A Postcard From Afthonia Review – A Hearth Tended by the Imagination
The mind forgets, but the heart remembers. It’s been some time since I entered one of Jonas Kyratzes’ magic portals and entered the Lands of Dream – a long time since The Sea Will Claim Everything stole my breath away. I couldn’t quite remember my time there in specifics, only recalling a kind of longing for the place. I had an inkling of what it felt like to be there, but couldn’t recall all of the events. I wondered if I would find myself lost when I tried out the newest entry in the tale, A Postcard From Afthonia, but when the first notes of Chris Christodoulou’s beautiful soundtrack struck my ears and my vision filled with Verena Kyratzes’ artwork, my fears drained away.
A Postcard From Afthonia is the next step in the story of Kyratzes’ point-and-click game, The Sea Will Claim Everything, continuing the events that led to war with Lord Urizen. The narrative has been carefully constructed in that you don’t need to know what that war is about – only that its effects are being felt by the inhabitants of the Isle of the Sun. What’s important here is that Kyon and Katerina are having a baby together, and fear for the child’s life growing up in the shadow of war. They need you to consult the Oracle about what kind of life she will live, and so, off you go. Whether you know any of the backstory leading to this moment or not, you’ll be able to settle into this simple, but deep, story.
Much of your time here is spent interacting with the inhabitants, talking with the various anthropomorphic storks, trees, and other animals. There are a handful of items to pick up, but the game is less interested in the kind of clunky puzzle solving that plagues many point-and-click games, instead choosing to let the player soak in the world, meeting the people there and savoring the beautiful sights. You could putter around looking for items or spend three hours interacting with several dozen lunatics to create the most complex beet juice ever conceived, but there’s something so much nicer about just being allowed to wander. The journey through the Isle of the Sun is the real game, here, and that trip is a powerful one.
Much of your exploration takes place on sun-drenched shores, examining the seashells and plant life as subtle music warms the heart. At other times, you enter underwater kingdoms and talk with scuba-diving giraffes; or you could head through the village of white buildings and speak with a tree wracked with conflict over its philosophical thoughts. Verena Kyratzes’ artwork gives all of these things a quality of child-like wonder, drawing them with an innocence that makes the looming dark events seem so much more evil and awful. I’ve said before that her style reminds me of a children’s book, and it’s that very style that seemed to open me up to look at the world with different eyes. It’s a purposeful move meant to bring me back to when the world was new to me – to use that perspective to examine everything as if it were my first time looking upon it. I didn’t question the talking turtles or cyclops puns, but just took them all in and let what they said wash over me.
Everything you see has something to say, whether it speaks to you or not. Click away at the environments and you’ll find almost everything has a description that creates a pretty image, creates a small story, or just tells a funny joke. It encourages players to take their time while exploring. The Land of Dreams is not just a place you hammer through while meeting the criteria to finish the game. It’s a beautiful land to wander through, letting its imagery, humor, and story come to you in slow waves. I didn’t even pay attention to what I was doing half the time as I wandered the beaches, examining flowers, trees, and seashells just to see what new thing the game would tell me. Often, I left smiling, continuing along my meandering walk just enjoying my time there. Yes, there were items to be found and Oracles to talk with, but why not take some time to appreciate the journey there?
Christodoulou’s latest soundtrack has not lost any of its power to stir the heart. The game does reuse songs from The Sea Will Claim Everything Soundtrack (along with some visuals as well), but I’ll take the excuse of a new story as reason enough to listen to the soundtrack again. As much as I love Jonas’ writing and Verenas’ artwork, it is the first few notes of Plingpling Fairydust that made it feel like I’d come home to this world again. There is such wonder, yet melancholy, in that song that it perfectly mirrors the feeling of coming back to a beloved place, of being sad for the time you’ve been away while still cherishing what little time you’ll have with it now. The various other songs A Postcard From Afthonia uses all enhance that strange mixture of happiness, awe, and sadness at the evils to come, a kind of hesitant joy infusing the music. Its power grants even more weight to the story and art, weaving with them to help coax meaning and life from a world of the imagination.
Jonas Kyratzes’ writing switches from humor to darkness to emotional depth with an effortlessness that left me in awe. There are several political messages about war, starting a family in troubled times, and our duties to each other and our friends, but they are woven within very simple dialogue told between talking turtles and foxes. The first time I read his work I was afraid that silliness or heavy-handedness would plague his writing, but his narrative shifts so easily that you never feel like you’re being preached at. Instead, he presents a world as funny and happy and terrible as our own, with dozens of people with different ideologies guiding their thoughts and words. No one directly voices a particular viewpoint, but you can feel what they want through what they say and what concerns them.
This style humanizes their ideologies. The mind doesn’t exactly spring to Socialism just because someone says the people in town need to band together to take care of each other with war looming in. You don’t hear someone complain about how capitalism is bad, but when someone says they’re sharing their food with the community since the market has made it too expensive to sell, you feel it. It presents each viewpoint from the perspective of normal people just taking care of each other and trying to get by, casting off all the -isms in favor of just looking at a town filled with people who understand and practice empathy. The -isms are there, to be sure, but they are presented in how they help or harm real people in the real world, which is interesting for a game about talking animals.
Much of what you do in the game is fueled by talking to these creatures. Their words seem to tell a very simple story, but the varied concerns of each of the inhabitants mirror the viewpoints of real life. Everyone seems to have a different idea on what they want to do in the face of war or the various other, subtle problems coming to the Isle of the Sun. Like my own life, everyone has a different idea on what to do about the world’s problems, but many of them share concerns and wish to help. The Land of Dreams is a place of hopeful people despite the problems a handful of truly awful beings are bringing to it. But the story doesn’t force itself on you if you don’t want it to though, as you can focus your questions on what you need to know to finish the game. But again, it’s in getting to know the world through exploring, or by getting to know the inhabitants, where A Postcard From Afthonia really shines.
While having a lack of puzzles and more focus on story might seem like a bad thing, it makes the game flow that much smoother. The puzzles and interface in The Sea Will Claim Everything was a little clunky, and seemed to bog the game down with odd challenges that took away from the rich, subtle story. A Postcard From Afthonia streamlines the interface, making the few items and dialogue options easy to read and sift through. The gameplay parts of the experience, while not really the most important part, have all been given a polish that makes navigating the game world a lot easier than it was before. It’s a perfect finish to an excellent adventure.
A Postcard From Afthonia is just that: A snapshot from a delightful place I’ve seen. My time there was a wonderful experience full of humor, simple joys, and a surprising depth that never forced itself upon me. I was sad to leave the wonderful hearth that Kyratzes’ and Christodoulou had tended with imagination, and long for the time I get to go there again. Considering this experience is completely free, if you have any inclination to see the Lands of Dream, go download it and let the world slip away.
Or you could get the premium edition and get a lovely Afthonian Moussaka recipe. Seriously.
A Postcard From Afthonia is available for free from the developer’s site. The premium edition, which contains commentary, a side story, and a lovely recipe, is available from the site for $3.33.