If I’ve learned one thing from Mojiken Studio’s beautiful hand-drawn point and click puzzler When The Past Was Around, it’s that I should never strike up a relationship with a violin-playing owl man unless I want my heart to get smashed into a thousand tiny pieces. Despite its bright and breezy art style, When The Past Was Around hits hard, wallopping your emotions with all the feels at every gosh-darned turn. To be honest, even if I wasn’t getting all teary-eyed at Owl and Eda’s blossoming romance, I’d probably be equally upset about having my lovely neat apartment trashed by an invisible, busy-body puzzle solver. I’ve only just finished unpacking those plants, goddamnit, no need to tip them all over the carpet as well.
Without giving too much away, When The Past Was Around is quite a sad game. It is also never explained why Owl seems to be the only animal-human hybrid creature in all of creation. In the end, though, I think it’s also a very hopeful and optimistic one, as the puzzles you solve and the time you spend with Owl and Eda are all about luxuriating in the objects, rituals and places two people hold dear together. Whether that’s making a cup of tea and sharing a batch of homemade biscuits, or filling a glass bottle full of shells, seaweed and bits of coral from your trip to the beach, this is a game about remembering the past, being thankful for the memories it’s given you and, ultimately, moving on and letting go.
Owl and Eda’s home and the locations they visit together are lovely places to poke about in. Not everything moves or reacts to your mouse clicks, but they all sound gorgeous. Plant leaves rustle, ceramics tinkle and chime, curtains billow, birds chirrup in the distance, sand castles shift and table legs scrape against the wooden floors. It all feels very homely, tactile and cosy, like you’re nosing through authentic, intimate spaces. And since this game features a musical owl at its centre, the piano and string-heavy soundtrack is equally dainty and uplifting, setting a comfortable, inquisitive tone that immediately puts you at ease while you poke and prod.
Some puzzles are, admittedly, a little obtuse – there was one particular padlock about half way through that I had to look up how to unlock – but most of them are relatively straightforward. It starts off with your usual mix ‘apply this item to that item-shaped hole’-type affairs, but over the course of its five chapters you’ll also need to take in subtler environmental cues, as well as combine multiple items from several different locations. Coming in at just under two hours, it’s a lovely, if bittersweet way to spend an afternoon. If this sounds like your cup of tea, When The Past Was Around is currently just under £6 on Steam.