Described by developer Serenity Forge as a “romcom adventure game”, Land of Screens is both charming and decidedly more grounded than similarly sentimental games. While it explores the weighty process of how we rebuild ourselves after we’ve suffered a loss, rather than send players down the path of introspection, it chooses to be a bit more simplistic and deliver just one relevant message : there’s a whole world outside your phone screen and maybe you’re just missing it. By taking this approach and focusing so completely on this one message, Land of Screens ends up coming across a little too reductive and preachy to deliver it as subtly and powerfully as possible.
Land of Screens begins as life as the Netherlands knows it comes to an end: after five, long years together, her partner has just ended the relationship. Before she even has time to process her feelings and what this means for her life, Holland paces through her bedroom, thinking about how others will process the news and will therefore look for the right way to share the news on social media. As she debates word choice and tries to strike a balance between aloof and devastated, she realizes she’s been tagged in the announcement of her ex’s breakup, which naturally leads to a spate of comments and bad feelings that she’d rather ignore.
Desperate for some sort of outlet, Holland racks her brains for someone she can reach. However, it doesn’t take her long to realize that thanks to a comfortable relationship, her busy work schedule and the advent of social media, she has failed to actually nurture her relationships in a meaningful way and is feeling a bit isolated. Holland finally decides to pay a visit to her ever-compliant childhood best friend, Cody, and makes a quick detour into her already busy weekend filled with a work conference and family reunion. She quickly packs her things and goes to Cody’s house, realizing that she forgot her charger a little too late and that her phone is running low.
As Holland finds little ways to keep her phone charged just enough to get to the places she needs to go (and be reminded of her breakup), what follows is a series of situations where she’s tasked with getting people off their phones. to make kids connections and people a little happier. These events take the form of short, point-and-click adventure sections, in which you have to walk through a certain environment and come up with ways to make people lose interest in their tablets, phones and imitation Nintendo Switches. Each of the game’s handful of levels requires a bit of light puzzle solving as you talk to people and interact with objects in an effort to figure out what takes them away from the glow of the blue light. However, these puzzles, along with much of Land of Screens, have one major drawback: they’re just way too simple.
Land of Screens’ few puzzles require no cleverness or close inspection to solve. Instead, the Netherlands should just talk to people until they have nothing more to say and things more or less go smoothly. While a bit of simplicity is nice, eventually these tasks feel like small scale fetch assignments as you click back and forth between characters.
Even more unfortunate is that the game’s story also suffers a bit from the same problem of oversimplification that makes everything feel a bit too casual. We all know that despite all the advantages and conveniences, social media, internet and technology provide a whole, there are just as many negatives. It’s all too easy to become dependent on your digital devices and the validation of people who barely know you – it’s all too easy to trade true happiness and your ability to live in the moment for the appearance of happiness and the ability to after about that moment. The entire Land of Screens is spent trying to bring that point home, but unfortunately the game doesn’t do it in a subtle or innovative way. Sometimes it feels more like the game is lecturing its characters (and you) rather than thinking about the matter in a sympathetic and insightful way.
Much of this stems from the game’s lack of nuance. All of Land of Screens’ online-obsessed characters come across as caricatures, from the selfie-obsessed fitness brother and the dog-loving girl with anxiety, to online trolls and the kids at the family reunion who just won’t stop playing those damn video games. Moreover, all the interesting things that could be said about how technology is a tool that can foster real-life connections remain unsaid. This is especially interesting as Holland makes new friends during her journey that she wants to keep in touch with via phone or social media, interacts with people who use the internet to communicate with others/find events to attend, and speaks with people who suffer from social anxiety. Although the core message of the game is: Absolute true – we rely too much on social media at the expense of forming real connections with our others and ourselves – the way it’s talked about feels a bit disparaging.
However, there is an undeniable sweetness in Land of Screens. Much of this comes from the game’s soft and beautiful vector art style, which adds a youthfulness and charm that you can’t help but admire. The message, while not skillfully executed, is also incredibly serious, and Holland’s journey to rekindle her relationships also leads to some tender moments that may lead us to rethink our own approach to our relationships, as well as where we get our self-esteem from.
Ultimately, it is these interactions that could be took the game to the next level and gave it more emotional depth when leaned a little harder. Rather than spend so much time forcing background characters off their phones, it would have been appealing to explore more of Holland’s internal story and relationships with her family, slightly estranged friends, and her potential new love interest. So much time was spent walking around, showing others the light rather than basking in that warm glow themselves, a choice that would have made the game more impactful. Land of Screens ultimately feels like a predictable yet endearing Netflix romcom, but think Love Hard more than someone great.