Screenshot by Scavengers Studio.
SEASON: A letter to the future begins with a ritual. Estelle awakes to the smell of her mother’s cooking, for the last time. Her mother waits in the kitchen, beside a large burner on the table. It will be used to create a “memory pendant,” an object designed to protect Estelle from the very real “diseases of the mind” that fill her world: memory excess, time misperception disorder, daytime visions, and so many more. In SEASON, the weight of memory sinks into the ground itself before calcifying into glowing, purple crystals that scream the past into the present, and into the fragile minds of anyone who wanders too close.
“Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased, perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” — Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
To make a pendant, one must burn their memories: turning them into a form that is touchable and raw. This process destroys the memory, and Estelle’s mother makes the sacrifice in her daughter’s place. This is not just an act of motherly love, but a reflection of Estelle’s role in her dying world: Estelle is an archivist, the first person to leave her small village of Caro in decades. She must record the end of the season, a pseudo-apocalypse which describes the end of a historical era, using just a camera, a tape recorder, a journal, and most importantly, her (and your) judgment.. SEASON: A letter to the future is a game about fixing memory in place, and choosing what is lost. (It is also a game, we should point out, where current and former employees described the developer as a toxic workplace and “an environment hostile to women.”) Along the way is also a bittersweet, unexpectedly funny meditation on memory versus history, and the reconciling the end of the world with the knowledge that life will, somehow, go on.
The majority of SEASON takes place on the final day of the Tieng Valley—a secluded valley which, in more stable seasons, was a common tourist destination, known for its “three reliable gods.” It is Estelle’s first, and only, day in the valley. The record that she, an outsider, creates will be the only trace left of it after the season changes.
The valley, like every other part of SEASON is as dense and beautiful as it is fleeting. The game has a masterful command of architecture and space. The skeletal remains of an impossibly large highway loom over a small cow farm. Bits of rubble form stunning, accidental arches above a refugee camp. A forest filled with dim, electric light hums in the northeast, sunlight punching through the trees and accentuating the half-light of the bulbs. This stellar area design makes the act of photographing the dying valley a melancholy joy.SEASON has no interest in abstracting the valley, either. That would make things easier, and SEASON has no interest in making things easy. To ride your bike to each of the major landmarks in the Tieng Valley takes thirteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds. To walk from the entrance of the valley, to Assembly Point, where the valley really begins, takes fifteen minutes and forty-seven seconds, during which you will take around one thousand nine hundred and forty four steps over four thousand four hundred and eighty three feet. The particular texture of light in the Tieng Valley changes seven times.In addition to the photos she takes and the sounds she records, Estelle has a handful of opportunities to talk to the other inhabitants of her dying world. These conversations are as brief and as naturalistic as they are literary. Characters speak in memories and aphorisms. They tell Estelle so much, despite having just met her. However, unlike many games where this immediate intimacy feels unnatural, if expected, the presence of Estelle’s tape recorder reframes these short dialogues. These are not just conversations between strangers, instead, they are people’s last chance to give testament to the lives they lived—of course they’d be a little grandiose.
Most importantly to the game’s themes, conversations in SEASON only ever move forward. There are no looping dialogue trees. Time is limited, and to ask a question is to omit any other. Like everything else in SEASON, you make your choices and then you live with them.It is these moments when the tension between recording fact, and feeling, and personal history, is at its highest. At one point, your character is given the opportunity to talk about her father’s death with another grieving child, Kochi, whose father died while researching harpik, the memory-filled crystals which dot the valley’s landscape. You are given the option of recording the conversation, or not. I sat on that decision for minutes, imagining Estelle sliding the volume button up and down, idly, as she made her choice—the half dozen hard plastic grooves beneath her thumb. If you choose not to record it, the game cuts to black. The moment, then, is for Estelle, and not the player.That is an especially loaded personal choice, but the hardest part of SEASON is actually choosing what to prioritize, and in doing so, constructing an idea of what history should be. This is further complicated by Estelle as a character, and the particular decisions you’ve made about her past. Would a woman who "used to see souls in everything,” “shepherds delicate things into the future,” and who was “raised in the glow of her parents' love,” choose to omit the hand-made tools of Kochi’s dead father? What about the young woman who has been alone in a dying world for months, and clings to every trace of connection she can find?
SEASON never explicitly asks you to answer these questions, it just presents a blank page and demands you fill it with something. Journaling is the game’s primary verb. By the end of the season, the journal you produce will be wholly yours. Your photos, your slightly botched recordings, and all the other things you’ve chosen to care about.
At one point, you’re tasked with recording the actions of a nascent political movement known as the Grey Hands. The organization has come to the Tieng Valley to evacuate its people to the newly built Radiant City, in preparation for the coming season. The actual members seem to have their hearts in the right place, even if their methodology feels a bit…programmatic at times. A sort of bureaucratic anarchism. All well kept documents and interpersonal kindness. You investigate their supply depots, their dig sites, the materials they leave behind. At the same time, you uncover fragments of The War—its sleeping soldiers' last waking moments literally echo through the valley. I found a memo from the Grey Hands describing the season as “haunted.” Haunted by The War, The Golden Season, the “three reliable gods” of the Valley, and so much more. It is for this reason that they are so intent on building a new season, free from the weight of history. I’ve always had a particular theory about hauntings, one that SEASON seems to share: that what we call ghosts are the result of emotion soaking into the built environment. In SEASON, memory can calcify into glowing purple crystals and flowers. During your journey through the Tieng Valley, you’ll find places like this, where you can pull out your tape recorder and listen to the past. Sometimes it is a conversation, like the final moments of those soldiers, other times it is a song.
If you use your camera near those crystals or flowers, any picture you take will be muddled by the purple haze of memory. In one photo, taken in a cemetery, the text of a headstone is barely legible through the sheer density of feeling in the air: “She forgot who she was. She forgot how to breathe.”
The only Grey Hand you meet in person is older than Estelle. He must’ve been a child of The War. With this in mind, the Grey Hand’s mission to build a new world free from the weight of history makes sense. They want to forget the war that made them—-to move on from the burden of trauma. So, they pray to Void, the god of forgetting. They hope to wipe the slate clean, and build the new season with an intentionality that other seasons have lacked. And the gods of the Tieng Valley have real power. The Grey Hands’ plan will work. The political leaflets you find suggest that the Grey Hands are, at their core, a political organization that believes the only way to build a better world is to try something new. They have built their organization around the skillsets of the people who join. Its members range from postal workers, to doctors, to wedding officiants. The Grey Hands imagine a world of praxis, excised from context. A real utopia, but one that must be built from scratch, and requires the obliteration of everything that came before it. They require that, to move to the Radiant City, the people of the Tieng Valley must leave everything behind, without the knowledge that the coming season may take their memories, too.
Estelle, unlike many of the people she meets, was not born in an older season. She was not a product of the Golden Season, or even The War. She has spent the entirety of her life in this haunted season—she was shaped by it. It is her duty (and her right) to remember it.
In SEASON’s final area, Estelle meets a fellow archivist from a very far off place. The place that her childhood storybooks warned her about. She never found those people frightening, though. And I had Estelle burn that book. She keeps its ashes around her throat.They do not speak each other’s languages particularly well. Instead, they communicate through their respective journals. The man’s journal is filled with sketches. Estelle’s journal, with sketches, photos, and recordings. The two give testimony to their respective journeys through these journals, with few words. The work of an archivist, then, is an act of translation. Estelle, despite the language barrier, conveys her journey from Caro to Tieng Valley through the voices and images of their past. Her telling is, of course, incomplete, but effective.In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes 55 cities to the emperor Kublai Khan, Polo and the Khan do not, at first, speak the same language. Their relationship begins with a more complex form of communication: objects. Polo arranges things he has found throughout his travels, the Khan interprets them. Eventually, they progress to language. After a long time, they return to objects and silent contemplation. But throughout the novel, Polo is evasive about one place: his home city of Venice.
When the Khan finally demands Polo tell him about Venice, Polo says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” The entirety of Invisible Cities, all 55 cities (both real and imagined), are a translation of Venice. To express the place in full, is impossible. Instead, Polo and the Khan build the city together. Memory, then, when fixed in words and objects, is not truly erased, but instead, like all translations, it is transformed by the context of its telling. For moments, Venice becomes Diomira, or Isidora, or Zaira, or Zora, the cities of memory. But, in the end, it is always Venice.I am, like Polo was of Venice, terrified of losing SEASON. I will, without a doubt, recommend it to dozens more people, but I cannot shake the sense of possessiveness I have over the game. It feels too personal for anyone else to understand. They did not lose their grandmother, a poet, like I did. She was, like Estelle’s father, a regional poet. Already, her poetry is becoming inaccessible online—hidden in dead websites and the kinds of books that no one bothers to archive.And yet, SEASON reminds you, time and time again, that the historical and the personal are inseparable from one another—that this feeling of deep connection is, in fact, universal. It is a product of translation.Eventually, the town I was born in will die. My grandmother’s house will fall to ruin, too. SEASON itself may one day become unplayable. In the end, this, too, is an act of translation.