Arise: A Simple Story is a narrative game with a difference. It tells an emotive, human story, but unlike many “walking sims,” in which I stroll from one story chapter to the next, it demands skill and perseverance.
The game reveals itself as a story game right from the first scene. It begins almost like a tribute to Journey. A lonely figure on a hillside. A shining light on a mountaintop far away. The sound of a sad, tinkling piano and mournful strings. These have become familiar tropes in the narrative game genre, which has exploded in the last decade.
The figure we see is an old man from pre-agricultural times, evidently a beloved tribal leader. He is dead. His body has just been cremated, and he finds himself in the snowy uplands of the afterlife. So begins a pilgrimage in which he tours the key memories of his life.
Each level of the game is themed and dedicated to a section of his life, beginning with early childhood. He travels through a landscape of memories, in the company of a girl (and then woman) who was, in life, his lifelong partner. Like many couples, they face their triumphs and tragedies. Their story is often touching and, as it progresses, I find myself empathizing with the old man, as he faces the outrages of life and living.
I progress through this 3D world, mainly by jumping from one platform to another, whether across icy mountain ledges, pond lilies, or tree branches. Often, platforms must be revealed or placed by moving time by a few seconds, backward and forward. Each level plays with this basic idea.
During one level, our hero remembers leading his people to a new home. They enter a steep ravine when an earthquake strikes. He manipulates the ensuing damage to create a safe path forward. So, when a tree falls, he freezes it in time and uses it as a bridge. We see that he was a man of action. He protected those in his care.
In another level, I continuously switch between late fall and the depths of midwinter, controlling the old man as he crosses rivers and lakes. Ice floes can only be used as platforms in the extreme cold, but if he fails to jump back to the warmer season at every opportunity, he freezes to death. He is brave, but vulnerable.
These time travel puzzles are satisfying throughout, neither too difficult nor too easy, with plenty of variety.
The game’s physical platforming mechanics are less successful. This is one of those games that demands extreme precision when making jumps. I’m a patient player, so I don’t mind taking my time to take a tricky jump, or series of jumps. Even so, I found some sections of the game exasperating. I knew what I wanted to do, but a mixture of overly-demanding placement precision and multiple button controls sometimes made the whole experience irritating and repetitive.
Arise: A Simple Story uses a mostly fixed camera which swoops around during jumps, adding to the frustration. During many combination jumps, my view switched from behind me to sideways-on. It’s disorientating, and often difficult to gauge the distances needed to jump.
This means that successful progress relies heavily on trial-and-error. I learn how to progress by dying, a lot. This takes some of the flow and joy out of the game, which is a shame, because there’s a lot to admire here.
I especially love how the various levels are imbued with a beauty that recalls the different stages of human life. The level about teenage romance is giddy and joyful, like a Disney production from the 1950s. The level about procreation is positively fallopian, swimming with reproductive symbolism. The later levels portray old age with admirable tenderness. Arise is a pretty game, and it’s not afraid to load its imagery with weight and universal meaning.
When I finally arrive at the end of the story — it took me maybe eight hours — I find myself forgiving its frustrations. Mechanically, Arise delivers intriguing time-manipulation puzzles and a flawed platforming system. But more than that, it’s a moving narrative game that investigates the passage of human life and the importance of companionship. It makes me remember to value the loved ones in my life.