'Arise: A Simple Story's time travel mechanic showcases the beauty of life

Once you dig in, there's nothing simple about this story.

Arise: A Simple Story is anything but simple, exploring heavy themes related to life and death in a deceptively complex indie platformer with one of the most compelling uses of time travel ever seen in a video game. You can run and jump with the left analog stick and a simple button press, but the right analog stick controls the flow of time. The speed at which time travels varies wildly across the game’s 10 levels, enhancing the narrative in compelling ways that just might break your heart.

Arise begins with an old man’s body burning on a funeral pyre before the same man wakes up in limbo. From there, the game explores the dreamlike intersection between metaphor and memory in dazzling fashion, like a playable mix between a Pixar and Studio Ghibli film. Each level is an abstract feeling tied to a moment or set of memories, exploring crucial moments in this man’s life that tell a story of star-crossed lovers and all the joy and pain they felt in life. Is the light at the top of that far-off mountain peak in limbo this woman?

“Most games have a young hero looking at the adventure ahead,” game director Alexis Corominas tells Inverse. “Arise is a game that tells the story of an old man where most of his story lies behind. We always talked about time being a key factor of gameplay.”

I played through two levels of Arise at a private demo. The first game from Barcelona-based developer Piccolo Studio, Arise is the lifelong dream of three people who worked in advertising for more than 20 years and wanted to explore something more fulfilling. The game delves into metaphor and memory with a beautiful execution that inspires nostalgia and self-refection.

Corominas calls it a “bittersweet” experience that explores the more difficult parts of life as often as it does the good and joyful.

Statues throughout the game represent specific moments in time.

Piccolo Studio

There’s no text or dialogue in Arise, and the story is told through realistic but cartoonish environments that incorporate abstract, dreamlike symbols.

In one early Memory called “Joy,” the old man recalls goofing around in an idyllic forest setting with his childhood sweetheart. By moving the right analog stick left to right, you can move time forward and back between sunrise and sunset. “These moments are very specific points in time,” Corominas says. “They’re memories he had during his life.” Another memory called “Away” takes place in the 10 seconds at the climax of an earthquake that drove the two lovers apart.

“Every level is completely different in this respect, so you will be surprised,” Corominas says, also teasing that one level spans across entire seasons. “With that, we’re able to provide a lot of diversity in gameplay.” As the game advances, time-travel mechanics become more nuanced, even allowing the player to scrub in slow-motion and move within a frozen moment.

The levels you play in aren’t literal memories so much as they are metaphorical representations of the meaning behind them.

When you can move between sunrise and sunset, these giant sunflowers move to face the sun.

Piccolo Studio

Playing around with bugs as a kid manifests as giant snails you can ride around on, bees you can ride using your grappling hook, and even large spider-webs you can bounce around on. The more platform-heavy levels allow you to interact with the environment in all sorts of surprising ways. But there’s something about the gentle art style and the idyllic musical score by David García (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, RiME) that make everything pleasant and fun, even when it gets a bit scary.

“We’re talking about very universal feelings and emotions that everyone can relate to,” Corominas says. “Being a child and running through the woods, being a teenager and getting separated from someone. You remember your first kiss. The story is this rollercoaster of emotions and not the meaning of life.”

Fans of Journey, RiME, or even The First Tree will find a lot to love in Arise. A game like this could only exist after Journey shattered expectations in 2012 about what indie games could do. All of Arise can be completed in about six hours, but there are collectibles that reveal further snippets of the overall story.

“It’s a game about a lifetime and different memories like sadness, joy, happiness, and love,” Corominas says. “So it only makes sense that you can share these emotions and experiences with the one that you love. That’s why we have a local co-operative mode.” In “Together” mode, Corominas hopes that gamers can convince their partners to participate in this tender-hearted gaming experience through time and space.

What could be more romantic than that?

Arise: A Simple Story releases for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC via the Epic Games Store on December 3, 2019.

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