wants and needs. Later, Carl will rub his stomach prompting you to search for sustenance, or a child will hold up a ball, tempting those around him to play.
The world of Last Day of June is created by Massimo Guarini’s studio Ovosonico and is published by 505 Games. It revolves around Carl and June’s romance and, as you might expect from the title, the tragedy surrounding their last moments together. At first, their relationship is brimming with innocence and excitement, reminding me of the connection between Micky and Minnie or the couple from Love Is…. Their enthusiasm is almost childlike as is their generosity and affection. Their speech, like all the other characters, is in the game’s own version of euro-simlish and their models have the distinct feature of not having any eyes; rather, they have almost what you could describe as the absence of eyes. Still though, the effect avoids the uncanny or the sinister by virtue of their animations being so charmingly endearing.
The lack of eyes and voices trades off their individuality so the player may input their own. These models are like marionettes in your hands and the intention is for the player to slide into their personas and fill the cavities in their personality. Their designs are a mix the whimsy of Tim Burton’s stop motion animation, the melancholy of Little Nightmares, and the vulnerability of Claude Barras’ My Life as a Courgette. Jess Cope, an animator on Burton’s Frankenweenie, and director of Steven Wilson’s Drive Home music video, is a key collaborator on the game, as is Wilson himself who provided the soundtrack.
The happy couple take off in their car, into the tunnel of a hillside, cueing the heartbreaking sound of a skid followed by a terrible crash. After the implied tragedy, the player skips to a short time ahead where Carl is in mourning and reliant on a wheelchair. Hunger motivates him to go looking for a can opener. His bereavement has left him without the impetus to look after himself properly. He no longer carries himself with the confidence or joy he once had. Stumbling into June’s old studio, he finds her paintings, and upon touching them, discovers that they have magical, temporal properties. He can now go back to the day of the accident and relive their last moments, desperately attempting to change the outcome.
The world without June bears a sharp contrast to the world with her in it. Ovosonico’s Marmalade shader is custom built to give the player the feeling of walking through the paintings of the great impressionists. Her last day is bathed in the oranges and golds of a picturesque dusk, soothing and relaxing the player, while creating a sense of time counting down to an inevitable event. In the depths of Carl’s misery, the warm twilight is replaced with the cold of a pale blue and impossibly large moon, yet the darkness is not entirely without comfort. There is a glimmer of magic to it that implies nothing is impossible. It speaks to the game’s refreshing lack of cynicism that such a feeling of hope is so easily implied without words.
Not only can he relive his final day with his beloved, but he can see the day through the prism of his neighbours’ eyes. As he discovers different perspectives, the game opens up like a spiritual Metroidvania and each character offers their own puzzles and emotional quandaries, such as the gun-toting neighbour who needs an outlet for his aggression, the old man looking for a purpose, or the lonely child seeking companionship. The world’s interactions are simple and understated, making Last Day of June the latest entry into the shoegaze adventure game genre along with Life is Strange, Firewatch and A Night in the Woods, all games more concerned with the emotional consequences of actions rather than the physical ones.
Each character has their own set of decisions, collectables and ways to influence the game’s ending. Whether or not that’s even possible, or if the game will instead become a fable of acceptance and dealing with loss, only the game’s release will reveal. Be it the former or the latter, the game from the minds behind Murasaki Baby and Shadows of the Damned looks to be another extraordinary journey that blends the sentimental with the surreal in a hazy and dreamlike world soundtracked by Steven Wilson’s ominous, yet lulling guitar strumming.
You can find Last Day of June on the last day of August on Steam and PS4.