I cried at a game preview. There I was, sitting at my desk in Glasgow, watching a twenty minute hands-off slice of Hindsight gently led by designer and creator Joel McDonald and writer and narrative designer Emma Kidwell, with tears rolling down my cheeks. So just in case you’re feeling a little sensitive today, this is my warning. but don’t let it put you off the game.
From Annapurna Interactive, Hindsight looks like a beautiful exploration of grief; a colourful nostalgic journey through the memories of a woman called Mary, who has returned to her recently deceased mother’s house to organise her belongings. Each discovery of even the most innocuous of items sparks a vivid memory that takes us back to a specific point in Mary’s life.
It’s an acute part of the grieving process and McDonald and Kidwell have their own experiences that have affected the gameplay in different ways. “I lost my dad about 12 years ago. And it’s not necessarily the most obvious memento that I really cherish,” McDonald explains when we speak later. “My example is I’ll find myself watching episodes of This Old House, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that show, it’s a home improvement show on PBS here in America. And I strongly associate that type of thing with him because he’d always be watching on the weekends and do DIY things around the house. I find myself kind of gravitating towards that type of thing. Probably subconsciously as a way to remember him.”
Mary’s trip to her mother’s house is etched in a colourful but minimalist art style and through the story we don’t just pick up an item and go back in time. Each one is what McDonald and Kidwell call an ‘Aperture.’ The item itself becomes a portal to a forgotten memory and we can see and spin each one; a glimpse of the past held within an innocuous garden tap or a butterfly. Childhood memories dance through droplets of water or in a windchime.
We enter each one, journeying through nostalgia with each new item we discover in the world. It’s almost hypnotic as we have to find each new portal to a fresh layer of memory. Then at the end of each chapter, Mary has to choose the mementos to keep and move on. A painful but necessary decision as all we really want to do is hold on to everything that the people we love have left behind. Yet there are always items that mean more.
This is especially personal to Emma Kidwell, who went to Japan before the pandemic to help her mother go through and pack up her grandparent’s house. “Having done all of that and helping, watching my mother talk about the kind of person her father was, I literally have a suitcase and I get to go through the house and pick things that I remember from my childhood as having an impact,” she says.
“And one of the biggest things was just this mug that has a pattern on it. It’s not special. It was just bought from, I think, a ¥100 store. But it was special to me because I watched my grandparents use it and it was bought for my mother. So coming back to America then to work on this game, I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I have a very, very fresh, very raw perspective now coming into this’ that I think made it a lot easier to get into the headspace of Mary and also a little bit more empathetic. Really just wanting to nail down that transitional period of grieving and also moving on.”
McDonald is the creator of Prune, the meditative puzzle game on mobile about growing a tree by cutting the right branches to let it flourish. Hindsight, while far more emotionally grounded, exists in a similar peaceful space, with a soundtrack from returning Prune composer Kyle Preston and a world built upon one key concept. McDonald had the idea for the central mechanic and the game evolved from there.
“Before even the idea of memories and exploring somebody’s life, we knew that Apertures take you to a different place or a different time or both,” he says. “It was pretty natural then to want to associate that with some of these memories. What naturally evolved out of that was this notion of going through your childhood house, of going room by room and picking up these different objects and revisiting all these memories from your past. It took us a while to get to that point, but it always felt like this organic process rather than trying to force the story to be a certain thing.”
Even after seeing such a small slice, Hindsight looks like it will be a unique emotional journey. It’s so easy to avoid the streets and places that evoke memories of lost loved ones, or everyday items that suddenly pang with heartache when a relationship finishes but these are necessary feelings to move forward. As Mary addresses her relationship with her mother, so must we with our own loss. And hey, if it makes us cry, that’s probably a very good thing.
Hindsight launches later in 2022.