By Ben Griffin.
The year walk is ingrained into Scandinavian folklore, a thousand-year-old pagan vision quest where people with lots of time on their hands headed into the deep dark forest to catch a glimpse of the future. Picture what Australians call walkabout, but with more creepy wooden dolls.
Launched on iOS last year, this 90-minute point-and-click is essentially an interactive horror novella splicing full-screen puzzles with first-person exploration. It's a grab bag of experimental ideas, but instead of grabbing everything, you prod it and poke it and spin it. So how exactly does this work with a mouse and keyboard?
The pointer acts as substitute for your finger and manipulates points of interest, while movement is on WASD. Puzzles play with this formula, though: one has you hold down the T and V keys to depress two locks then slide metal catches to keep them in place as you open a metal hatch.
The midnight icy wilderness in which the bulk of the game takes place is a grid of screens that you navigate by travelling forwards, backwards, left and right. It's a conspiring maze, luring in year walkers and displacing them amid endless trees and tundra. The perspective isn't as freeing as conventional first-person, as you're always facing forwards and can only travel up and down at set points, but environmental cues indicate when: a mysterious set of footsteps leading into the distance. The blackened husk of a bonfire. A wooden cart missing a horse.
These abandoned artefacts make it seem as if you've awoken to find a world devoid of people, like they've melted into the snow. The featureless landscape combines with an excellent use of silence to evoke a feeling of unsettling isolation. In this sense, the game nails its namesake. According to the in-game encyclopaedia, "A year walker had to avoid other people, so they commonly locked themselves in dark rooms and were not allowed to see fire for an entire day."
Written by my favourite Scandinavian folklore expert Theodor Almsten, this encyclopedia details the kinds of myths and monsters that make you glad you grew up with Humpty Dumpty. In fact it plays into puzzles itself. When a beast called the Brook Horse rises out of a turquoise stream carrying the ghosts of four babies (Mylings), you must search for their bodies by following trails of bright blood stained into the white snow. One of these Mylings can be found in the pages of your encyclopaedia, hinted at by strewn letters and dripping blood.
The dark recess of Year Walk hold all manner of warped puzzles. There's a goat-headed Church Grim to defeat, and a hidden language to decode (keep a pen and paper to hand). Sound plays a unique role, too. Snow crunches underfoot, and only by following a siren's distant call will you find her. Later, inside a shimmering cave, a tuneful melody is a clue as to how you should progress. That's Year Walk all over. It's in turn bamboozling and disturbing, constantly throwing up both chilling curiosities and fresh interactive experiences.
While often obtuse, ambiguity is part of its charm. A hint system and map, both additions to the PC version, reduce aimless wandering, but in the process they kill part of what Year Walk is about — the wandering. Resist the temptation to use them because they make an already short game shorter. For a mere four pounds / six dollars, though, this is a walk worth taking.