From developers Brainwash Gang and TLR Games comes The Longest Road on Earth. This title offers a sequence of micro-narratives that delve into all things regular; work, chores, travel and leisure are just a few things you’ll be undertaking in this experience that will take just under two hours to complete.
It’s another title that isn’t afraid to completely cut out any core mechanics or gameplay loops in favour of a more cohesive narrative experience. It is undoubtedly charming and immersive in its technical design and minimalistic storytelling, but, unfortunately, its mechanics may prove problematic for some. As we see with a lot of these kinds of games, the ever delicate balance of ludic and narrative elements can get slightly compromised.
STORY – MEANING IN THE MUNDANE
The Longest Road on Earth tells the story of six anthropomorphic everymen going about their lives in a contemporary – but considerably fuzzier – America. It’s a non-linear flash of moments with no dialogue or sound other than the backdrop of the original soundtrack. It’s a fragmented sequence of snapshots of the painfully ordinary. These are individuals that are often aimless, alienated and lonely, so, of course, there’s a lovely element of the existential at play. It’s slightly bleak. These are stories about growing up, following your dreams, alienation, depression, lost potential – you name it. It’s all open to interpretation, so you can take out of it whatever you want.
Above all, it’s a narrative that embraces and celebrates the mundane in life. You’ll be waiting for your kettle to boil, standing at traffic lights, hanging up laundry and feeding pigeons at a park. There’s one point where you’re literally waiting in a queue. On the surface, then, it doesn’t sound that thrilling of an experience. But, The Longest Road on Earth insists that it’s these little things that matter in life. Scattered among these dull and gloomy experiences are pivotal but brief moments of joy, peace and clarity.
This is what the game is trying to capture with its various tales. Workers from all walks of life going about their daily life – work, chores, travel, leisure. For me, only one character really struck me. But that’s only because I really related to that character’s journey personally. This part really took me by surprise. I’m positive anyone can find something touching in here somewhere. It tackles quite a broad demographic in a modern, industrial and occasionally banal world that we all can easily recognise.
On the whole, it succeeds in delivering a bittersweet series of micro-stories for you to interpret and immerse yourself in. However, the story isn’t told through dialogue or narration, rather through its visual storytelling and poignant music – so I’ll get to that later. Finally, you might think that the problem of centering a game around the mundane is that it runs the risk of being a little mundane itself. That’s certainly true – it might not be for everyone. However, I’d say that whether or not the monotonousness works or doesn’t work doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that the mundane is. It is exactly what it needs to be to tell the stories it wants to tell.
GAMEPLAY – STRIPPED TO THE BONE
In regards to gameplay, there isn’t too much to talk about. You can move left or right and interact with various objects. Occasionally, you’ll tackle something that might be called a minigame. On the whole, the game’s mechanics take a step back to better platform the sharper focus on presentation and narrative. It’s in much the same vein as visual novels or walking simulators. This is fine in theory. Plenty of games have offered stripped-down mechanics in favour of a more cohesive emotional effort. Unfortunately, the execution here leaves a little to be desired.
Fundamentally, the mundanity does not integrate very well at a few points. For my liking, there were too many instances where I simply wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be doing something to progress or whether I was meant to be taking a moment to simply take things in. There’s not enough feedback. Action and reaction feel very unresponsive and vague. It’s so mechanically unstimulating that, at times, I felt my role in the experience was bordering on obsolete. To make things worse, the characters are agonizingly slow and some sequences go on longer than they have to. At times, this can really mess with the pacing. Repeatedly pressing the space bar and holding left and/or right for minutes at a time really loses its charm after a while.
But it’s not that simple. It’s tricky. In retrospect, perhaps if it concerns itself with the mundanity and the maddening regularity of life, it has every right to reflect that in its mechanics. I am of the firm belief that a game being boring or frustrating does not necessarily rob it of its artistic integrity or inherently make it a bad game. If it is willed, it is right.
That being said, I realise not everyone is with me on that. The game could well have benefitted from some more direct engagement through its mechanics. They could have taken advantage of its extensive soundtrack and utilized it a little more creatively. Maybe they could have implemented an interesting mechanic that integrates the stories together somehow. To sum up, if you’re looking for a game that requires a little more urgency from you through its mechanics– maybe this isn’t for you.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – BITTERSWEET MONOCHROME
Technically, The Longest Road on Earth is marvellous. The larger focus on the visuals and music compensates for the total lack of a conventional narrative. It also helps ease the problem of the unengaging mechanics. All in all, they successfully regulate the mood of the experience at large to make for a much more emotional and cohesive experience.
First, there are the rich, monochromatic pixel-art visuals that take you through small, dusty rooms to luscious meadows to sprawling metropolises. Regardless of scale, it all looks fantastic. It’s impressive how well the shading simulates depth and it really immerses you in the environments. The design of the characters is elegant and diverse and the animations are smooth. It’s all very easy on the eyes. It’s just distracting and lively enough to keep you from getting bored from the gameplay.
As I mentioned earlier, it is occasionally hard to determine whether or not you’re meant to be doing something to progress. Unfortunately, the graphics don’t really help in this regard. Objects and objectives in the environment are obscured and hard to make out. Though, this is only really a problem in the more enclosed areas.
Perhaps most significantly, The Longest Road on Earth features an original and impressive soundtrack composed of twenty-four tracks performed by one of the developers themselves – Beícoli. With its warm and bittersweet lyrics, it’s a sombre and serene album that guides you through the game’s stories and compliments the mood fantastically. The music plays a massive role in the emotional presentation of the game.
It’s to such an extent I reckon it would be fair to label it an interactive album of sorts. Unfortunately, it is a little relentless. After about an hour of non-stop music, my ears were feeling a little tired. What doesn’t help is that there isn’t much variation in the tracks. Regardless, it’s still a wonderfully performed and very appropriate score.
The Longest Road on Earth was reviewed on PC via Steam.