For all the freedom and beauty it provides, traveling can be an uncomfortable experience. Whenever I’m on my own in another country, I become hyper-aware of the fact that I’m an outsider. My ability to clearly communicate or process information is diluted, leaving me to absorb my surroundings and learn on the fly. It’s an anxiety-inducing feeling, though one that always rewards me when I allow myself to accept that I’m not an expert and be comfortable with listening.
That experience is at the heart of Season: A Letter to the Futurethe recently released indie adventure game from Scavengers Studio. The story follows a woman who is tasked with leaving her isolated village to warn the surrounding world of a coming “season” change. Players are never told what that entails, but it’s a foreboding prophecy that feels vaguely cataclysmic. Armed with a notebook and an audio recorder, the protagonist is sent on a countryside road trip to record as much as she can about the world and leave future generations a historical document to learn from should an apocalypse come. She finds herself stuck between being a cultural preservationist and a tourist with no understanding of the world she’s documenting.
Season‘s narrative director, Kevin Sullivan, embraces that tension. It’s not a game that claims to understand everything about the countries and cultures that inspire its fictional world. Instead, it asks its players to accept that they aren’t always going to be an authority wherever they go, but a patient observer who is willing to learn. In an interview with Digital Trends, Sullivan digs into the philosophy that guides Seasona game built around cultural connections born from shared anxieties in a changing world.
Finding your perspective
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Season: A Letter to the Future came from a simple premise: The team at Scavengers wanted to create a game about traveling. Its story would mix personal experiences of its developers along with cultural and historic inspirations. Rather than feeding players a grand thesis about the act of travel like a know-it-all college student who spent a semester abroad, the goal was more to communicate the sense of uncertainty plaguing a sparsely populated world on the brink of history-defining change.
“The experiences that we ended up drawing from were traveling,” Sullivan tells Digital Trends. “That became the first pillar, that is going to be some kind of a trip. So we drew on experiences we had traveling. The themes came from that — what it was about was ambient energy that we were feeding off of in our lives. We didn’t really set out for it to have a message or something specific, but it started to give expression to a sense of fragility and a sense that the world is moving into a new era.”
Creating a game about travel, one that pulls inspiration from various real cultures, would have an inherent challenge. If not handled sensitively, the story could come off as hollow tourism. Some of the game’s fiercest critics have already lobbied that complaint against it. In a searing reviewKotaku’s John Walker challenged the game’s “astonishingly colonial mindset,” criticizing the core story of a woman with no world experience taking on the self-important role of cultural preservationist.
Sullivan’s own read of the game, though, is much more about how its players see that task rather than its main character or the developers behind it. Season is about perception and how we choose to interpret the world as it’s laid out in front of us. Players are free to take photos or record audio of whatever they want during their adventure and document it in their scrapbook; they’re also free to naively misinterpret what they’ve seen, completely missing the cultural significance of something that’s pretty on its surface. The design is left purposefully ambiguous to let players honestly capture their perspective, even if it’s a shallow one.
“The thing that we found in the design is that the more you specify what the game wants you to do, the more it feels like a job,” Sullivan says. “Once you start to say ‘boy, it’d be really great if you take a picture of a cow,” it’s like, who’s saying this? The game wants these things for no reason! That meant leaving it open so you can complete an entry without doing a good job, but that’s up to you. You get a certain amount of what you put into it. You see in people’s reports of their experience, they end up telling you more than they know they’re telling you about what they did or how they perceive things.”
There’s not so much authority in the world, and the game does not try to act like an authority either.
That philosophy may explain why critical reception for the game ranges so wildly at the moment. Much of what you get out of it is directly tied to your experience with it. One person could impatiently rush through it all, filling their scrapbook with thoughtless images just to speed up progression (“can we go home yet?”). Someone else could spend extra hours combing every inch of its midgame open world for details, walking away with a rich understanding of its world. Season doesn’t judge players either way; it simply gives them a digital space to explore how they view unfamiliar places.
“It is an extrapolation of the experience of traveling into an unfamiliar place where you’re inundated with information,” Sullivan says. “Unless you have a guide, you don’t understand a lot of the things you’re seeing and you can’t master it in a day. The big thing you’re doing in the game is happening in your head … it’s a lot about what you figure out. We tried to stay to things that felt true to the experience. The fact that you can blast through this game and not understand anything, and it doesn’t really stop you from progressing, is kind of true to life. You can do that when you travel.”
“It’s about forming an idea of what the world is like. Which also means that the world itself has ambiguities and contradictions. There’s not so much authority in the world, and the game does not try to act like an authority either.”
The Era of Good Feelings
Though Season is more focused on individual journey than delivering a grander worldview, the team’s own perception of the real world would shape its digital one. Sullivan initially found inspiration in the Era of Good Feelingsa complex period of American history that spawned after the War of 1812. On a surface level, it was seen as a time of prosperity for America as the country moved toward isolationism and stood temporarily united under a one-party system led by President James Monroe. In reality, the “Good Feelings” banner is used a bit ironically. Behind-the-scenes power struggles within the Democratic-Republican Party would create a simmering tension, eventually boiling over into a divisive party split that today’s Americans are all too familiar with. It wasn’t so much an era of change as it was an uneasy prelude to one.
I started working on this in 2016, which was a year that felt like the entire world changed.
That 1800s history would end up paralleling another period of American anxiety as work began on Season. Sullivan began working on the project just before the controversial Donald Trump presidency. While the game itself doesn’t offer explicit commentary on the chaotic Trump years, it was informed by the global feeling of uncertainty Sullivan found at the time, a feeling that almost transcended culture or language barriers.
“I started working on this in 2016, which was a year that felt like the entire world changed,” Sullivan says. “That was also a year I was traveling and had the same feelings, and was even more sensitive to it. That was almost scary in a way, meeting people in places I’d never been who had a similar sense of dread. That feels very much to me like one of the origins of the project: being in an unfamiliar place, talking to someone where we barely feel the same language, finding ways to connect and communicate, and getting to the point where we’re both like ‘uh oh’”.
In creating a fictional world, Scavengers was careful not to get too close to real world events – Sullivan says content was even cut from the game after the COVID-19 pandemic began as it felt too unintentionally close. However, some modern tensions did naturally make their way in as they fit into some of the historical context that guided worldbuilding.
“There’s a plotline in the game about this dam that’s being taken down that’s going to flood this valley,” Sullivan says. “It’s a post-industrial revolution type of event that felt very relevant and also very 20th century. We were looking at the Soviet Union doing that. The reason why that felt relevant was because of the sense of how much control human beings have over the world; things that seem unchangeable can actually be molded. Our possibly too strong ability to change the environment without a grasp of what we’re doing sometimes feels relevant for something that has some kind of latent anxiety about climate change built into it.”
Those real-world concerns aren’t a random layer of commentary on top of an unrelated road trip premise. Rather, Season leaves plenty of clues as to the history and cultural anxieties of its people lying around. Players can completely miss some of those political threads or willfully ignore them if they so choose. More observant ones, though, can take the time to absorb as much information as they can. Though they may never fully know the place they’re passing through, they can at least try to find common connections that can bring them closer to understanding.
While Sullivan spends much of the conversation discussing how the studio recreated the experience of traveling, I note that the game is just as much about cultural preservation. Players aren’t just casually wandering through the countryside and taking snapshots for fun; they’re writing what will become a history book about a place and people they can’t begin to know. That’s a tall task for a game that largely takes place in one day, but Sullivan embraces the flaw inherent in that task.
“It’s a complex issue that I quickly realized was not how I wanted to think about what I was doing,” Sullivan says. “If you go deep enough into it, you can find some interesting complexities to it. If you ask some characters about culture and things like that, their answers are kind of surprising. There’s a character who talks about how culture is not a thing you put in a box. And it’s not antithetical to change; it is the way people react to change and survive it.”
Like the game itself, parts of its hero’s final historical record are going to be left hazy and vague. Those knowledge gaps are what define Seasonthough. It never aims to send players home with a full picture of its story. It only asks them to capture the world exactly as they see it. With enough people interpreting those pages, perhaps someone can piece together what it all means.
“I don’t think the character thinks of themselves as an authority, but rather as a witness giving testimony. And that’s put into the future too. It’s like, I don’t know the full import of everything I’ve collected. I don’t have time, but maybe someone in the future can make better sense of this stuff than I can.”
Season: A Letter to the Future is out now on PC, PlayStation 4, and PS5.