SEASON: A letter to the future

When I fired up SEASON: A letter to the future, I was expecting a super-chill slice-of-life game in the vein of something like Goro Miyazaki’s film From Up on Poppy Hill. And it kind of is, but it also takes place in a fantastical world that’s almost endlessly enthralling.

Part of what makes the fantasy elements work so well is how normal the characters seem to think they all are.

Think about it this way: Have you ever seen a blue whale? It’s this monstrous creature that doesn’t seem like it should possibly exist in our world, but it does. But even so, people don’t spend a lot of time talking about how weird they are, because we live in a world in which those things exist and we’re just kind of used to them.

That’s how the characters in SEASON react to things like the disease that makes you unable to discern time, or the cruise ships that became their own independent nations that eventually went to war with one another. That’s some crazy stuff, but no one spends much time telling the audience how crazy any of it is. Because to the characters, it’s just how things are.

SEASON: A letter to the future

No matter how bizarre the real world might actually be, things seem normal until you really start thinking about how weird they actually are. I think the fantasy genre in general needs to be better about building believable worlds with this in mind, and SEASON is an example of how to do it right — at least in terms of how normal the characters treat its oddities. SEASON absolutely nails this.

The general gameplay loop sounds a little dull in concept: You’re given a camera and an audio recorder, then set upon a bike and allowed to explore the world. But in practice, it’s not dull at all. In fact, I found it hard to pull myself away from this game, even when it was getting super late and I was too tired to reasonably continue.

Everything you see can be photographed, and everything you hear can be recorded. Sometimes, these things will unlock additional stickers or writings, all of which can be placed in your scrapbook however you see fit. When you piece together a really appealing layout base on the stuff you’ve seen in an area, the results are immensely satisfying.

SEASON: A letter to the future

And this makes you want to peek around every corner and see if you can record that wind chime or that slow water drip. It’s this super satisfying collectible hunt where you get to decide what’s worth collecting. Unlike a normal collectathon game that tasks you with, say, finding 400+ flags (ahem, Assassin’s Creed), SEASON lets you just photograph and record whatever you want, then use those sights and sounds to decorate your scrapbook before moving onto the next area. There are no checklists; you simply need to photograph and/or record a small amount of things in each area, whether those things were intended to be photographed or not. You decide what’s collectible, and there’s no penalty for missing something, no reward for being a completionist.

In some games, this would be problematic, as it could render the whole experience meaningless. But in SEASON, you always feel compelled to continue. I’m struggling to even explain why this might be, because whatever words I use to describe it make it sound kind of mundane. But I promise it’s not mundane at all. It’s incredibly satisfying.

SEASON: A letter to the future

In fact, SEASON has a similar sense of wonder as Myst did the first time I played it, or even, dare I say, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It just feels perpetually engrossing as you’re pulled into the mystery of the tragic decline and ultimate rebuilding of this strange world.

And that world is gorgeous. Mind, it’s not quite as gorgeous as the reveal trailer from 2020, which I’ll post here so you can see for yourself:

I can’t help but feel like there were a lot of visual compromises made to squeeze this onto PS4 — that instead of developing it natively for the PS5, it was instead developed for the PS4 and upscaled for the PS5. I don’t know for sure that this was the case, but I suspect that it was. In the reveal trailer, everything looks super crisp, the colors look bright, and the lighting brings it all together. In the actual game — which I played on PS5 — things look a little bit washed out in comparison.

That said, this is still a beautiful game that’s jam-packed with wonder. I have to say, here in 2023, game devs have really nailed the whole cel-shaded thing, which makes games like SEASON feel like gorgeous playable animated feature films.

I do have quite a few nitpicks about SEASON, though. Now, before I continue, I should point out that these are indeed nitpicks; nothing I’m about to talk about is anything close to a dealbreaker. In concert, they all work to diminish the experience a little bit, but not enough that it matters too much. I just can’t help but think about this stuff while I’m playing.

SEASON: A letter to the future

My biggest gripe about the game is that I wish they let you add extra pages to your journal. When the entire game is based around collecting letters and taking photographs and making audio recordings, you end up wanting more space to showcase the stuff you’re capturing and collecting. But each area generally gives you a two-page spread to play with. Sure, you can shrink and rotate things, but there’s only so much room before you find yourself moving on — not because you’ve seen everything, but because you’ve run out of room to display your collectibles.

There are a few tiny things I dislike visually. I’m not a fan of the font choice for dialogue, for example, and it seems like they could have gone for something a little bit cleaner. I think they were trying to make it feel slightly hand-written while also appearing tidy, but my guess is that just going super-clean would have ultimately been a better choice.

SEASON: A letter to the future

I also think the walking animation looks super awkward. This really isn’t much of an issue in a game where you spend a majority of your time pedaling a bike or viewing the world through a camera lens, but in the instances where you walk around, I can’t help but feel like the animation feels just a little bit off.

Also, there was a bug in my version of the game where the bike-pedaling tutorial never disappeared, so the game’s title introduction scene was kind of marred. It was really well set up, and the shot was gorgeous, but that controller icon got in the way of an otherwise beautifully choreographed moment.

SEASON: A letter to the future

Yes, these are my biggest gripes about the game, and they’re all pretty minor. Even with these flaws, though, SEASON: A letter to the future is an absolute masterpiece of a title, and it could very well be 2023’s first must-play video game. It has this bewitching quality that pulls you in, and you find yourself ruminating on its mysteries and secrets for hours after you put the controller down. It’s an experience that’s not to be missed if you’re into calm, chill, relaxing games at all.

Disclaimer: I was given a review code for SEASON: A letter to the future on PS5, but the opinions expressed in this article are my own.

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