by Jacob Briggs
Last Day of June begins with a happy couple, June and Carl, enjoying a romantic evening by the lake. On their way home, however, they get into a car crash which Carl survives, but June does not. Carl struggles with the death of his wife, but he finds a potential solution to his grief in her art studio. Carl can rewind time by interacting with her portraits and change the actions of a specific neighbor. Using this power, he attempts to prevent the car crash from happening over and over again until it is eventually caused by severe weather. Knowing that he cannot prevent the storm or the date, Carl decides to take June’s place in the passenger seat, sacrificing himself so that June and their unborn baby can live. There are some aspects of the game that suggest June never died and was instead imagining this scenario in her grief (one such example being June’s sketchbook, which shows the player’s failed attempts at stopping the crash), but the story in which the player enacts is what I’ve described. For the entire game, we’re led to believe that we’re controlling Carl, and I don’t think either story changes the successes or shortcomings of the game. The June reading is an interesting interpretation, but it is a separate conversation and so I’m going to set that aside for this analysis. If you’d like to read more about it, here is a link to Nate Hohl’s article that proposes the theory: https://ag.hyperxgaming.com/article/3202/last-day-of-june-ndash-figuring-out-the-games-ending.
The majority of the player’s time is spent exploring the town as various characters. As Carl, the player learns about his history with June and acquires new portraits. As the townsfolk, the player searches for tools and areas that will create new timelines for each neighbor, potentially stopping the accident. With each new character that becomes playable, finding the correct timeline becomes more and more difficult. Characters will have to remove obstacles that the other neighbors cannot overcome, and the player will have to alter what some characters do in order to open new pathways for the others. For example, if the boy is playing soccer with the dog, the hunter will be unsuccessful in chasing down the bird, which causes the accident. At the same time, if the boy doesn’t play with the dog, he will use the rope which the woman needs to secure her moving boxes, which also causes the crash. These complications are solved as the player explores new areas and discovers new items, such as a second rope. The other motivation the player has for exploration is acquiring memories, which reveal the stories of each of the side characters. They aren’t required and don’t unlock a secret ending, but they provide context for each of the neighbors’ actions.
Navigation and narrative are the two driving forces behind Last Day of June, and they are closely intertwined through the game’s setting. To understand how the game utilizes its space, it is useful to consider Murray’s idea of the Violence Hub and the Solvable Maze. She describes the former as a game which tells the story of many different characters, all linked to a single, tragic event. The player of such a game won’t finish with a perfect, clear-cut explanation of what happened, but rather “the retracing of the situation from different perspectives leads to a continual deepening in the reader’s understanding of what has happened” (Murray 136). Witnessing the same event through many different positions gives the situation nuance, and this model is somewhat present in Last Day of June. By finding the memories of the neighbors, we get to understand their own histories of grief and develop a rich understanding of the town. However, I struggle to call this game a true Violence Hub because none of these side stories complicate the accident. In fact, collecting these memories is completely optional, so the player never has to delve into the lives of the townsfolk to learn the full narrative of Carl and June’s relationship.
It is more accurate to describe this game as the Solvable Maze. Murray describes these games as those in which “the story is tied to the navigation of space. As I move forward, I feel a sense of powerfulness, of significant action, that is tied to my pleasure in the unfolding story” (Murray 132). This is a fitting description for Last Day of June because the player’s motivation and reward for exploring the town is to progress the narrative. The bulk of gameplay is spent navigating the town in order to create different outcomes, and this is the same goal that Carl has in cutscenes throughout the game. The map itself is also mazelike, with branching roads and areas that aren’t immediately available to the player. The reward for going off the beaten path and fully exploring the town as each character is the aforementioned memories, which expand the story of the world. What’s most impressive about how the game handles space, though, is how the player rediscovers the town.
The way in which the player explores the town changes in various scenes, redefining our relationship with the space. When the player controls Carl, we see his memories with June in the exact spot at which they occurred. For example, we see them setting up the scarecrow in front of their house, or June painting in the gazebo. The order of these memories also tells a brief story, such as June’s first miscarriage and Carl’s attempt to help her cope with that loss. Even the player’s ability to navigate is different since Carl uses a wheelchair and cannot access the town’s stairs. New boundaries are presented to the player as well as a new mode of delivering narrative, and we see this pattern repeated with the old man. Towards the end of the game, we control an old man who delivers a present to June, which is what sparks her idea to go to the lake. We repeat this delivery again and again, with June trying to stop us by creating uncrossable rifts throughout the town. These rifts act as new barriers that change how the player moves through the world. They also provide a role-reversal: instead of the player trying to change what the game deems inevitable, the game tries to stop us from enacting that same outcome. Last Day of June’s ever-changing delivery of navigation and narrative was quite effective, but it is spoiled by what Murray calls the “drawback to the maze orientation: it moves the interactor towards a single solution” (Murray 132).
This drawback ties into one of Murray’s most pressing questions: “Could a digital narrative offer a higher degree of agency while still preserving the sense of tragic inevitability?” (Murray 178). In other words, can the player make meaningful choices despite the narrative’s conclusion that none of those choices mattered? I don’t think that Last Day of June accomplishes this feat, and I think the single solution is only part of the problem. No matter which twists and turns you take in the maze, you must ultimately take a specific path in order to progress to the next section. If you want to get the boy out of the street, he must fly the kite; there is no other option. The woman will not help the hunter out of the hay bale, even though she has a rope to lift him up. Last Day of June presents a problem, forces the player into a single solution, and then tells us that the ending is inevitable.
I had a hard time believing this outcome because I was never shown why my ideas would fail. For example, instead of switching places with June at the end of the game, why not have Carl refuse to drive home until the weather clears? Or drive so slowly that the weather won’t cause them to slide off the road? I could picture scenarios in which these decisions might fail, but the game never gives the player enough agency to test whether or not they would. A fair counterargument to this critique would be that Last Day of June has a specific story to tell, and that providing a nonlinear experience isn’t one of its goals. This is all true, but it still conflicts with the gameplay and narrative premise. The map is not designed as a left-to-right sidescroller with an obvious endpoint; it is a fully explorable town. The reward for exploring beyond a specific path, however, is irrelevant to the main narrative. The story itself centers around the concept of going back in time and making different choices, but the game doesn’t accommodate the choices the player might wish to make. The design of Last Day of June seems perfect for giving the player agency, but instead limits them to tell a linear, illogical story.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet On the Holodeck : the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York : Free Press, 1997.