When I first downloaded Year Walk, I did not know it was a horror game. Full disclosure: I am not a horror game kind of person. While I am perhaps not the first person to cover my face at any sign of gore, it doesn’t take much to make me leave the room, close my computer, snap a book shut, or turn off the TV.
That said, I really liked this game. It’s got great puzzles, fascinating settings, excellent story structure, and enormous artistic value. If you have a teenager who is interested in scary games or movies, read on.
Year Walk was released on iOS last year, and it was recently re-released for Mac and PC. There are some slight differences between the two versions. I prefer the computer version to the mobile version. If you do play on your iPhone or iPad, be sure you download the free Year Walk companion. It’s full of great content, including the story’s second, real ending. You do not need it for the computer version, as this content is integrated into the main game. I played Year Walk with Steam on my MacBook Pro. It only takes a couple of hours to complete.
Year Walk, by Swedish indie game company Simogo, tells the story of Daniel Svensson, a 19th-century Swedish man who is in an unfortunate situation. Stina, the woman he loves, is engaged to another man. Because of Daniel’s low status, Stina will not leave her fiancé to be with him. Daniel decides to go on a “year walk,” or a traditional Scandinavian vision quest through the woods, culminating in an encounter with the Church Grim. If the walker is successful, he will see a glimpse of the future. Many who attempt the Year Walk die in mysterious ways.
The challenges you must face along the way are embodied in four figures of Swedish folklore: the Huldra (forest guardian / scary temptress), the Brook Horse (creepy equine who enjoys drowning folk), the Myling (freaky ghost baby), and the Night Raven (really angry bird). Snarky descriptors aside, I am a huge fan of Scandinavian folklore, and I really liked this aspect of the game. The scariness in the story comes from a place of fairytales and ancient spirits, which makes it more interesting to me than modern horror stories about mindless violence. In tone, Year Walk feels extremely reminiscent of the movie “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The Encyclopedia, a built-in guide to explain the history behind the folkloric figures, makes each puzzle much more interesting. Often, the Encyclopedia is essential to help you solve the puzzles. Knowledge is power!
At times, Year Walk’s plot is kind of melodramatic. (There is a love triangle in play, after all.) However, its melodrama doesn’t feel out of place in context, and the game’s second ending was able to redeem my approval. After you think you have finished the game, you are given the opportunity to access the blog entries of a modern-day researcher who is learning the story of Daniel’s year walk. Reading blog entries and looking at photos sets this part of the game apart stylistically and breaks the fourth wall in a really interesting way. It also makes Daniel’s glimpse into the future much more real and offers the optimistic message that our fate is not set in stone.
Year Walk is part point-and-click puzzler, part horror survival, and 100% gorgeous. Seriously, the animation is something else. Look at this:
And I went and bought the soundtrack by Daniel Olsén almost as soon as I had finished playing.
One of the things that most fascinated me while playing was the way that you navigate through the game’s map. The perspective is first person, and you are always facing north, toward the church. You can move right, left, backward, and forward along paths in the woods, but no matter where you go, you are always looking toward the future. It felt like the perfect way to bring the theme of time into the game mechanics, because walking south felt like moving backward. It also reminded you that you were on a mission, rather than wandering aimlessly.
Some of the puzzles in the game are pretty subtle, but the hint function makes this easier. The hints don’t give everything away, and they’re optional (you get a badge on Steam if you complete the game without them). I think Simogo did a great job there in catering to different kinds of gamers.
The Scary Stuff
The horror in Year Walk is mostly embodied in jump scares and blood spatter, and the worst of it doesn’t tend to stay on screen for more than a second at a time. I’d say the scary factor is about equal to the level of The Sixth Sense. Triggers to look out for: suicide, murder, dead babies, drowning, exposed organs, revolving heads, and creepy dolls. Click here and here to see two particularly scary images from the game.
The Final Word
Year Walk is a quality game. But beyond that, it makes me excited about new innovations in storytelling. Simogo’s integration of both the research journal and the Encyclopedia was excellent. These additions bring something to Year Walk’s story that would simply be impossible to achieve with a more traditional style of gaming. The ESRB has not yet rated this game, but Apple has given both versions a rating of 12+ for horror and violence. If you’re not really into horror, or if you know your teen scares easily, you might want to pass this one up. However, if you’re not completely opposed to scary stuff, this game might be a great middle ground between a parent and a teen who is showing an interest in eerie media.