Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
My childhood was dominated by the specter of the “giant video game.” The Final Fantasies that occupied so much of my PlayStation gaming time proudly displayed their runtimes on the back of their double-sized cases so that we, those players who were looking for the most bang for their buck, would know exactly what we were getting out of them. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure I really knew what Final Fantasy VII was about when I purchased it; I knew that it was long, and that it would occupy my time, and that these games were somehow better than the Crash Bandicoots and the Spyros that surrounded them in the tiny Wal-Mart case where I bought them.
And now, many years later, I feel like I’m still inundated with games that try to bowl me over with their massive runtimes, and in protest, in an attempt to keep a little bit of myself for myself, I played a short game that I purchased on a whim during a Steam sale some time ago: The Last Time.
It’s a point-and-click adventure game of the simplest sort, mostly asking you to run through conversations and occasionally pick up an object or two in a short puzzle. It’s 2D. It has pixel graphics. It takes about an hour to play. It is, in a lot of ways, antithetical to many of the games that we’re so invested in today. There’s no massive world to explore, no mountains to climb (or even go to), no long side quests that really fill out the world in ways that the main quest can’t do. There’s tragedy, though, and it’s of the same sort that games like Ni no Kuni II or Assassin’s Creed Origins resort to when they need to summon up some gravitas. Our protagonist, Jack, makes an awful mistake. Then he spends the rest of his life regretting it.
Jack is a police officer in England in the 1960s, and he responds to a burglary with his partner Darren. The house appears empty when they arrive, so Darren begins to dust for fingerprints while Jack clears the house. He finds the owner dead on the floor of the master bedroom with a gun on the ground. He appears to have been executed via handgun, and Jack picks up the murder weapon and hurries downstairs to find Darren and report what he’s found. The burglar-now-killer has Darren held hostage. Jack pulls the gun and, in my game at least, he draws it and fires. He misses the burglar. He accidentally kills his partner. That was 40 years ago, and the game proper begins.
“Vignette games” is a way that game designer Nina Freeman has described some of her work, like the game Cibele. Influenced by poetic forms, Freeman holds the idea of the vignette as a way of getting at a specific, exact feeling in the form of a game (this episode of Designer Notes is instructive about the idea). The Last Time is, I think, illustrative of a melding of Freeman’s idea of the vignette game with a more traditional and run-of-the-mill script. I don’t mean that as a knock. Cibele, for example, does shockingly good work at getting the player into the emotional headspace of a relationship that’s uncomfortable and manipulative. It has an extreme amount of focus that is dedicated to making the player feel a very specific set of emotions: shame, embarrassment, hope, and anxiety. It foregoes plot for feeling first and foremost.
The Last Time can’t manage to do this, and that’s what makes it such an interesting game to be considered through the vignette lens. After the shooting, we jump forward 40 years. Jack is in a retirement community. He’s contacted by Sarah, the granddaughter of his partner, and he begins what I can only describe as a buddy cop comedy plot with her. She’s a wiley 20-year-old who can use the internet to figure things out, and he’s the old grumpy man whose best bet is following her around and trying not to get hurt. When someone starts committing crimes around them, there’s only one thing they can do: see this whole thing through to the end.
If you started reading that last bit with something akin to “movie trailer voice” in your head, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a pitch that belongs to those big, epic stories that I played on the PlayStation. It’s a tone that seems to belong to something other than the contemplative vignette.
And yet, The Last Time pulls it off somehow. It gets that big, broad story into a tiny frame and then fills it out not with car chases or explosions but in moments of personal development for Jack. In one moment, before heading out on a dangerous mission, you can choose to have Jack tell Sarah, plainly, that he’s scared. He’s a 70-year-old man. He’s not an action hero. 40 years ago he did something truly horrible, and his life changed, and there’s no heroism in him.
We’re living in a transitional period when it comes to games. The technology to make them is as widely available as it has ever been, and the kinds of stories that have been appearing in games over the past few years are different from the vast majority of what came before. With The Last Time, it’s not just a different kind of story, but instead a different kind of melding of the vignette, the adventure game, the broad strokes story, and the introspective quality of dialogue choices. In such a short runtime, The Last Time creates a world and a set of characters who I came to care and worry about in a way that, say, God of War was not able to achieve for me.
Coming out of several massive games recently, including Pillars of Eternity 2, I can’t help but feel relieved to play a game that wants to deliver a short, contemplative, quiet experience. As a vignette game hybridized with the pulsing rhythm of a buddy comedy plot, The Last Time is content to lets its conversations unfold between building fires and standoffs. Jack is allowed to be sad, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be regretful in a world that is banally similar to our own. And, perhaps, in seeing the everyday sameness, as players we can try to access some of that quiet reflection ourselves.
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