It was when looking at the game ‘Back to Bed’ for my previous article that I came across this little gem, ‘Year Walk’ (Simogo, 2013) and I just had to write about it. True, it may be more in line with horror as a genre but it re-imagines certain aspects of Swedish tradition in a surreal and thoroughly weird sense. In that way I guess this isn’t really a review, more just an exploration of the weirder bits of this game (trust me there are many.)
The game, originally written to be a film, is based on an old Swedish tradition called ‘Årsgång’ – which I’ve heard most accurately described as “a complex form of divination”. It’s essentially an old legend that says an individual should lock themselves up for a period of time without eating, drinking, talking to anyone or seeing the light of a fire and the go walking. As they walk they should go to the nearest church, walk around it three times and the blow in the keyhole. It’s said this removed the walker of their Christianity and so supernatural beings would visit them to test their earnestness – if the walker should succeed, then they would be granted an insight into the future. There are various symbols littered through these tales e.g. if the walker sees small dwarfish men carrying carts then it means next years harvest would be good. There’s even one section that suggests if the walker does the year walk seven years in a row then they’ll meet a man with a Runkavle (I still don’t know what this is so feel free to comment if you know) in his mouth – it’s said that if they have the courage to snatch it from him then they will become wise and knowing of hidden things.
So the game is based on a rich, if mysterious, tradition – and indeed we follow the protagonist from a first person perspective as they leave their lover in order to fulfil the year walk. It’s a point and click based game-play and you can move side to side, backwards ad forwards through a beautifully rendered, whiteout forest. It’s interesting, in theory I never like the idea of point and click and yet when I played this I completely forgot that that’s what I was doing. When the design of the world and the characters is so strong, it’s easy to be submersed in the mode of the game, even if it’s not something you usually go with. The feel of that setting seems (and I speak as someone who is not Swedish or an expert on Swedish mythology) like it carries on the feel of the folktale. The forest is covered in snow and every so often frozen flakes will drift over your peripheral vision and slide under the tall, dark trees. You’re isolated, having left your lover behind in your mill and that comes across really well. The game is very much story driven and just having the player setting off on this reality bending quest is very satisfying.
But here’s where I found the game to be most surreal. Now you could argue that supernatural beings in themselves are surreal, in as much as they are devoid from rationality. But the thing to bear in mind is that surreal can be used by different people to mean different things – some would argue something can only be surreal if it came after the rise of the movement through Dadaism at the end of the 19th century. So bearing that in mind, I would go on to to suggest that it’s the way this game reinvents the characters of this Folklore that seems most surreal – as well as what the player must do to meet them. Take for example the figure of the Brook Horse (Bäckahäst) who is usually a great stallion who hangs out by rivers to trick humans – the usual mythical figure stuff. In this game the horse appears out the river itself with dead-white eyes and a gaping jaw, wearing a fully lined suit which frankly makes him look like a deranged accountant. It’s those small touches that make the horror and the creepiness of this game most hard-hitting. Indeed from this point the player has to find four Mylings (ghosts of unbaptised children) and bring them so the Brook Horse can drown them and give them a proper burial. These puzzles enhance the game-play to the extent where the player must legitimately think outside the box – like having to look in the encyclopedia on the pause menu to find one of the Mylings tucked up (which reminded me so much of the Lisa photo puzzle in PT.)
Another includes the visuals of the Lady in the snow (based on the traditional figures of the Huldra.) As her ghostly vision appears through the snow, the player must find a number of keys in order to prove their worth. She disappears and re-appears through the trees, her form folding in on itself and out in strange angles so she appears like a vision through a kaleidoscope. It feels thoroughly weird, which i think is enhanced by the fact that the horror is more low end at this point, it’s more threatening which suits the surreal elements particularly. This is similar to other puzzles, such as where you have to click on owls to make them sing and unlock a hidden door in the trees. On the other hand there are other darker sections, like watching a wooden doll spinning with blood smeared across its face, but they still maintain the imagination of the overall game. The whole thing has a very Gothic feel in it’s melodramatic exposition. It feels dark but also lyrical, poetic.
It’s fascinating to see the process of adaptation but with folklore, so it’s the adaptation of an idea rather than a specific text. While the creators have transferred faithfully the elements of the tradition it’s been reinvented with a surreal and horrifically visual style which suits more the alternative take it has on puzzle solving. Really it’s a cautionary tale of the perils of obsession and divination, seeing as the only revelation you get is the death of your lover at the end of it, as well as the journal of a previous walker who disappeared.
Although i’d argue that the game loses it’s way a bit with the ending, it manages to maintain the dream-like quality of its game-play for an impressively long time considering it’s modest beginnings in production. Indeed, the player enters a trance like state of twisting blocks in a white dream space in order to see the future. It feels mystic, and completely separate from reality. It’s surreal in it’s sense of belief, and the power of superstition. A gorgeously dark, Gothic and bittersweet chunk of game play, that sweeps you away on a transcendent journey into the centre of human curiosity and far, far away from any sense of rationality. Another short gaming gem that’s well worth a go – available on IOS devices, Steam and the Wii U.