Season: A Letter To The Future Review - The Meditation Game

  • First Released Jan 31, 2023
  • PS5
Mark Delaney on Google+

Scavenger Studio's semi-open-world adventure game is equal parts poetry, memoir, and mindfulness exercise.

Some games demand a specific kind of real-life setting to really be absorbed. Horror games beg for the lights off and headphones on, while co-op games are often more enjoyable when played together on a couch rather than online. Season: A letter to the future requires its own special circumstances--a calm, peaceful environment--and if you can provide that, you'll find in it a special stillness, a pensive story, and a memoir from a fantasy land worth experiencing.

Sometimes the language of open-world games is obvious, especially if you've played a few of them. Excitingly, Season doesn't feel like such a game, as its approach to gameplay and story are fresh and largely disinterested in giving you boxes to check. You play as Estelle, a young woman who sets off to observe and record a part of her world on the precipice of a new season. In this unnamed world, which is like ours but also definitely is not ours, a new season doesn't mean just a change in temperature; it means a total rebirth of the state of things. The game is deliberately unclear regarding exactly why, when, or how seasons emerge, and it seems at least sometimes they are influenced by people rather than natural things that happen to those people. Seasons seem to be more defined by the particular circumstances of a society--the breakout of war or widespread sleep, for example--more than they are snow days or fallen foliage.

For Estelle, it's important to document the outgoing season as all will be lost when the new season begins, even as no one seems sure what that season will usher in itself. For the people of Tieng Valley, a lush farming village that's largely been evacuated due to an imminent dam collapse, the beginning of the season may even be a matter of life and death. Equipped with a camera, audio recorder, scrapbook, and bicycle, Estelle treks into the valley to interview the last remaining locals, capture the state of the vista in its final days, and reflect on things like memory, community, and grief. These, and other themes, are delivered through thoughtful monologues and conversations that allow for players to insert themselves in the story.

Meeting each denizen of Tieng Valley allows Estelle to ponder her own place in the world.
Meeting each denizen of Tieng Valley allows Estelle to ponder her own place in the world.

Biking through the wide-open valley after a linear introduction, you can stop anywhere and take pictures of anything. You'll find the world casually split into sections: a cemetery, a temple, a path to a farm house, and so on. In your scrapbook, each named location gets its own dedicated pages as you discover them, and what you put on those pages is up to you. You can capture photos of cows grazing after their human companions have moved out, focus on the juxtaposition of industry and nature on the eve of the dam collapse, or create a portrait of a grieving widow as she packs up her late husband's best suit. It's all equally valid and other than a few puzzle-like sections where you'll need to find specific items, there are no wrong answers.

Simple camera tools like zoom, focus, and color filters allow you to frame and present a moment just as you intend, and, if you like it enough, you can include it in your scrapbook. The same is true of capturing audio--you just point and shoot--and these audio clips become mementos you can include in your travel log. Capturing some images and audio brings out Estelle's inner thoughts, which often become writings you can jot down, too. Capture enough of these "keepsakes" of any location, and you'll unlock additional drawings, stamps, and other musings that can be reshaped and resized to further decorate your scrapbook. The idea is that, by the end of Estelle's journey, the scrapbook will serve as a detailed moment frozen in time, left to pass onto future generations so they can understand their own would-be ambiguous history.

Her entire journey will take anywhere from 6-12 hours, with that variance largely owing to how much you let yourself soak in the various scenes. Season is tranquil at all times, and given Estelle's often wiser-than-her-years thoughts on her experience, the delicate but impactful music, and incredible pastel comic book visual style, it's a game that is best enjoyed by players who would rather sit and reflect on what they've seen, heard, or touched rather than those who might play it like a game to beat. It does have a definitive ending, and Estelle's journey matters most once you see it and understand it all, allowing the game's various themes to come to shore not like a monsoon, but like a delicate wave reaching up the beach. Season more often reminded me of a book of poetry than a video game.

Thus, though Season is fun to play, sometimes I found my gamer brain clashing with Season's intentions. Implicitly, the game welcomes you to skip plenty of sights or landmarks. You need not fill out the scrapbook very much at all if you only care to "finish" the game, so it's left up to you to decide when you've seen enough. Once you've met the remaining denizens of Tieng Valley, the story's poignant conclusion becomes available. So how much else you see in between is really freeform and made available without judgment.

Naturally, those who are enjoying the game would likely get more out of it the more they see, but sometimes I had to stop myself from obsessing over finding every monologue prompt hidden in a forest or every photo op along a path. The game so often feels like a mindfulness meditation that I felt like a failure when I couldn't focus the right way, even though I seemed to be the only one making such judgments--the game never stresses completion percentage or anything of the sort.

As an avid bicyclist, I was really impressed by the game's use of this mechanic. Pedaling uphill uses the DualSense controller's adaptive triggers to mimic the strain one might feel in real life, and on the other side, soaring downhill was authentically refreshing, with the music and ambient noise combining to give me the same feeling of contentment and present-mindedness I feel whenever I take my own real-life bike down the slopes of Portland. Only toward the very end did I have technical issues with the bike, as it got stuck on some geometry a few times when I was navigating a more narrow space. Otherwise, it's very well executed in-game and authentically liberating. A bike does not leave much of a mark on the world, so it fits right in with Estelle's mission, as she's there to observe the fateful valley, not trample on it. Seldom has it ever been the case that biking in a game isn't meant for stunt jumps or trick multipliers, so pedaling around Tieng Valley feels enchanting.

Season captures the invigorating sense of freedom riding a bike so often provides.
Season captures the invigorating sense of freedom riding a bike so often provides.

Taking pictures, recording sound, and building a scrapbook becomes not just the physical travel guide to a place soon to be underwater. It also acts like an insightful mirror, reflecting back onto the player not just what they experienced, but how they interpreted it. The in-universe pressure of capturing the world "as it was" comes with the unspoken understanding that it's subjective. How I view this place and its people is likely to be different than how you'd see them, and the game's directive is not to suggest who got it right, but just to ask us to reflect on things people have said or environments we've found ourselves in.

Once, a character asks Estelle to close her eyes for a moment as the forest sways gracefully and she sings a song. I either could or could not choose to oblige, and either seems beautiful in different ways. Season has a lot to say about a number of things, and though authorial intent is there to be unraveled, Scavenger Studio seems to expect players to find their own voices along the way, both literally through dialogue options as well as figuratively through their scrapbook's final composition.

There's a flashback early in the game where Estelle, already on the road in realtime, is speaking to someone from her village before she left. This character likens her mind to a library. "When I die, this library will burn down. But which book should we check out first?" she asks, inviting Estelle to interview her and learn who she is and was before the season changes and likely alters who she will become. Among countless contenders, this line has stuck with me in the days since I finished the game. Season is largely about memories: those we leave behind, those we hold dear, even those we struggle to forget. Memories make us eternal, and the game's way of record-keeping tells a narrative that each player ultimately writes for themselves.

As Estelle pieces together her scrapbook made by my hand, I often found myself asking why I took a particular image, what I liked about a specific sound. What memories or feelings was I conjuring, even subconsciously, that led me to present Estelle's world in the ways I did, and what did that say about how I see my own world? Season asks a lot of introspective questions, provides few definitive answers, and hopes players are willing to breathe it in, consider it carefully, then exhale slowly as they reflect on both the game and themselves. It's unconventional even in a sea of indies that are constantly trying new weird things, but it works.

Mark Delaney on Google+
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The Good

  • Scrapbooking at the end of a beautiful world makes for a novel gameplay loop
  • Capturing images, sounds, and more bring out a lot of introspection as intended
  • Meeting characters and exploring Tieng Valley is open-ended and full of surprises
  • Lovely music and visuals complete the game's tranquil tones

The Bad

  • A few hiccups with bike mechanics
  • A want to see everything can sometimes betray the game's themes

About the Author

Mark played Season for approximately 9-10 hours, which included a few extra trips down the big hill on his bicycle. A review code was provided by the publisher.