In the old days, man tried to get a glimpse of
the future in the strangest of ways.
They locked themselves in dark rooms
not partaking of food and drink.
At the stroke of midnight
they ventured out into the night
through the dark woods
where strange creatures roamed
to see if they would be wealthy
to see if they would be happy
to see if they would live
to see if they would be loved
“Year Walk”, the tradition, is an old Swedish rite, performed by humble folks like you or I (or the game’s main character, Daniel Svensson). This custom is about peeling back layers of the universe, that participants might peer into the events of the coming year.
Year Walk, the game, is about… What, exactly? Every creation tells a story about reality as the creator sees it. Some works create obvious metaphors, such as Papa Y Yo. Others, like Year Walk, seem to defy easy classification.
After leaving Daniel’s home at the beginning of the game to traverse the frosty woods and rendezvous with the woman he loves, one of the first items of interest that you will encounter is a square wooden box lying on the frozen ground. You may hold your breath as you approach it, and listen to the soft crunch of your boots upon the fresh-fallen snow. You may crouch down in front of it and attempt to open the thing. But you will not be able to. The secret to what lies behind it’s thickly rutted walls will elude you.
You will eventually give up and move on. But you will later return, checking back every so often to see if something has changed; if some new trick might work to open it. It hasn’t. It won’t. And ironically, you will not be able to actually finish the game until you are able to solve this, its first puzzle.
As you play the game you will solve puzzles, but, take a step back and you’ll see: It’s all a puzzle.
On an experiential level, Year Walk is a masterwork of handheld-Scandinavian-quasi-horror. The game was crafted by Simogo, creators of Bumpy Road and Beat Sneak Bandit, and the level of care that this team has for mobile gaming is nowhere more evident than in this, their latest title. Gladly banish the thought of a virtual joystick. You will trek fluidly betwixt snow-laden trees with the easy swipe of a finger. You might gasp in delight when you realize that a certain test requires the sudden integration of multi-touch, or else gyroscopic twisting in order to be solved, and that the game has succeeded perfectly in engaging not just your mind, but your body. The trick is complete as you close your eyes and listen to the shuffle of steps hushed by the openness of the winter wasteland, the sudden stirring of a deep and melancholy string section, the piercing screams of the ghostly “Huldra”.
The story is about a man who loves a woman that he cannot be with. A man who then looks into their future and sees himself as her killer, only to become, months later, the murderer he saw himself to be. So, Year Walk is about the inescapable, invisible hand of fate, and the cold nihilism of unstoppable death.
But there is yet another layer to this mystery. The Companion app to Year Walk serves first as a guide to the lore of the year walk, but can be unlocked to reveal the story of a researcher who is driven to unravel the mystery in much the same way the player is. Digging into his files, however, only reveals a deeper level of the story. This researcher, Theodor Almsten, is another character, and he has a part to play. His part is to reveal that the year walk is not magic, it is a glitch in the universe. Year Walk is a cruel joke. “Year Walk = System error.”
With the inclusion of this companion guide and the “immersion” it creates, we begin to get a glimpse of what Simogo hopes to accomplish. As the layers are pulled away, we get closer to the core of this thing, the interior of the wooden box, and to me at least, the ruse begins to grow thin. Suddenly I realize that Year Walk is about nothing more than Simogo making a product to entertain and thrill us. This should have been obvious. I wanted to believe, and yet the deeper I go, the more I realize that there is nothing here but polish and vapid amusement. As the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan says in the classic graphic novel Watchmen, “We’re all puppets. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.” Going on a “year walk”, playing the game Year Walk, whatever. Eventually they both just help us to see the strings.
It’s a cold game. Set in a cold universe. One crafted by frigid, calculating hands. Rules and limits are everywhere. But why? Almsten the researcher is a step ahead of us, and as he draws closer to the beating heart of the universe, he is driven to lament:
“Feeling absolute terror at the possibility that there is no purpose. No rhyme, no reason to any of it. Why me?”
Kurt Vonnegut’s third rule of writing states that, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” And since Year Walk is following the rules, we can safely ask: What is it that Daniel Svensson wants? This is obvious, it is the woman he loves, Stina Nilsson. And why shouldn’t he want her? She loves him too.
“You should not go outside without a hat on a cold day like this.” she warns him. “You will freeze your ears off, and I am quite fond of the person those ears belong to.”
“We just wanted to make something… soulful,” developer Simon Flesser recently told Gamechurch. And yet, they very nearly missed their mark. If the game has a soul, it is not the sacrificial Svensson, or the obsessive Almsten. It is her, Stina Nilsson, the one with everything to lose and nothing to gain. She is the delicate flower somehow surviving even the harshest cold snap.
I am quite fond of the person those ears belong to.
“Can love really be a weakness?” muses Almsten. “Or is it strength?”
Somehow it always feels like both at the same time.
The world of Year Walk is memorable because of the interplay between truth and fiction and the way that Almsten and his research dance from one to the other. But Almsten is only fascinating because of his fascination with the main character, Svensson. And why do we care about Svensson? Because he is loved by the fragile and caring Nilsson.
Past the emptiness. Beyond the meaninglessness. Year Walk is a game about love. Love that survives the most damning winter and the most uncaring cold. Love that hangs on the edge of a universe that sometimes seems to have no purpose.
Even if they don’t get their happily-ever-after, Daniel Svensson and Stina Nilsson can still fall in love, life can still go on, and Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, the puppet who saw the strings, can conclude:
The world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles, that they become commonplace and we forget… We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.