Critical Play: Walking Simulators

For this critical play, I had the pleasure of playing Year Walk, a mobile horror/adventure walking sim created by the Swedish game developer Simogo and written by Jonas Tarestad. Year Walk centers around the Swedish tradition Årsgång (in English, year walk), a complex form of divination often practiced on winter holidays around the 17th to early 20th century. By participating in the year walk, which generally consists of going through sensory deprivation then venturing out into the woods in search of areas of high spiritual energy (church, cemetery, etc.), people could supposedly gain glimpses of the future. These trips into the forest often included eery interactions, with some reports listing people going missing or found dead after not following the rules of Årsgång. Naturally, the game centers around the interactions and missteps integral to the year walk experience, but more centrally within a fantasy narrative.

Due to its suspense and horror elements, Year Walk is rated 12+, however I personally think that the target audience would be around 14 and up given the types of themes and puzzles that the game depends on. The game itself can be described largely as a single player side-scrolling map exploration game, where the player navigates a forest during their year walk through side-motion to interact with their current surroundings, or swipe forward or backward to move to a different scene. In creating these mechanics, the map works such that specific waypoints are necessary to either progress forwards or backwards, such that the player must memorize which point (for example, a stump with an axe) leads to which scene (a glade with a cabin and puzzle box). Although I overall enjoyed this style of exploration, it did create a good amount of frustration especially when looking for specific items. There are a number of interactive multi-step puzzles that the player must complete in a specific order, many of them either focusing on movement or music. As the player progresses, each puzzle further challenges their mastery of the general game mechanics and map knowledge and progresses smoothly through the overall narrative. This style of navigating the game was generally very compelling, as it allowed players to reveal new pieces of the narrative at their own pace through careful examination of their surroundings, especially in paying attention to subtle changes in the environment.

In my opinion, Year Walk blends many types of fun, including discovery (the act of exploring the map and viewing subtle changes over time), narrative (progressing through the protagonist’s story as well as learning about Swedish mythology associated with the tradition), challenge (tackling a variety of well-themed puzzles that test multiple sets of skills), and sensation (the visuals and music of the game are extremely immersive and create a very unique emotional experience). I personally think that Year Walk does a great job with sensation and challenge, especially in terms of creating a compelling game experience. While I really enjoyed the discovery aspects of the game, as mentioned before, navigating the map became pretty frustrating at some points as there was a lot of forced repetition. On narrative, the overall story was interesting, however I didn’t have a very good sense of the narrative moment to moment, although this could be due to my lack of knowledge around Swedish mythology. In my opinion, perhaps providing a bit more information on the types of challenges that the player endures before the year walk begins (such as while speaking with the woman in the opening scenes) could provide enough context for the game. As far as discovery goes, there could be more waypoints within each scene to limit the number of intermediary steps needed, however I think that any large improvements in discovery would require changing the fundamental mechanics of the game.

Overall, I really enjoyed Year Walk and its spooky, immersive gameplay, and would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in a highly mood and puzzle-driven walking sim!

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