Journal is a memorable game, but not a particularly good one. This creation of developer Richard Perrin and his company Locked Door Puzzle is noteworthy for its hand-drawn graphics, superb music, and vaguely morose teen-girl atmosphere that stays with you well after you wrap up the brief two-hour story. But the potential impact is watered down with too many after-school-special plot points and a disjointed narrative style that is way too avant-garde for the lightweight material.
Initially, however, Journal is very intriguing. The story centers on a nameless teen girl who finds that all of the pages of her daily journal have somehow gone blank. You start with a metaphysical mystery that might be termed The Case of the Erased Journal, but things veer off on a tangent almost immediately, with the journal being forgotten due to the girl's many other problems at school and at home. Her mom and dad have split up, windows have been broken, tests have been cheated on, and snow globes have been stolen. Nobody knows the trouble she's seen; if this kid were in jail, she'd be blowing a harmonica.
Nothing truly sticks, though. Journal is billed as a narrative-driven adventure--an interactive short story and a choose-your-own-adventure piece--but your choices in dialogue selections do little to shape the plot, and the girl's problems are kept at arm's length. Many have happened before the story starts, so you hear about them in retrospect. A point may be being made here about dealing with the consequences of your actions, but this storytelling at a distance dulls the impact of whether or not your character is the liar, thief, and self-absorbed twit she seems to be.
Other incidents force you into making dialogue choices without understanding the bigger picture. You can be a jerk when you don't mean to be, simply because you're not aware of what you've really done. Oh, sorry former best friend; I guess I broke that window and blamed you for it after all. Whoops. And some of the one-word choices given for attitudes you wish to adopt in conversations are needlessly confusing, leading you down paths you might not want to travel. The one ameliorating factor is that none of your choices matter very much in the end.
Stylistic choices cause more trouble. The whole "missing journal pages" concept isn't successful, partly because it seems like you're bouncing from one juvenile catastrophe to another rather than solving any sort of mystery, and partly because the story structure shoehorns in more mysteries that don't need to be there, or at least don't need to be held back until a big cheesy reveal at the end of the game. You're never sure who you are until the final act, when the illusions suddenly fall away with little rhyme or reason as the truth is exposed. If the circumstances behind that reveal had been part of the story background from the very start of the game, it would have been easier to empathize with the girl's plight and feel more attached to a sympathetic character, not the flaky, self-absorbed liar you have to live with until the curtain is pulled back mere moments before the game comes to a close.
With that said, there's something striking about Journal. The story structure may not work very well from a dramatic point of view, but it is atmospheric and weird enough to haunt you. One of the protagonist's loves is ornate snow globes, for the perfect little worlds that they enclose. It feels like you're peering into some kind of snow globe while playing the game, too, getting a sneak peek at a tiny teen universe. Distinctive, hand-drawn art adds to the appeal. Every scene in the game consists of a journal page filled with sketched characters and background buildings, with simple animations confined to minor objects like floating leaves and flying birds. The voice acting is also quite good, and the airy piano-laden soundtrack moves between bouncy and sad moods just like the protagonist.
The potential impact is watered down with too many after-school-special plot points.
For all of its flaws, Journal succeeds in making you think. Granted, most often this thinking is about how much better this promising game could have been if the developer had made some different design decisions. But it also makes you contemplate how much the little moments in life affect us, and how those little moments and their consequences are always colored by the bigger ones that loom large behind the scenes. It's all dime-store philosophy, but it's still a philosophy, and I credit Journal for a valiant attempt to say something, even if the message comes out tangled up in the end.