Parallel universes, alternate timeframes, light and dark worlds; videogames have been asking players to traverse symbiotic realms for decades now. You know the drill: you must embark on an epic quest to bring peace to different planes of existence. A magical object bestows upon you the power to change the present by altering the past. In some respects, the new point-and-click adventure game Lilly Looking Through is no different. Your little brother has gone missing and you have to find him. You discover a pair of goggles that instantly transport you to another place in time when you put them on. What makes Lilly Looking Through unique is that instead of placing the weight of two worlds on your shoulders, it uses those same mechanics to tell a small, intimate story, akin to a children’s book. The game primarily conveys that story through its painterly environments and the painstakingly delicate animations of its main character.
As a result of Lilly Looking Through’s fairy tale ambiance and hands-off point-and-click mechanics, the game has a certain storybook quality to it. You don’t have direct control over Lilly, but when you click on an interactive element of the pre-rendered, painterly background, she’ll come to that spot and take action. This might sound rudimentary, but I spent the majority of the game watching Lilly do just that. There’s a very deliberate pace to Lilly Looking Through, as if after every click you turn the book around to show the pictures to the class. While the game has no narrator, it begs to be read aloud.
Lilly’s character animation plays a big part in her watchability as well. The husband and wife team behind the game have professional animation backgrounds, which show through in Lilly’s natural, expressive movements. To pull a lever, you only have to click its handle, but Lilly has to mosey over there, climb up a platform to be within reach, then jump and grab the lever and pull down, using her body weight to dislodge it and return her back to the ground. When she tries to jump on a large air bubble floating in a pond, she leaps at it, limbs akimbo, and the elasticity of the bubble bounces her backward to the point from where she jumped. These movements are incredibly fluid and establish Lilly as a smart, curious little girl in a bizarre, constantly shifting world.
Speaking of world shifting, the goggles that allow you to switch between two timeframes are the only object in your inventory, lending them a certain prominence and tactility. Because you have such a limited inventory, puzzles boil down to a matter of timing –figuring out when to put on the goggles and when to take them off, instead of cycling through a bunch of random trinkets you’ve collected, looking for the correct one. It’s worth noting that when Lilly is wearing the goggles, she’s actually wearing them too. The lenses are too big for her, making her look like she’s donning one of her parent’s prescriptions. Lilly doesn’t just wear the goggles though, she’s taken aback by what she sees through them. The game’s desktop icon even depicts Lilly, glasses on, wide-eyed, mouth agape, and arms outstretched, as if trying to maintain her balance amidst the intensity of what she sees. Lilly’s goggles aren’t just a means to an end, they’re an object that helps flesh her out as a character.
Even with such an expressive protagonist, for a game about child-like imagination and wonder, Lilly Looking Through is minimally playful. The game has one set path and order for completing its puzzles and only the objects that will help you solve the riddles are clickable. This was only disappointing because I wanted to watch Lilly explore a bit more. The most playful sections of Lilly Looking Through were the times when Lilly was having fun not solving puzzles, as with the aforementioned bubble sequence and another where she does a cannonball off a rooftop into a flooded courtyard below. My favorite parts of storybooks have always been the illustrations, and the same is true for Lilly. With every page turn, the joy is in seeing how the characters act out what is transcribed below. While the same could be said for Lilly Looking Through, I do wish there were a few more pictures.
We’re probably never going to get a My Neighbor Totoro videogame at this point, so it’s reassuring to see a game like Lilly Looking Through carry a similar tone, only with mystical goggles instead of cat monsters. Both tell small stories of how imagination can intertwine with the everyday. I can’t say for sure whether Lilly Looking Through actually takes place in an enchanted forest with time-travelling glasses or if that fantastical premise is one Lilly created with her brother while playing in the woods. In fact, not knowing seems to be the point. We all navigate intertwined worlds on a daily basis: work life, love life, family life, etc. We don’t see Lilly go to school or interacting with adults, but we do see her playing in a world absent of those things. Whether Lilly has blocked the stresses of everyday life from her mind or chose to represent them as fantastical elements is left to your own imagination.