Year Walk and the power of tablet gaming

Year Walk

“In the old days man tried to catch a glimpse of the future in the strangest of ways.” — opening titles, Year Walk

Year Walk (2013) is a surreal and spooky tale set in 19th century Sweden, centred around the ancient practice of “year walking”. Similar to the vision quest rituals that were common in some Native American cultures, year walking – we are told – typically takes place on New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve and requires a period of sensory deprivation before finally, at midnight, leaving the house and heading for church. On the way, the year walker would encounter all manner of dangerous creatures – but if they reached the church alive, they would be given a glimpse of the future.

An unusual premise for a game, then, but Year Walk’s dreamy mysticism is perfectly suited to its chosen medium: tablet gaming. Through immersion, atmosphere and a novel meta-game device, it’s difficult to imagine the game experience being anywhere near as powerful on PC or console – little can compare to the impact of physically holding an atmospheric game in your hands as you play. When a seemingly benevolent figure suddenly transforms and charges directly at your first-person view – held mere inches from your face – it is very hard not to flinch.

From this moment on, with the game’s intentions set out more clearly, the player proceeds with some trepidation. Year Walk plays on this superbly, holding back the “cheap” shocks so that the player is never quite sure when they happen next, if at all – a classic horror movie technique. To the same end, it mixes the surreal (an almost-Lynchian besuited horse in a brook) with the grotesque (the ghosts of four babies). This juxtaposition – the horse and the dead children are part of the same puzzle – is compounded by the game’s art style, which mixes a storybook style with a stark, near-monochrome colour palette. Combined with a flickering point of view, Year Walk frequently evokes silent horror films, particularly German Expressionist-era movies like Nosferatu, Vampyr and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Angular trees in Caligari are echoed by Year Walk's forest

Angular trees and architecture in Caligari are echoed by Year Walk‘s forest

This is, of course, not to say that horror games are ideally suited exclusively to the iPad – although anyone who has played Telltale’s excellent The Walking Dead series will testify to its effectiveness when experienced up-close. But Year Walk makes comparatively innovative use of the medium in its puzzle mechanics, often surprising the player with solutions that extend beyond The Walking Dead’s “tap here” or “swipe this”. When trying to locate one of the ghostly children, the player encounters a pool of blood dripping upwards and off the top of the screen. The natural assumption is that there is something off-screen that the player needs to find, probably by moving backwards a level (Year Walk allows the player to move left and right freely, but only forwards and backwards at certain points on that axis, usually a path or item of interest). In fact, the solution is to turn the iPad upside-down so that the blood is dripping the “right” way.

Naturally, this is not something a player can do on their PC or console. Nor can they step their fingers across a TV screen in a dragging motion (keeping at least one finger in contact with the screen at all times) to reach a bit of previously unrevealed terrain, or “carry” a burning flame with one finger while navigating the landscape with the other. That this rarely – if at all – distances the player from the experience owes much to Year Walk’s dreamlike atmosphere. There are no menus, no hints, not even a title screen with the developer’s logo on: even when played over multiple sittings, the player is kept firmly in the experience of their own vision quest.

In addition to the game itself, players can also download the Year Walk Companion, ostensibly a free e-book containing information on year walking and some of the mystical figures that you encounter in the game. The Companion is not a guide in the traditional sense of the word: it does not contain any hints as to how to solve the game’s puzzles, it is purely background information on the fantastical folklore behind what the player experiences.

Pages from the Year Walk Companion

The tablet medium is at its absolute strongest here: we are, today, very accustomed to reading books and articles on mobile devices. While developers Simogo have clearly taken the decision to keep the Companion apart from the game (insofar as they are two separate apps, and one is not accessible from the other), it’s only when the player experiences both that the full depth of Year Walk is revealed. The fact that the Companion is separate actually enhances this: the player’s role changes from walker/dreamer to researcher/detective, trying to piece together the strange events of the game from the slightly-oblique fairytales in the e-book.

Again, this serves to juxtapose the bizarre with the macabre. The odd, almost comical-looking horse in the stream is actually the Brook Horse Bäckahästen, who would lure children to ride on its back… before leaping into water and drowning them. References are made to “angel makers”, who were paid by mothers to take care of their babies… when the mother left, the infant would be killed. Infanticide, we are told, was “a fairly common crime” in 19th century Sweden. Suddenly, the player comes to understand a little more about the presence of the four cute-looking ghost babies they encounter in the game, and that what may have started out as a mystical journey to “glimpse the future” is in fact something rather more menacing.

The Brook Horse

The Brook Horse

This, however, is only the surface: upon completing the game players are given a code which unlocks a whole new section of the Companion. Once more taking its cues from the e-reader format, what follows is a diarised account of a researcher looking into a very specific instance of the year walking ritual: the year walk that the player has just completed. As the diarist begins to lose his grip on reality in true Lovecraftian style, clues are given as to a mysterious box that players encountered in Year Walk – but never unlocked.

The Companion thus gives the player a reason to dive back into the game for a second (and third) playthrough – to “walk again” as the game offers as you draw to its tragic, enigmatic conclusion. It’s a remarkably powerful moment to realise that a free, supporting app – easily dismissed initially as little more than a bonus feature – is actually the meta-game key to unlocking all-new layers and adding emotional weight to the experience. It is refreshing and heartening to know that tablet gaming, as well as catering to the casual market, can be the home for such a narrative as Year Walk and the innovative techniques used to tell it.

There is also something to be said about the length of Year Walk, which I completed in a couple of hours (theoretically the game can be whistled through in around 30 mins if you know all the solutions or are an exceptional puzzle-solver). While there are plenty of time-sink mobile games out there, a film-like length feels somehow “right” for narrative-focussed mobile games like Year Walk and The Walking Dead (which is split into episodes that take roughly three hours to complete). That Year Walk has such story depth – dealing with destiny, death, folklore and murder – is testament to the effectiveness of the Companion app, and what lies within.