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Wot I Think: Year Walk

If you go down to the woods today

Year Walk is a dose of folklore with the sharp edges left on. A chilling saunter through snow and sorrow that draws on Scandinavian folklore and the mystery of the titular Årsgång. This enhanced port of the iOS original isn’t quite a horror game but one moment did cause me to fall out of my chair. It's consistently unnerving and even becomes quite upsetting at times. But as I examined its terrible beauty, I had only one question in my mind – is this the ultimate game in the burgeoning Going for a Walk genre?

Misleadingly, Year Walk isn’t a Going for a Walk game at all. It’s more like a first-person adventure game, with (mostly) static screens and occasional puzzles. It’s a brief experience and the area open to exploration is small, but the Årsgång itself is an entirely new concept to me and I suspect it will be to almost anyone who isn’t a folklorist with a Scandinavian speciality. To all intents and purposes, anyone who played the iOS version of Year Walk now classes as a Scandinavian folklorist.

When I first read about the game, I wasn’t convinced that the Årsgång had ever existed outside Simogo’s design documents. It seems too neat and sharp a hook to hang a game on, and I suspected that references to the actual activity were a metanarrative fabrication. An archaeological Google-dig does reveal pre-Simogo references, however, and a couple are even in English. It appears I was wrong.

The person who undertakes an Årsgång, who I shall now refer to as an Årsgånger, fasts for a day in isolation before heading into the woods and outskirts of his/her in the small hours of the morning. The route is not prescribed but there are guidelines and the journey ends at the village church, at which point circuits of the building are made, in a certain sequence, to summon the fearsome Church Grim.

The details vary and the tradition has faded into the farthest reaches of obscurity but the purpose of the walk is to receive visions and visitations, in an attempt to predict events such as harvests, illnesses and deaths in the coming year. Simogo have populated the woods with a small party of other characters drawn from Scandinavian mythology, none of which are dangerous but all of which are threatening.

The best of the puzzles asks us to pay clear attention to the mythology, to sink deep into the weird sadness of it just as feet crunch deep into the snow. The PC version has a compendium of characters and stories available from the main screen, a facet that was previously trapped in a companion app. They’re wonderful stories, populated with uncanny beings that have sinister but credible motivations. Words that attempt to apply a sort of structural sense to a brutal and unkind world, where a newborn is sometimes little more than one more unwanted mouth to feed.

An Årsgång brings the walker into contact with entities that dwell in between the trees and themselves. Like so much that is supernatural they are less than metaphors, beginning as explanations of ordinary occurrences that are abominable, inexplicable or terrifying. These creatures lurk just off the beaten track, waiting for the wanderer foolish, inquisitive or brave enough to set foot in the darkness.

The stand-out sequence in Year Walk’s somewhat anthologised narrative involves Mylings, the cantankerous souls of unbaptized infants. Functionally, it’s a fetch quest and it’d be possible to blunder from one location to another until all of the pieces were discovered. But blundering through an Årsgång defeats the purpose. Simon Flesser, co-founder of the studio that created the game, has said that when writer Jonas Tarestad first showed him the script, Year Walk was intended to be a short film. Flesser pointed out that the movements and procedures of the Årsgång were similar to the rules that apply to a game.

From there, Simogo moved toward the idea of adapting the script for use in an interactive adventure. The Mylings puzzle fully vindicates that decision. The framework of the Walk justifies the backtracking and to locate the Mylings the player must explore the darkest corners and conclusions of the tale. The strength of Simogo’s handling of the material is most evident in the music and bizarre visual interpretations of oddities such as the Brook Horse, but the sense of bewilderment at the end of each puzzle segment is admirable as well. Did I do a good thing by fetching the Mylings? Are there are any good things left in these woods, at this time of the year, at this time of night?

Year Walk loses none of its beauty in the transition to PC and the adaptation from a touch screen interface is smooth, with clicks and key presses a perfectly suitable replacement for swipes and jabs. There are a couple of tweaked moments, when an iThing’s motion sensors would be called into action, but I didn’t know about them until afterwards and didn’t feel as if I’d missed out.

A scrap of paper for note-taking and map-making is far more important than a wibbly-wobbly phone, and one musical puzzle is best appreciated through a good set of headphones. Actually, headphones are recommended throughout, simulating something of a snowy environment’s claustrophobic cushioning and also firing the shock of the occasional jump-scare right into the noggin.

It is a very short experience, even with the cleverness of a second potential walk, which links back to the first puzzle in the game. Initially unsolvable, that initial stumbling block is at the heart of Year Walk’s mysteries but that doesn’t mean answers should be expected when the solution is finally discovered.

Like the visions of an actual Årsgång, all of the meaning and feeling of Year Walk could be little more than the pangs of sensory manipulation. A series of hallucinations drawn from anxiety, confusion and deprivation. I enjoyed squinting through the trees (and occasionally through my fingers) and I’m glad to have had my walk in the woods, but I learned a lot more about the past than about the future. It’s lovely to play a game that covers unexpected ground and Year Walk certainly does that, although the player character feels like a curator of folklore rather than an individual partaking in a personal spiritual experience. That creates a sense of distance from the events and the woods.

That said, if I learned one thing about the coming year, it’s that I hope for more Simogo games to arrive on my PC. Year Walk may be a slight shiver of a thing but it nestles in the imagination like a hibernating huggorm, ready to strike out when the thaw comes.

Year Walk is available now.

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