‘Season, A Letter to the Future’ Review: To Photograph is to Remember
Why do we raise a camera? Hit the shutter, look down at the image? What drives us to be recorders of memory? Do these memories matter? Who will see them? What will they think?
Season: A Letter to the Future is a video game ($25 on PC — you can get it on Steam — and $30 on PlayStation platforms) that was announced last year and was released on January 31, 2023.
The game explores the above questions, provides some answers, but leaves others open to interpretation.
Paté, a friend of the main character, Estelle, has a vision that signals the end of the current “season,” a term in the game uses to note a major changing point in the world’s history. No one Estelle interacts with seems to know exactly what the ending of a season means, only that it represents an end to the current way things are. With the knowledge that everything they are familiar with is changing, Estelle makes a decision.
Very little of previous seasons is known to those in the current season for reasons that aren’t clear, so Estelle decides that someone must be there to assure that the life they and those around them have are not forgotten. Estelle decides that this season must be remembered — and the people from Estelle’s home town agree.
So they set out with a camera, tape recorder, and journal in hand to record as much of the current season as they can, before it ends.
Season is a story about memory and it discusses this topic through ways that are familiar to our real world and through others that only live in the imagined world that the game takes place in.
Memories are powerful in Season, powerful enough to become physical. Some memories protect, some are overwhelming and oppressive, and some weigh down those who bear them to such a degree that they are crushed by them — even causing death. It makes literal these figurative battles we have in our own lives and the memories we keep.
You as Estelle, a cataloguer of the present, are deeply intertwined with what it means to record and experience memories, what they mean, and why they are important.
Season Gameplay: A Camera in Hand
Season is about exploring, photographing, recording, and questioning. It is a balance of each that forms a game that is trying to have a conversation about memory, its importance, and how it binds people together.
Aside from venturing through the semi-open world and experiencing it, you also place records of what you’re seeing in a journal. Each area you pass through gets two pages, and it is very easy to capture more photos, audio recordings, sketches, and notes than can fit on those two pages, which forces you to make a decision about what is important to a possible future reader — you cannot include it all. It doesn’t seem possible that every person that plays this game will have a journal that looks anything like another person’s: every play-through will result in a unique journal.
While many questions are left open to interpretation throughout the story, one is answered nearly immediately: yes, you do succeed in your mission to record your present. Someone does find your journal of saved memories.
Because I knew that Estelle succeeds, I spent a great deal of time working to make sure that each page of their journal looked good. The game doesn’t care, doesn’t ask you to make a fancy design, and only expects you to record a short number of things per area before it determines that enough has been collected to mark a section complete. But despite this, I went above and beyond.
For every page, I always spent a few extra minutes organizing the photos and notes in a particular way that I felt was most compelling, because in my mind, someone was going to read this, see this, and it needed to feel like it was worth reading. The game gives players like me the tools needed to make a journal that is both informative and beautiful, and I used those tools to their fullest extent.
Season is a game about photography insofar as it is about remembering. Photography is one of the most powerful ways humans are able to recall a time past. The camera in the game has a few rudimentary controls that gives you the ability to take some artistic license with what you’re shooting — more than most games provide a camera — but not so much that you have to worry about getting exposure right, for example. The Polaroid-esque camera you use is as simple as a real-world instant camera.
It has a zoom, focus, and a set of different photo filters. You you can adjust your angle for any image you choose to capture, including the height the photo is captured at — photographers love to get closer to the ground, and Season affords you that option.
The game cares more about what you’re capturing and that you are capturing it than how you did it. This is a great decision because it allows you as the photographer to focus on the mission: documentation.
You don’t run out of film and you can raise the camera to your eye as much or as little as you like. Without spoiling why, even if you don’t put every photo you take into your journal pages, those photos are still meaningful. Season wants you to stop, look, listen, and remember.
Season Performance: Imperfect but Inoffensive
I reviewed Season: A Letter to the Future on PlayStation 5 and overall, the game performed decently well. I had no crashes and only one major physics-based bug (more on that below). There are multiple times I noticed some frame drops, but they were never elongated and they didn’t greatly take away from the experience.
The controls in this game are kind of clunky — “tanky” is the word I would use, as that is how I would describe early Resident Evil games and I feel like that comparison is valid here. Your character doesn’t have much nuance in their movement, the bike is not the easiest to control, and there is no middle ground when it comes to traversal speed: either you’re walking at a glacially slow pace (yes, even when your character jogs, it feels slow) or you’re zipping through the countryside on your bike. I think the game could have used a pace between these two options.
Speaking of your bike, when starting it up or going up hill, you have to actually pedal it in order to get momentum, a process that involves pressing the right and left triggers one after the other as if you were actually pushing down on the bike’s pedals. On the PlayStation 5, the controller actually pushes back against you, so it feels like genuine effort.
Season has some physics issues as well. There was a time that I somehow got stuck on top of a picnic table and wasn’t able to get off, so I had to save and restart the game, which automatically places you at the entrance of the area you were in. This is what I would describe as a minor inconvenience since the reboot process took less than a minute.
Sometimes the camera fights you, too. Often I would want to be looking to the right of where I was riding my bike, but the game was trying to force the perspective forward, which was frustrating. Other times, the camera would get lost behind a piece of foliage or a rock, and while it would pop itself back relatively quickly, it broke up the experience for me. In a game which is about immersion and getting lost in the adventure, that’s not great.
The camera, journal, and audio recorder all worked well though, and I don’t have any complaints about them. That part of the game feels solid and well-executed.
Overall, though, I think developer Scavengers Studio did a good job with this, only the company’s second release, especially considering it actually uses the PlayStation 5’s unique controller in some way. Considering that this game is available across platforms, including on PC, it’s nice to see the developer clearly spent at least a little extra time thinking about how a person on PlayStation might enjoy this title.
Season Story and Theme: Sending a Message
Season is not a long game: it is about 10 to 12 hours total depending on how much time you spend exploring the areas in which you find yourself. The majority of this time is spent in one large area that is mostly abandoned, with only a few last vestiges of the society that once shared that space as a community remaining.
There are a few people there that you will meet, and the physical manifestations of memory provide further interaction to understand what this area meant to people in the time before you arrived.
I’ve seen some who found that Season’s message, its protagonist, and the mission to be contrived and feel forced, and I certainly understand how they came to this conclusion. Season isn’t subtle with its message. It’s telling you what it wants you to take from this: memory is fragile yet powerful, and it is important for at least one person to remember things as they are. It is important to experience the present, remember the past, and have hope for the future.
These overarching themes to the game are regularly reiterated through the entire playthrough, which can feel hamfisted or overbearing compared to the storytelling found in other games.
But as a photographer and coming into this game from a photographer’s perspective, I greatly appreciate Season. Your first couple hours of this game are spent alone, where it is simply you and your equipment looking over abandoned areas of your world. When you come across a person for the first time, it’s an odd, awkward encounter. You don’t necessarily want to speak to another living person, but at the same time the road to get here has been lonely, so you do. But slowly as the game progresses and concludes, you yearn to find more people to talk to. You learn to appreciate their perspectives, their words, and their lives. You document them and their memories.
It is very easy for a documentary photographer of any kind — street, event, photojournalist — to separate themselves from what they are capturing. The camera becomes a wall, a barrier between us and subjects.
Season recreates that feeling beautifully through its world and then forces you to tear it down. While you must focus on your mission, you also must remember why it is you’re doing it.
At a certain point, you are provided a choice to either help the people of the world or to remain steadfast in your mission. It is not clear if the choice to help will do anything — which is always the case in reality — but the choice is there. You as the sole recorder of memory of this time must decide what is more important: your mission, or those you have met in service of it.
Many of the main character’s musings lack depth, and her commentary on what she is capturing oscillates between obvious surface-level platitudes and trite observations, which makes her attempts at digging deeper meaning in what she is recording feel forced.
But the game is fully aware of this. There is at least one circumstance where they catch themselves trying to say something meaningful about a bird, only to realize there is nothing meaningful to say. “I don’t know where I was going with that,” Estelle comments aloud.
Put yourself in this position: you have never left home. You are young. Very early on, you find out that Estelle has never even seen a goat or similar animal like it in person before.
Estelle is exceptionally, incredibly, young — both of heart and mind. And yet, the world is ending. She must record it. How many of you would succeed in creating a great work of literature accompanied by visual high art in this circumstance?
To that end, Season is very grounded in showing how one young person tackles a massive, overwhelming goal, one step at a time, and does it the best they can. They are the only one who can, and their best will have to be enough.
Season is Game That Understands Why We Photograph
I’m not afraid to admit that years of working as a photographer burned me out. I rarely photograph for myself anymore, but something about Season sparked within me a feeling that I thought I lost years ago. While playing this game, I wanted to take photos again.
Few video games successfully encapsulate why a photographer chooses to pick up a camera and hit that shutter button. Fewer still make photography more than yet another tool to be gamified.
It is here that I think Season succeeds. It cuts to the core of what it means to be a documenter and has a long conversation with you as a player about the nature of memory and how it interplays with the few ways that we have to capture a moment in time. The camera is in this game because it is critical to the mission of the main character.
In contrast to other photography games like Pokemon Snap, for example, where you are tasked with capturing specific things in a specific manner in order to rack up enough in-game points because the game tells you that you must, Season doesn’t care about any of that. You don’t have to photograph anything, though you can photograph everything should you like. You don’t have to capture any scene, person, or area in a certain way either, because who is to say what way is the best other than Estelle? This approach feels far more grounded than in any other game I’ve ever played that employs a camera.
Memory is fragile, which is why it is so important that photographers exist. We are here to be that record, even if what we are recording seems unimportant or mundane to some, Season argues that all of life’s moments are meaningful to someone. They live on well beyond us, and the memories held within each have great power for the future. Inspiration transcends time through the photos that we capture.
Are There Alternatives?
Season is relatively unique in the current landscape, and while there are plenty of games that ask you to use a camera to take in-game photos, Season stands alone in the experience it provides. If you want a modern video game that has a story to tell that doesn’t gamify the idea of photography, then Season is your best bet.
Should You Buy It?
Yes, I recommend Season: A Letter to the Future, available for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and Windows PCs.