"Not a lot happens over Lieve Oma's short duration, but not a lot needs to."
Parents are weird. When you're a kid, their actions seem baffling, arbitrary and nonsensical, and there's not a lot you can do about it. It's important to have some time and space to think — an infrequent luxury when one is a dependent. However, a port in a storm can be found in unlikely places. Sometimes, all you need is the ear of an extended relative. Florian Veltman's Lieve Oma explores the varying roles our families play, and how they shape us into who we are.
Set in an autumnal forest, Lieve Oma (Dutch for "Dear Grandma") sees a child in a blue raincoat pulled away from their routine of online gaming to accompany their grandmother on a mushroom foraging expedition. The gameplay is as simple as the concept: accompany Grandma along the trail, collect any mushrooms you see, then return to Grandma so she can identify them. Sometimes they're edible, other times they must be discarded. The mushroom variable is procedurally generated, so there's no way to "win." Lieve Oma might end with a harvest, an empty basket, or a modest risotto's worth of fungi.
The gathering of mushrooms, you may have gathered, isn't really the point of Lieve Oma. Rather, the expedition serves as a means for our raincoated hero to (unwillingly, at first) take a break from the virtual world they have been isolated in so they can bare their ennui over their parents' divorce, which has taken them across the country and away from their friends. Anxieties are listened to, advice is given, mushrooms are collected, and that's that. It's all very twee, yet charming in its execution. The piles of dead leaves on the ground, the reflective surface of a nearby brook — it's the little details that bring Lieve Oma to life. In some cases, it's their absence: an excited anticipation of an encounter with a blue heron, a usual acquaintance when foraging, doesn't end up happening. It reminded me of my own walks, the animals I familiarize myself with, my pleasure at their sight and disappointment at their absence.
Adding to this charm is Lieve Oma's visual presentation, a smooth 3D world scant on detail, yet high in style. The protagonist and his grandmother are geometric caricatures of the human form, colorful and pleasingly rounded, and the trail they explore manages to effectively straddle the line between bright and solemn. The soundtrack is particularly lovely as well, consisting entirely of deconstructed variations of Debussy's Arabesque #1 transposed to synthetic piano. There's a somberness about it, though one bittersweet in nature, rather than dark.
Small in scope both narratively and mechanically, Lieve Oma achieves what it sets out to do. Despite its relatively limited number of moving parts, there are a couple of technical snags along the way. The scenes set in winter cause the camera to stutter awkwardly in pursuit of the protagonist, and on at least two occasions, closing the game resulted in the music/sound playing endlessly on my (Windows 8.1) desktop, forcing a reboot. But these are minor annoyances, and ones I can't hold too hard against the full package.
Lieve Oma won't be for everyone. Not a lot happens over its short duration, but not a lot needs to. It's a brief, relaxing moment in time for our protagonist, and ostensibly it is meant to be the same to the player. In that sense, Lieve Oma is a successful experience, and one that made me fondly remember the time I spent with my own grandmother.