Living Folklore in ‘Year Walk’

Year Walk tells a story that comes alive in its telling, that grows up around the player, out of its display box, and into a forest.

When I was a kid, my mother had me take a wooden mask that we owned outside to destroy it with a hatchet. She said it had haunted her dreams. It was a strange precaution to take in retrospect, but at the time, it made sense. As a child, the dark holds all sorts of ghosts and terrors, and the superstitions and beliefs passed on in family stories become fact when the sun sets.

I can tell you some of the stories I grew up with now — about a pile of cursed clothing or my curandera aunt who could reliably free a house of evil spirits — but they would lose their vigor in the telling. There is a difference between a story about folklore and a folklore story.

Year Walk, a mobile and PC game by Simogo, the creators of Device 6, taps into this slight difference, delving into the realism of living mythology. It is a Swedish folklore game, not a game about Swedish folklore, and its respect for the experience of its mythos sets it apart from the few other games that try to address a history of such a tradition.

Set in a snow-filled forrest, Year Walk recreates Årsgång (literally translated as “Year Walk”), in which an individual scries the future by enduring a host of mythic creatures and legends. The player wanders through haunted woods, decorated with mystic scrawlings that are etched in the trees and littered with abandoned lodgings and strange tombstones. Daniel Olsén’s excellent score infuses the environment with an unsettling sense of sorrow. To move from portrait to portrait, navigating the forest as if it is a series of islands is entirely hypnotic.

Most importantly, nothing about the player interactions in Year Walk veer away from the experience. Once inside, there is no leaving the journey. Take the hint system for example. As a basic point and click puzzler, there are many opportunities for a player to lose track of their progress, get lost, or forget a clue. A helpful hint system is easily accessible, but instead of offering specific mechanical advice, such as “go to the shed for directions,” each hint reads like a part of the story or maybe advice for a year walker on their journey. For example, one clue reads, “A wooden doll dances in a shed.” The information leads players to a shed in the game of course and eventually to a rotating, creepy figurine that points the right way to progress, but it never refers to the puzzle directly as such. It is information drawn from the fiction, not foisted upon it.

This internalized fiction also appears in the in-game encyclopedia, which chronicles some of the foundational stories that inhabit Year Walk. The siren-like Huldra of Scandinavian lore is described there, as are the rest of the spirit creatures that inhabit the forest. These too read a bit like storybook excerpts. At one point, while finding the lost “Myling” spirits of unbaptized babies, the in-game encyclopedia page itself is torn open, bloodied, and occupied by a crying child. It’s an effective and unsettling moment of convergence between storytelling and mythology as reality.

The most abrupt exemplar of the integrated mythology of Year Walk is present in its last moments. The final set of puzzles literally breaks open the game’s letterboxing, manifesting the lore beyond the confines of the game space. Narratively this act continues after the credits as players gain access to a journal, written by an academic who specifically mentions contributing content to a game. The journal describes this nameless person and their own year walk, which leads to (once again) in-game revelations that alter the outcome of the story. The lore of Year Walk lives inside, through, and outside all of the trappings of the game.

Last year, in an article on Polygon, Simon Flesser of Simogo games described the company’s approach to Year Walk’s story: “We wanted to make a game that lets players experience and/or discover the myths for themselves… in many ways we are just continuing the traditions of folklore: telling lies to children.”

By the end of Year Walk, I had a smattering of blue post-it notes stuck all over my desk and monitor. I had drawn references to puzzles, little symbols of a horse and raven, movement directions, and strange runes, like I was haphazardly deciphering some ancient script. For the two or so hours I spent in Year Walk, I was a wide-eyed kid at a campfire, transfixed by a story told with enough authenticity that made it feel for a moment that it could all be real. When making games that draw on cultural narratives (for example, games like Guacamelee or the upcoming Never Along), this is the respectful approach to mythology that the industry should strive to create. Year Walk is an example of living folklore, a story that comes alive in its telling, that grows up around the player, out of its display box, and into a forest.