After playing Device 6 a few weeks ago, some Facebook friends recommended I try Year Walk by the same developers. Simogo's earlier effort is much more of a traditional game, but Year Walk is really only a traditional game when compared to something as radical as Device 6.
The game is based on Swedish folk lore and the practice of year walking: one would fast for days, not leaving a single dark room, and then explore the woods in a borderline hallucinatory state in the hopes of seeing the future. In this game, you are an unnamed traveler exploring the dark woods. The game takes a sharp turn for the supernatural very quickly. You come across several ghostly figures, each giving you a task to complete or some kind of incentive to follow them deeper into the woods. Some of puzzles require jumps in logic that aren't very intuitive - I used the Mac version’s in-game hint function way more than I’d like to admit. However, I found it forgivable given how surreal and darkly whimsical the experience is.
What's fascinating about Year Walk is that you don't know much about who you are or what you're trying to do, but you're still compelled to explore and lose yourself in the world of the game. Like Journey, it's a game that is much more about feeling than an outright story. You learn to love the bizarre creatures and locations, even when they scare the shit out of you.
The game’s gorgeous artwork is one of the key factors in really drawing you into the experience. It feels hand-crafted by some artisan book-binder in the 19th century and animated with the same kind of warmth as a Henry Selick movie, yet it’s unnerving in a way that’s difficult to describe. Marco Tabini writing for Macworld described the game as “a pop-up book from hell.” Indeed, the folklore that inspired Year Walk was originally intended for Swedish children to keep them out of the woods past dark. Playing this game is like revisiting an old Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark that gave you nightmares as a child, yet it’s matured into an R-rated version that can still scare you as an adult.
Without spoiling anything, Year Walk has a very interesting approach to bridging the gap between the real world and the game world. The game comes with a built-in encyclopedia that gives historical context to the game’s many creatures and ideas. At first it struck me as bizarre: I’d much rather lose myself in the world of the game rather than have this factual barrier between myself and the game. However, as the game goes on, you learn to love the encyclopedia and use it to help you along your year walk. It makes the game feel like a historical document that you interact with. This distance between yourself and the game comes a climax at the end of the game with one of the greatest puzzles I’ve ever seen in a game.
As with Device 6, Simogo finds brilliant ways to play with the conventions of video games. It incorporates various levels of storytelling, from the unnamed traveler in the game to yourself sitting at your laptop, in a way that is rarely seen in any medium. It's a beautifully crafted experience. The monochromatic color palette and harshly animated forest reinforces the character’s isolation, which makes the ghostly entities you meet along the way all the more menacing. However, they are your only friends in the world of Year Walk; like it or not, you'll learn to love them.