Short games get a lot of flack from the gaming community. Many players measure the value of a game based on the hours they played vs the price they paid. This is why games like Spiderman have out of place Mary-Jane stealth missions or why they added an asteroid shooting gallery section to Dead Space. These sections certainly do pad out the game’s length, but are almost always frustrating and/or boring to play. It’s far better, in my opinion, to create a really well developed short game than to create a longer game with uncomfortable mechanics and awkward levels. Thankfully, the people at Mojiken seem to agree with this philosophy as exemplified in their short, but incredibly deep game; When the Past Was Around.
When the Past Was Around is a short point-and-click puzzle game by Indonesian developer Mojiken. The story follows a girl, Eda, as she navigates love, loss, and heartbreak through a surreal world of memories and music. Like most games in the genre, the gameplay consists primarily of searching for objects around a room by clicking on them. Those objects are then used to solve various puzzles. What When the Past Was Around lacks in original gameplay it makes up for with an emotional story, beautiful artistic design, and music that you’ll be humming for days after you’ve finished the game.
What you’ll likely notice first when playing When the Past Was Around is the unique, hand drawn art style. Each level, character, and little detail was created by Indonesian artist and developer, Brigitta Rena. The world is surreal, but also familiar with most levels taking place in mundane locations, like on a beach or in a kitchen. Still, there’s always a sense of mysticism behind it all. Shadowy figures, disembodied music, magical doorways, and, of course, Eda’s part owl boyfriend make each level feel supernatural while still taking place in a beautiful and distinct scene. The comfortable and recognizable scenery provides a sense of immersion I rarely experience when playing similar point-and-click adventures.
Complementing the beautiful scenery is a gorgeous original soundtrack by composer Masdito Bachtiar. Music plays a major thematic role in When the Past Was Around, but I would have liked to see it play more of a role mechanically. While certain puzzles require unlocking musical codes or putting together an instrument, I rarely felt that music played much of a part in my own experience. I would’ve enjoyed more puzzles about finding a sequence of musical notes and then playing them on the correct instrument, for example.
Despite the emotional story, the gorgeous artwork, and the catchy soundtrack, Mojiken never lost sight of the fact that When the Past Was Around is, first and foremost, a puzzle game. Levels are comparable to Escape Rooms, both digital and physical. The puzzles are appropriately challenging for a casual, laid back game like this, but they are also satisfying and I was never bored while trying to solve them. Some levels take place in a single room, but others allow you to move between two or three separate locations in order to solve the complete puzzle.
While the central gameplay isn’t particularly original or unique, When the Past Was Around finds interesting ways to utilize its mechanics. While you’ll mostly be searching through boxes, cabinets, and drawers to find clues and tools, how the game presents this can vary wildly. One level will have you calmly cleaning your apartment or unpacking boxes, but when the stakes increase and things start to progress, your clicks become less calm and more destructive. While frantically searching a room for some medicine, Eda was knocking books off of the shelves and tearing boxes apart just to find the bottle of pills. While there isn’t an actual timer during this interaction, I knew how urgent the task was supposed to feel based on how I was interacting with the world. During another section, I was suddenly unable to click on anything at all, creating a feeling of helplessness. This made me feel like I was a character in the story they had created, rather than just a passive observer.
When the Past Was Around is an incredibly short game. With a total play time of only 1-2 hours, you can easily complete the game in a single sitting without losing interest. Despite its length, When the Past Was Around is a powerful game with an emotional impact. Mojiken poured their heart and soul into When the Past Was Around, from the instantly recognizable art, to the beautifully scored soundtrack, to the intriguing and satisfying puzzles. When the Past Was Around serves as an excellent reminder that developers needn’t cram useless and boring features into a game simply to pad out its length. Even incredibly short games are worth every penny when a developer has put as much passion into it as Mojiken has with When the Past Was Around.