Critical Play: Year Walk

I decided to play Year Walk after looking at the pictures and thought it looked pretty interesting! The game opens with you immediately in the forest, after a short text intro alluding to a “Year Walk” in the olden days. There are no instructions for how to navigate the space, but I figured out how to swipe forward/back/left/right to traverse the forest. Being thrown into the game space without any instructions added to the eerie atmosphere the game advertises, and as you swipe, there is a soft snow-crunching noise as if you were actually wandering through the forest.

The game was actually really really difficult to figure out, with pretty much no narration or visual indicators to tell me that information was important – I actually had to look up how to solve a few of the puzzles (oops). My favorite part of the game design was using sound to convey story. For one of the puzzles, an awful discordant screeching sound played as you got closer to a ghost baby you had to collect; it was pretty spooky, and with the addition of blood puddles and drip noises, the game did not fall short on horror. The game puzzles are extremely physical as well, which forced me to really engage with the mechanics of an iPad. For instance, one of the puzzles requires you to turn your iPad upside-down, while another has you move a flame around a wall to uncover symbols. In order to bring objects with you, you have to hold them using one finger and use the other to navigate. I liked the physical involvement since it made me feel like I was actually exploring the forest a bit more than if I could just pick up an object and put it away (especially since the objects were ghost babies, a flame, and weird magical key, probably things you couldn’t just slip into your pocket in real life).

While the sound design and graphics were really interesting, I was honestly a little disappointed at the ending of the game. In order to solve the game and actually get any clarity on the story, you have to download a separate app, play through the first two puzzles, and get a passcode from a (false) credits scene. You then take this passcode and are able to read through a diary that explains how someone in the present is researching Year Walking (a weird time travel ritual) gets connected to someone in the past – the person you are playing as in the game. The diary illuminates what the puzzles you completed actually mean (i.e. there was a nanny who drowned four babies in a river, which connects to the puzzle where you collect the 4 ghost babies), but to me, without this very straightforward diary, the previous two puzzles would remain confusing. If the diary wasn’t given, the baby puzzle and the spirit puzzle would have no meaning within the gameplay – having a spelled-out history seemed like a bit of a cop-out in terms of weaving in narrative to the game. Although you have to read the diary to solve the final puzzle (order of safe combo), I wish that there had been more involvement of the past-present time connection. For example, instead of being forced to read the diary, why not have a player then navigate the present world as the contemporary “Year Walker,” and then flip back to the past world “Year Walker” to allow the player to feel more connected to the narrative?

Ultimately, Year Walk seems like it was mostly focused on making the puzzles really challenging (which they were) and creating a spooky and horror atmosphere, rather than create a more cohesive story line that could be woven tightly into gameplay. Sort of similar to some actual horror movies, they delivered horror elements extremely well (some ghostly jump scares, bloody artifacts, spooky doll faces, etc.) that created a loose scary narrative, but at its core, it mostly performs as a difficult brain teaser presented with a thin, spooky veil.

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