[25 April 2014]
If Device 6 (as I argued last week) conveys a good sense of space (i.e. the physical layout of an environment) but a poor sense of place (i.e. the unique characteristics of a location), then Year Walk is its mirror opposite. Made by the same developer, Simogo, Year Walk is an iOS (and now PC) puzzle/horror game that conveys an excellent sense of place but a poor sense of space. However, unlike Device 6, which suffered limitations because of its design, the poor sense of space in Year Walk feels purposeful and actually adds to the overall mood and horror.
Year Walk is a 2D game that still allows you to travel in three dimensions because the 2D world is made of multiple layers. As you swipe to move left and right across a single 2D layer, you’ll come to certain points where you can swipe up or down to move to the next layer. It’s pretty straightforward when you think about it; the world is a grid of interlocking planes. However, what makes the environment so confusing is that you can’t cross an entire layer just by moving left or right. Invisible walls block your path, forcing you to, for example, move up a layer and continue in a direction until you can move down again. These invisible walls carve the straightforward grid into a maze and distort our sense of space.
But this isn’t a bad thing. Year Walk is in part about being lost in the woods. The whole point of the Year Walk within the fiction of the game (and maybe reality? Are Year Walks real?) is to wander without a goal. We’re not meant to know where we’re going. You simply walk through the woods, and if the spirits deem you worthy, they’ll appear before you with visions of the future. Even when we have a destination in mind, getting there is less a matter of swiping a direct path there and more a matter of swiping in that general direction until we stumble upon it. The forest at night is by its very nature a confusing space.
(Which is why I was shocked to learn about the existence of a map in the PC version. You don’t Year Walk with a map. That’s doing it wrong. And how can you feel that eerie fear of getting lost in the woods when you’ve got a map?)
Meanwhile the visuals and sound work to create a powerful sense of place. The art of Year Walk creates a forest that is both beautiful and frightening. At the very beginning of the game, the color palette is white on white on white. There is the snow in front of you, the snow further ahead, and even the horizon itself is a blanket of white. There is no sky—only snow. In the game proper, the background is black in order to convey night, which helps distinguish the foreground from the background but doesn’t make the world any less confining.
The sound and soundtrack reinforce the “place” of the woods. Device 6 used sound to convey “place” as well, but the sound was also usually in service to a puzzle. Here, the sound exists as a natural part of the landscape; it doesn’t have any ulterior motive for being there. The crunching snow under your feet doesn’t hint at any puzzle; it just emphasizes the silence of the woods. And the silence of the woods is frightening not because it heralds a noisy jump scare but because it emphasizes how utterly alone you are out here. The sounds of the woods are natural, not forced.
The one puzzle that does revolve around sound is the most difficult puzzle in the game because it requires you to distinguish a harmonious tune from a disharmonious tune. In this case, the sound is in service to the puzzle, not a sense of place, and the result is that this new environment, a cave system, isn’t anywhere near as memorable as the woods themselves.
Year Walk is a carefully crafted experience that uses its limitations to its advantage. Simogo could never create a vast and detailed world using the power of the iPhone, so instead they made a game based on abstract space and fleshed out that space with evocative art and sound, giving it a specific sense of place. The woods of Year Walk are spooky because of how they look, how they sound, and because it is so easy to get lost in them.
It’s not always necessary for a great game to evoke a sense of place and space, but when it lacks one, that lack should still add to the experience.