[2 April 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
While they may seem to have little in common, playing through Year Walk almost immediately after completing Device 6 actually makes plain that there is a kind of continuity in the way that Simogo has built these two games.
In terms of the narrative genres that these two games represent (Device 6 is a mash up of 60s spy thriller and science fiction a la the television series The Prisoner while Year Walk is a quiet, but consistently creepy horror story based on Swedish folkore), the games’ plots do have little in common. Both approaches are interesting and unusual but have a completely different vibe, besides, perhaps, a commitment to general weirdness.
The gaming environments built for the player of each game to occupy are also seemingly rather drastically different as well. On the one hand, Device 6 places the player into an almost wholly textual environment. Indeed, Device 6 treats text as space, asking the “player” to operate as the reader of a text embedded with puzzles and clues to solving those puzzles, traversing that text back and forth until chapters can be completed by resolving the puzzles embedded within that text. Year Walk, on the other hand, feels more like what we have come to think of what a video games traditionally “looks like,” it is a puzzle game as well, but one that is largely visually represented, asking the player to explore a snowy and somewhat barren Scandinavian landscape in search of clues that will help the main character, an initially unnamed man in love with a woman named Stina, complete a ritual that will allow him to see the future of their relationship.
While one game is almost entirely textual in nature (with some sound and visuals supplementing the text) and the other is almost entirely graphical in nature, though, the concern for mixing exploration, data gathering, and puzzle solving is the essential core of both games. In that sense, both Device 6 and Year Walk are about space and how one needs to traverse a world, be that world composed of text or pictures, in order to pick the significant details out of that environment and then synthesize the data gathered in order to solve puzzles and progress forward.
Progress in these games is represented by motion and mobility itself, but there is an underlying assumption in the game design that true progress is only achieved by piecing together the minutiae of a world. When one does, that world is made “solve-able” and understandable, then real progress is made.
In terms of Year Walk, the player is launched into a fairly unfamiliar environment in Northern Europe in what to most is probably an unfamiliar jumble of characters and monstrosities from a less well known tradition of folklore and asked to attempt to understand that space in order to solve the problems of the game’s protagonist. Year Walk then continues to create a kind of distance between the player and its world through its two dimensional art style. The player in Year Walk moves left and right along a two dimensional plain and can then sometimes move up or down to another such plane, creating a weird sense of looking at something like a series of stages on which bizarre and macabre encounters take place. This style is rather perfect for the game’s quirky and often disturbing style, making motion and observation of the world seem strangely distant and dream-like, which, again, works especially well, since you’ll be meeting creatures in the woods that are completely foreign and bizarre, like women with wooden arms and bipedal horses in suits and waistcoats.
While a full playthrough is quite brief, progress is actually slowly paced, asking the player to observe strange etchings on tress and walls (indeed, I haven’t taken notes, drawn maps, or drawn pictures as aids to playing a video game in a long, long time, but I find it unlikely that most players of Year Walk wouldn’t find themselves, as I did throughout the experience, doing exactly that) because observation of these clues embedded in the environment are essential to solving the puzzles necessary to completing the ritual of the “Year Walk” that the protagonist is attempting.
And that is exactly the nature of the beauty of Year Walk as a game. It is a game that observes that ritual and puzzles solving, the latter of which we commonly occupy ourselves with in video games, are related concepts. If puzzles are an attempt to make sense of the world, so too is the function of ritual. Both are about recognizing the significance of small things, recognizing patterns that emerge among those details, and then piecing them together in a sensible way to allow their discrete meaning to become clearer and maybe something larger that they represent.
This is a quiet game that provokes with occasionally unsettling, occasionally horrific images that emerge out of myth and dream. But in myth and dream are puzzles to unlock to better understand ourselves and that is what this ritual is all about.