Where They Once Were is another teeny tiny yet impressive result of Ludum Dare 31, which brought us cheerier titles like Kram Keep and A Place in Space. Actually, no–both of those contained their fair share of murder and mayhem, though here it is downright brooding. Anyways, that thirty-first game jam’s theme, in case you forgot, was “Entire Game on One Screen,” and I’d say Where They Once Were absolutely nailed it, seeing as everything happens on a single screen, in and around a snowed-in log cabin.
Basically, Where They Once Were is a survival game. Like your first few nights in Minecraft or all of The Forest from the moment the plane crashes. I’m just not sure if one can, ultimately, survive the many snowy nights, but a better player than I might be able to make it. There’s three endings, of which I got two: eaten by a wolf, and cold, alone, with no more supplies. Not sure if the third ending is a victory or just another way to buy the farm; I couldn’t figure out what to do differently. Maybe it has something to do with that snowman outside the cabin.
For controls, you can use the arrow keys to move left or right, up grabs items or drops whatever you are currently holding, and the space bar interacts. Sometimes it’ll interact with whatever you are facing, sometimes it’ll go to what is in your hand, and the other times it’ll use what’s in your hand on what you are facing. That might sound confusing, but it’s really not. For example, to stay warm at night, you need a roaring fire. To do that, you go over to the log pile, carry a bunch of logs back to the fireplace, and press the space bar to drop them in. Then you grab a book of matches, go back to the fireplace, and light them on fire. Rinse and repeat each night to keep on keeping on, while other elements development.
Where They Once Were‘s puzzles aren’t too tricky to figure out, as everything, more or less, follows a logical path. Yes, part where you use a shotgun to shoot a ladder down, I’m raising an eyebrow at you. Need that can of food opened as soon as possible? Whack it with your shovel. Once you are fed, warm, and free from outside danger, you can use the bed to sleep safely through another balmy night. However, the odds are stacked against you from the start, with a limited amount of supplies in the cabin, meaning you’ll have to work hard to make everything last. There’s not much in the sound department, but the absence of sound effects adds to the mood, though I don’t believe that to be an intentional decision, rather a cut due to time.
The game’s page describes the story as about “a woman finding a weird abandoned cottage while escaping pursuers.” A couple things. I never got the sense that the main character was a woman, though with pixel art it can be difficult to tell. Shame on me for assuming this. Also, there was no mention of being chased by off-screen villains, so I took this more as this person lives out here by themselves in the day-to-day, but must now survive the harsher weather for a few nights on a sliver of supplies. You don’t get much in terms of words-on-screen narration, though I did find a diary with some obtuse writing in it. Regardless, surviving is the goal, and the reasons behind it are up for interpretation.
Either way, it’s a neat survival game that may help you years from now if you find yourself trapped in a snowstorm with only a creepy log cabin for safety. You can download the original jam version of Where They Once Were in the link from the previous paragraph, which is the one I played, or there’s a post-jam version here that adds sound effects and additional endings. Both will suffice in terms of atmosphere and experience. Let me know if anything happens with that snowman. Really now–I know it’s vital for living.