At The Steps Of The Bone Hut: Norrland
I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. Funny I'd end up posting it on the same day as Kieron posted his own thoughts on uniquely disturbing game. I doubt many of you went ahead and downloaded Norrland, Cactus’ pseudo-8-bit hunting trip, but - and I’m treading on eggshells here - hiding inside Norrland is a... moment. A scared, devastating bullet of a moment, fired in desperation. This moment was my single favourite bit of gaming in all of 2010.
The following is safe for work, but only just.
Just to sketch out the rough shape of Norrland for you, there’s more to it than a sidescrolling hunting trip. It was actually created for Kulturbygden, a kind of youth culture centre in the Swedish city of Sollefteå, and the character you control is an awesomely politically incorrect portrait of a Swedish hick (Norrland being the most Northern and sparsely populated chunk of Sweden).
While the game does see you boldly setting off from your grotty cabin, walking to the right and blowing apart every breathing example of wildlife you encounter with your trusty rifle (which you reload with a series of four button presses in a manner that’s so chunky and satisfying that I need to see it in some AAA games /immediately/), your character actually spends most of his time getting distracted. It’s hard to make it from one side of the screen to the other with needing something to eat, some beer, a nap, a piss or a wank, each taking the form of a minigame, most of them willfully tedious. Though it's careful not to bore you, Norrland's built to convey a sense of wry mundanity as quickly as possible.
Except, perhaps, for the animal punching.
Anyway, Norrland's mundanity is where its retro aesthetic comes in. The game's been built to look and sound like a distant cousin of an Atari game, which amplifies the game’s backwards setting and frank, unambiguous tone, of which here's a NSFW example. But that’s only half of it- Norrland’s aesthetics are more raw and earthy than they are old fashioned. It’s an Atari game that’s had its code dragged through mud and lager. The decaying visuals flicker in the manner of old movie projectors, and the colour palette is like something you’d use to paint an autopsy taking place in a long-abandoned shed. Then there’s the sound- it's very, very videogamey, with all sorts of twinklings and rattling, but there's no music and the SFX sound like they've been forced through a chipset at gunpoint. Everything sounds important and out of place at the same time, like Norrland is talking to itself.
The overall effect of the visuals and sound is, at turns, ferociously ugly and hugely pleasing, which suits the game perfectly, since what you’re actually doing is repetitive, pointless tasks (rowing a boat across a river, shooting a bird, guiding a hand up and down a penis with your cursor keys until ejaculate comes spraying out accompanied by a long, crashing sound) and laughing at the game’s no-frills writing. A high point are the inordinately messed up dreams which your character suffers each time he has a nap, which are somehow entertaining while making you look forward to waking up and getting on the road again
So, yeah, that’s the sea-monster silhouette of Norrland.
Now, that moment I was talking about.
If you value rare gaming experiences, for God’s sake, play this game for yourself before you read the rest of this article. You can Norrland here, it’s 8mb and it’ll take you about 15 minutes to finish. Go, now, and then come back.
TERRIBLE SPOILERS begin after the man tells you that you can't dance.
HERE BE SPOILERS.
Did you play it?
So, how about that ending?
It utterly floored me. When this game ended it left me staring at my PC’s desktop with a mouth that could hold a golf ball. There are perhaps two other games that have left me this shocked.
If you neglected my advice and still haven’t played Norrland, (this is the last stop, people) what happens at the end is as follows. You’re proceeding to the right side of the screen as normal, and you have a twisted dream, as normal, except during the dream this man shows up.
You can only respond to him by typing out “Yes” or “No". His line of questioning is, to put it lightly, disagreeable. Here's his first question.
Here’s the second:
And things go downhill from there with the momentum of an avalanche. If you respond to any of his questions with “No”, you get sent to this screen:
And if you respond to that with “No”, he just keeps asking you if you're lying. In order to proceed, you begin responding to all of his questions with “Yes”.
ARE YOU A FAG?
DO YOU WANT ME TO FUCK YOU?
ARE YOU WORTHLESS?
IS YOUR LIFE MEANINGLESS?
WAS YOUR MOTHER A WHORE?
DO YOU WANT TO DIE?
YOU DISGUST ME.
The game literally leaves you hanging. Upon waking, your character kills himself. The above image is set to a sort of heartbeat sound, except it’s not a human heart. It’s something else.
And that’s the end of Norrland. You can spend as much time as you like watching your character swing in the wind, with that alien sound tapping out a slow rhythm of primal continuity, the colours cycling aggressively through greasy tones. Eventually, you’ll press Esc. The scene freezes, fades to black, and the application closes. That’s your videogame. Deep & meaningful indie freeware games might be ten a penny these days, but the aggression and delivery of Norrland is a rare, rare thing.
This ending turns Norrland on its head. You spend the game laughing and fumbling your way through the forest and the man's private urges, enduring disturbing dreams and listening to him talk to himself (“Beer is good!” “Time for a piss!” “Fucking mosquitos!”), but you never think of him as a person. How could you? The aim of the game seems to be blowing the heads off animals. But that’s just it. If someone asked you what the game was while you were 75% of the way through Norrland, you’d probably say “Oh, it’s just a funny game about a hunting trip.” You, like the character, aren't aware of the extent of self-loathing and insecurity that's buried here, and when you discover it and the end it’s like finding a shard of glass in your breakfast cereal. Not just because you didn’t see it coming, not just because your in-built videogame player callousness meant you failed to think of this man as a human being, but because you were fucking laughing at him. The game’s message is, I guess, about our knack for dehumanising underclasses. When Norrland starts, you can’t actually leave your cabin without first lazily deciding to throw your trash in the furnace. Or maybe it's simply about delivering maximum shock value. I don't know.
A less arguable dimension that Norrland’s ending adds to the game was pointed out to me by a friend. As you progress through the forest, your objective seems to be to shoot animals before they flee, but it’s not like there’s a visible score. You can also collect firewood, pick mushrooms, and (as I mentioned above) the pissing minigame lets you try and hit as many ants as possible. You can even try and 'win' your dreams. You find yourself doing all of this because, well, it’s a game. You don’t really need a reason why.
The truth is that it’s all totally pointless, which is a strange thing to accept as a gamer. Pick-ups that do nothing? That's bizarre. And through this, you're forced to accept that you’re just wasting your time, dropping pebbles into the well of your existence. Norrland’s at its most blunt about this if you choose to climb the big tree that appears about half way through. You, climb, and you climb, and you climb.
...you appear back at the bottom of the tree. There is no view to reward you, there’s only the physical act of climbing, which your hick gives utmost importance because it takes his mind off... what, exactly? There’s a rubber sack poised above your character for the entireity of Norrland, but neither of you ever look up until it finally drops. For a moment, the two of you are inside it together, and then you're out of there- but the character's not. You leave him behind. And Hell, it was you that put him in there. It was you that said that he was worthless, and it was you who said he wanted to die.
To my mind, Norrland is the best game Cactus has made, but if you've got an evening to kill you should absolutely check out the rest of his work. He's a talent, this one, and he's helped significantly to make the PC the most exciting place to be in gaming right now. I can't wait to see what he does next.