Monday, November 22, 2021

I'm On A Train... I'm Still On A Train... I'm On A Different Train... I'm Still On A Train...

I finally did it!  I finally bought something off my Steam wishlist! It was the cheapest thing on there and it had to go to half-price before I'd bite but apparently I do have a price sensitivity trigger after all. Within thirty seconds of reading the email telling me it was on sale for 50% off, I'd bought it.

I can still claim I only buy games I'm going to play, at least. Within a couple of hours I'd started playing it. Or maybe I mean watching it. No, listening to it...

All of the above. The Longest Road on Earth isn't exacly what you'd call a game. Reviews on the Steam store page, where it has a Very Positive rating, albeit from just a hundred and six reviews, say things like "This game is like an interactive screensaver" and "It's hard to really call The Longest Road on Earth a game". And those are the raves.

My favorite negative comment was "Great music but I don't understand the point of this game and by that I don't mean that I'm not sure what's going on in this game but why would anyone play such games." Tibore has a point. The music is great.

It reminds a litle of The Papertiger Sound and it's so good, in fact, that if I'd heard it first as an album it would have made my Pitchfork 25 longlist. Or would it?

That's a question I'm never going to be able to answer. The whole experience of hearing those songs is so inextricably linked to watching those images and also to pressing those keys that to judge the elements separately makes no more (or less) sense than singling out the individual instruments in a recording and rating them in isolation.

Which, of course, is something we do all the time. Or I do, anyway. Like, what would Sun60's Take Me Home be without that trumpet solo? I guess I could pick the fabric apart and talk about the graphics and the gameplay and the sonics independently. I might, yet, if I ever get around to a full review.

I think I won't, though. I think I'll stick with the gestalt. I think that's what matters here.

The first comment I quoted above, the one about the "interactive screensaver", gets very close to what The Longest Road feels like to play (or play with) but what I was thinking as I watched and clicked and listened along last night was "this feels like I'm directing a music video". I'm guessing there'd be a market for an app that let you do that although I'm not sure it would need to be a "game".

Sometimes there didn't seem to be a lot of direction needed. The action (I use the word in its loosest possible sense.) is so perfectly synched to the music that even though I had no clear idea in some scenes what I was expected to do, whatever I did seemed to fit. It's strangely empowering. It feels almost like dancing, only if you could.

It's such a strong meld that on the odd occasion I couldn't quite find the rhythm it felt frustrating. There were a couple of scenes where I wasn't entirely sure whether I should be doing something or just sitting, watching and listening. 

That. It turned out to be that. One thing the game does that you only really ever see in experimental works and art installations is ask you to experience something from a perspective other than your own, for longer than feels comfortable, making no attempt to entertain you while it's happening.

I played for an hour and there were several train journeys, two of which asked me to do nothing much other than sit and wait until the train got to where it was going. Once the ticket collector came by. Slowly. Then he came back. The other time, not even that. 

In both cases I could do just one thing while I waited: change my point of view from mine to the character's. In one train carriage the character put her her elbows on the table and her head in her hands and all I could see from her perspective was the lamp on the table. In the other the character sat upright facing the other side of the carriage and all I could see through his eyes was the opposite window and the hanging straps.

Just that. For about three minutes. While a song plays. A whole song, start to finish.

When one of the Steam reviewers says "this is not a game for eveyone" they're really not kidding. Mostly I love it but in those extended train journeys even I began to feel the lack of agency. 

I'm fairly sure, though, that in those scenes lack of agency is precisely the point. The characters are trapped in situations they can't escape, doing things they find emotionally harrowing or soul-destroying. They can't change their perspective or take control of their lives so why should you think you should be any different?

Or at least that might be what's happening. It's hard to be sure. The Longest Road is not a narrative-driven experience. There are stories being told but what they are is mostly up to you, the player, to interpret. Or invent. Or imagine. 

As yet, I'm not even sure the scenes always happen in the same order. I think they do but I've only played the original demo and the first hour of what is generally reckoned to be a three-hour game. In last night's session I remembered many but by no means all of the scenes from the demo I played back in February.

Even though the demo only lasts twenty minutes, there are screenshots in the old post of things I didn't see when I played for an hour last night. I'm curious to know if there's a random factor or whether it's just that the demo is really a trailer, a few of the best bits stitched together, not, as I thought at the time, the whole of the first story.

I'll get the chance to find out soon enough. The main reason I played for an hour last night, rather than the thirty minutes I intended, wasn't because of how wrapped-up in the experience I was but because I couldn't find any way to stop. The controls are the very definition of minimal - left and right arrow to move, space (or mouseclick) to choose an action. Or, I should say, choose whether to act. The only choice, ever, is Act or Do Not. Yoda would love it.

Similarly, you either play or don't play. There didn't seem to be any way of saving the game that I could find. Hitting Escape pauses the game and gives you access to a couple of icons but all you can do with them is adjust the volume or close the game. I closed the game.


Afterwards I noticed that when you very first start there's an icon of an old-fashioned floppy disk. It seems to be crossed-through by default but you can uncross it. I am guessing that might relate to some sort of Save function. I cleared it for next time but as yet I haven't been back to see what effect that's had.

I'm not sorry to have to start over. The whole thing could stand some poking. I'm very unclear on just what can be done. I was wondering even as I was playing what would happen if I just let a character stand in the middle of a scene indefinitely. Would the game move on to another when the song ended? Would the song start again from the beginning? Is the music designed, like most game soundtracks, to loop indefinitely without making it obvious that's what it's doing?

And the animations and the vignettes - are they always the same or do they pull from a pool of possibilites, puzzle pieces that slot together like Lego to give an unending impression of mundane, quotidian, workaday existence? That would make the whole thing more than I imagined it was. Or possibly, as yet another Steam reviewer would have it, "Beautifully mundane... But nothing more.".

In the end, I'm not sure it matters. It's a mood piece. It's a series of images set to music. It's a suite of songs with pictures. It's a something to do with your hands while you listen to an album. It's a place to let your eyes rest while you think about the lyrics. It's an experience.

If and when I work out what that experience is I'll be sure to come back and let you know. Better yet, go try it for yourself, then come back and tell me. It's on sale at half-price (£3.99/$4.99) until November 24.


  1. Very interesting, I may check that out. Some of my favorite games are basically a long series of cutscenes interspersed with gameplay. Maybe cutting back the gameplay even more would be a bridge-to-far, but if it's on turbo sale it seems like it's worth a try.

    1. Depending on your taste in music, I'd say it's easily worth the reduced price just for the songs, although the soundtrack is available separately. I played through the first story again and I can confirm it is not random, so replayability is limited. MOre importantly, that little icon is the Save function. As far as I can tell you can either have it Off, which is the default, and there's no save at all or On, in which case it lets you restart at the beginning of each chapter you've reached. Not much but better than having to go through the entire thing every time.


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