My first cup of morning coffee is a holy ritual. It's not about the caffeine jolt so much as taking a moment to become who I need to be for the day, for myself and for others, so that I can put something meaningful back out into the world. Mornings are also a time for my partner and I to share a few minutes together before rushing off to work, at least when we get up on time for breakfast.
The importance of those moments is what sticks with me after playing Behind the Frame, a short and sweet narrative adventure about a love of painting and the moments that push us along on our creative paths. A trailer was shown a few months ago during Day of the Devs, showcasing a charming Ghibli-inspired art style. Though I finished the game in an hour, it left me with all the contemplative, warm feelings you'd hope anything inspired by Miyazaki might.
You play as a young woman living alone in an artist's dream apartment, trendy yet authentically rustic. Her messy bed and kitchen share the same room, but that hasn't stopped her from filling the small studio's walls with paintings of city streets, star-crossed lovers, and lush hillsides. As you'd expect of a talented painter, she's also got a ton of junk lying around her windowside workstation, where she's set up her easel and canvas. Beyond the window, more than one neighbor shares the sunshine with her.
Throughout several short chapters, you explore the protagonist's apartment and art through a simple first-person point-and-click movement interface, with the ability to turn a full 360 degrees like you're looking at one of those cool panoramic pictures. As you explore, you'll gain access to new colors that let you paint-by-numbers on canvas and solve picture puzzles hidden in existing paintings. It's not a simulation of real painting, but developer Silver Lining Studio has made it really fun to watch your liquid colors streak across a canvas and magically take the appropriate shape.
Across the alley, her neighbors are a curmudgeonly cat and an elderly man who always seems to ignore her good mornings. It just so happens he's also a skilled painter with his own art room bursting with years of his own personal art.
To say much else would spoil the discoveries, but suffice it to say that Behind the Frame will resonate with anyone who has ever expressed themselves through art (so just about everyone) and connect with someone through it. In part, it's about all the stuff around the art that informs how we look at the world and capture it in ink, or pixels, or paint, pointing out beauty in even the most modest slices of life: Having a cup of coffee in the morning, eating breakfast, meeting up with a friend at a cafe, or seeking shelter from the rain under an awning and bumping into a stranger.
Each day, you'll cook a modest breakfast of eggs and toast, and brew a small pot of coffee before breathing in the morning air, the breeze gently fluttering the curtains around her. Even though the game takes place primarily in just one room, the young woman's aging apartment springs to life like a richly layered painting, and the animated cutscenes succeed at making her and her paintings feel lifelike.
It's all wrapped up in a warm blanket of a soundtrack that evokes the prologue of Pixar's Up, with melancholic cello and deep piano chords, reflecting the world's memories of days gone by.
Behind the Frame's tender story left me wondering about my own relationship to self-expression. It's left me with a greater appreciation for the times when people I love want to share something with me, whether that's the art they've made, an outfit they've been coordinating, or just a bit of coffee. Watching the young woman in this game peer into the life of her neighbor, and step into moments in time captured by art, is a nice reminder to cherish the small moments that inevitably color our own brush strokes.