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Full Steam Ahead: Year Walk

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: none

Welcome back to the month of Adam! For those unaware, Adam donated enough to the Calgary Distress Centre to select games for the entire month of August, and I’m now playing through them. Now, he made an effort to select games of which I had no prior knowledge. He was initially successful, but eventually he had to release the list of games to me. At that point, I was free to do some research.

We will talk about Year Walk the second game in the month of Adam in just a bit, but I would like to talk, for a few brief seconds, about some of the parameters I gave Adam. Adam is, after all, a friend, and he wanted to know if I had any specific requests. I’ll confess, I have no interest in playing any propaganda games, and I don’t particularly enjoy horror games. I said as much. Adam smiled, nodded, and then promised that he wouldn’t make every game a horror game. If you know Adam, you know that’s actually a fairly merciful guarantee.

So, let’s talk about the research I put into Year Walk. According to Wikipedia, “Year Walk is an adventure game developed and published by Swedish mobile game developer Simogo.” That doesn’t tell me a whole lot, but the words “adventure game” and “Swedish” lead me to believe that this is going to be a horror game. Now that I have completed Year Walk (including the secret second ending) I can tell you that initial hunch was right on the money.

So that’s the game Year Walk, but what actually is a year walk?

I’m am concerned, but also captivated.

Year walking, or Årsgång, was a form of folk divination practiced in Sweden. To perform a year walk, one spends a festival day, traditionally New Years Eve, isolated in a darkened room, fasting. After a whole day without light, food, or human contact, the year walkers sets out at midnight, following the directions supernatural beings, some of whom may attempt to deceive or harm the year walker. However, if they can complete the year walk, the practitioner is granted a vision of what the future holds.

It should be noted that I only know these facts from a wikipedia article and sources tied directly to the game’s developers. Without this game, and without Adam drawing my attention to this game, chances are I would never have heard anything about this phenomenon.

I love it when games let me do research in-game. Because I am a nerd.

Due to the interactive nature of games, they give players the opportunity not just to witness or observe cultures different to their own, but the ability to, in some small manner, experience them as well. I’m not terribly familiar with Swedish culture or folklore, so the opportunity to explore them through games is an exciting prospect.

As it turns out, it is also a terrifying one.

The game is primarily a series of puzzles, focused or themed on the aspects of the spirit guides. The Huldra leads me into the woods with her pure voice, meaning I need to follow the tones that are in harmony with the background music. The Night Raven steals valuable objects, meaning I must track it down after it steals my key. The Brook Horse ferrys lost souls to their final resting place, so I need to go find some lost souls.

A Brook Horse with four Mylingen. If you are more familiar with Swedish folklore than I was, you’d know to be worried.

The bulk of Year Walk’s gameplay is taking the protagonist on a year walk, in an attempt to see the future of his love life. Unlike some horror games which rely on overt jump scares and sudden loud noises, Year Walk builds most of its terror through atmosphere. The scariest aspects of the game are very often not the supernatural beings I encounter along the way, but the dark woods of Sweden in winter.

One of most interesting and least beneficial university courses I have ever taken was Film studies – genre studies, early horror films. A concept we explored in that class, and I’m sure many of you have come across on your own, is the idea that the worst horrors are the ones we imagine into existence. In the case of Year Walk, the horror does not stem from the spirit guides; the brook horse, the night raven, and the church grim are indeed terrifying creatures, but they are not worse than the possibilities my mind projects into the darkness. It is not knowing that the woods are filled with sinister omens and monster, but rather, not knowing that the woods  aren’t that fills me with dread.

Pictured: somewhere I never want to be in real life.

What’s more, the reason behind the protagonist’s year walk is also one that increases terror. At the beginning of the game, the protagonist meets his lover in a secret rendezvous at the town mill. However, she is expected to marry someone within her own social class and circle, and promised to give them an answer in the new year. Out of desperation and fear, the protagonist embarks on a year walk to see if his love life will pan out.

Forget jumpscares, creepy music, and any number of creatures belonging to foreign folklore. The most basic building block of fear is used as the inspiration of the year walk itself: the fear of being completely alone.

In the woods of Year Walk, you are very much alone.

Terrifying Swedish goat spirits notwithstanding.

Year Walk is a very short game. And although its challenges and puzzles are rewarding, I don’t think I would describe it as a particularly fun game. However, that’s a big part of what both Full Steam Ahead and the month of Adam are about: finding new and interesting experiences. I’m am very grateful that I got the opportunity to play this game, and see a small part of a culture I knew nothing about.

Even though I don’t like horror games, Year Walk is one of the best-designed games I have ever played, and that alone is worth the occasional fright.

Next Episode: Double header! Midnight Ultra and Ladykiller in a Bind

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