Veteran game developer Massimo Guarini is most notable for directing Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned. An over the shoulder shooter in which you play a demon hunter who must invade the underworld to save his kidnapped girlfriend, kill the big bad and solve some intricate – if convoluted – puzzle scenarios. Video games don’t get much more videogamey than Shadows of the Damned. Due to the notoriety the game gave him, it came as a surprise to many when Guarini opened his new studio Ovosonico, a development house with the goal of broadening the gaming horizon with new and different experiences.
Their first completed project, Murasaki Baby, was a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer with a bizarrely quirky art style – the lead character has a head three times the size of its body – and a bittersweet tone. Last Day of June takes that same form of visual storytelling and transplants it into a three-dimensional environment, but keeps the charming character design of sticking huge heads on small bodies.
The game follows our protagonist, the newly widowed Carl as he mourns the loss of his partner June. After a romantic afternoon, sitting on a pier by an absurdly picturesque lake, a storm makes them head back to their home when disaster strikes. They are involved in a vehicular accident, killing June and leaving Carl dependant on a wheelchair.
Carl, shacked up in their old home with only his grief for company, wheels himself around looking for something to sate his rumbling stomach. You feel for him as he drags his wheelchair around the house in the ghostly, shadowy twilight. Where once the house was cosy and bright, it is now cold and lonely, like the blackened wick of a candle snuffed out long ago. The strain of his animation and his grunts as he struggles to get around really bring out our empathy for this downtrodden and crestfallen widow.
Searching for a can opener for his meagre meal, he enters June’s old art studio for what appears to be the first time since her death. The space is filled with portraits of her friends and neighbours whom she lovingly painted when she was alive. This room, like all the others in the house, is a dark, colourless and depressing reminder of a happier time. As he reaches out to caress her self-portrait, light suddenly emanates from her picture and the paintings are filled with colour once again. Her artwork seems to have taken on a magical quality which will allow Carl to see the last 24 hours of her life through the eyes of the subjects in the paintings, and change the events of that day.
The game takes place in a little cul-de-sac in an unnamed Mediterranean country that could have been a setting in a Van Gogh landscape. The leaves on the trees and the petals on the flowers look like they could have been dabbed onto a canvas with acrylics. The studio’s depth-of-field tricks not only ensure that your attention as a player is focussed correctly, but it also gives the game a hazy, ethereal atmostphere, making you feel as if you’re wandering through a dream. The game is constantly stunning to look at and every new vista breaths new awe into an already breath-taking game. Walking around Carl’s idyllic hometown is the most pleasurable part of Last Day of June and gave me the feeling of wonder and discovery you fantasise about having on a vacation in paradise.
The characters too are more of an obscure idealisation of humanity, just like the location is a mosaic of picture-perfect postcards and desktop wallpapers. The people that populate this game are more of a notion than a reality. The most discerning feature of their character designs is that there is an absence where their eyes should be, and they all talk in a whimsy heavy version of Simlish, but despite missing eyes and voices, two of a human being’s most distinctive features, they still retain a lot of character and humanity.
By removing what may identify them as a person, the effect is to deconstruct them. To make them less of an individual and more of an idea. A tailor’s dummy of emotion we can dress ourselves around and fill in the gaps. One character may represent loss, the other longing, another jealousy. We can then insert ourselves into these recognisable and relatable ideas and use our own experiences to colour in the rest of the character.
The overall effect can sometimes come across as too twee – at their worst, the characters feel like cutesy constructions out of of a Build-a-Bear Workshop – but in the game’s most powerful moments, this just makes their flashes of defeat and despair so harrowing to witness. The relationship between Carl and June especially, has such a childlike innocence to it, watching him fall apart over her death is like seeing Peppa Pig’s day out at an abattoir.
These designs come courtesy of Jess Cope, a stop-motion filmmaker who made a music video with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson that had characters eerily similar to our protagonists. Wilson too made a contribution in the form of the haunting and melodic soundtrack that, in just a few short notes, can turn the tone of the game on its head, from a chilled-out puzzler on a balmy autumn day, to a tragic melodrama, wallowing in mourning.
Gameplay-wise, the Last Day of June plays like an emotional Metroidvania. As Carl finds himself reliving his neighbour’s memories, he finds that he cannot immediately access all the areas of his small village, but as he discovers the memories of each of his neighbours, he finds he can slowly start making his way through all the various obstacles fate has placed in his path. For instance, the first character he can take control of, a child, can kick a ball that knocks over plant pots, revealing holes in fences or widening narrow pathways, allowing passage.
That child also provides a handy introduction to not only the game’s mechanics, but into the context with which we will use him. The goal of this kid is not to make some kind of dramatic rescue of the endangered couple, but to simply find companionship in a place where he finds himself lonely and isolated. The other characters follow a similar suit, simply trying to find some kind of spiritual absolution in everyday tasks, such as loading up a moving van, hoping to make a fresh start, or delivering a present you hope will make someone happy.
Each time you change someone’s circumstances it has unforeseen consequences, ranging from the incidental to the devastating. You then have to navigate a patchwork of different scenarios that all add up to a different ending for June. This involves some repetition and backtracking. Structurally, the game requires you to replay certain scenarios several times, but the game will either abridge them to make them less of a chore or guide your hand to help you along with the solution.
It’s a good thing too because the most cumbersome moments come at the times you are aimlessly wandering around, trying to find a solution to a puzzle, only to realise you’ve meandered way off track. In these moments, you can not only be confused as to what to but also who to play as. It can get monotonous and infuriating at times, but just remember that the further you go from your starting point, the less likely you are to find an answer. The game has a deliberate flow to it and the answer to the next puzzle is almost always in the place the last section landed you. One good thing to do while you are pondering the next solution is to collect the character’s memories which take the form of collectable cards. Like the rest of the game, they focus on telling relatable stories that pull from some universally shared experiences.
Last Day of June is a joyous, tormenting, cathartic and harrowing journey through the stages of grief. It contemplates the trauma of regret and the ways in which we mentally try to undo those knots of guilt, only to find that we are better off living with them as best we can, trying to be better people, better friends and better family along the way.
Last Day of June by 505 Games & Ovosonico is now available to purchase on PS4 & Steam.