Into The Dark: A Review of Year Walk

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I am one jaded motherfucker when it comes to scary games. I played Fatal Frame as a light snack, found myself yawning through Amnesia, and laugh in the face of Silent Hills and Resident Evils. Even the alarm clock in Dead Space 2 couldn’t get me. I’m a stone-cold, dead-eyed, unflappable killer of things that stalk in the dark.

For decades I plowed through horror game after horror game, unfazed by the sordid visions of designer after designer. It was with this cavalier attitude that I downloaded Year Walk, an iOS adventure game developed by Swedish company Simogo.

I had been a fool.

According to the game’s incredibly detailed (and free) companion app, a “Year Walk” is “a vision quest with the purpose being to foresee the future.” It goes on to describe an intense ritual that includes challenges mental, physical, and spiritual, alluding to encounters with otherworldly creatures and something menacingly called “The Church Grim.” It’s all very vague, reading more like a college-level anthropology text than a video game manual.

To say any more is to completely ruin the experience. So instead of talking about the game, I’m going to talk around it.

Seminal horror author H.P. Lovecraft once said that the truest terror comes from the man’s innate fear of the unknown. He chose to capture this by writing about the inky blackness of space, the horrors of gibbering eldritch knowledge that’s unknowable to us, or the things that lurk just beyond the safety of the campfire. Year Walk is about all of these things and none of these things. It’s about never quite knowing what anything means, never being able to predict what’s coming next, but knowing exactly what you need to get there.

The game itself plays out like so many single screen adventure titles, with your character moving from screen to screen and tapping on things to manipulate them. For the most part, you spend your time wandering about in the snow-covered woods of Sweden, everything looking bleak and minimalist.

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There’s just you and the thin white branches, the slight crunch of your feet in the snow your only companion. Playing the game in the dark, with my headphones on, the silence felt oppressive, a heavy weight on my chest. Words like atmospheric and engaging don’t do it justice. It’s entrancing. It goes far beyond the basic puzzling at the game’s core.

For example, you might encounter an otherworldly creature who, with a slight shrug of his head, indicates that he needs your help finding some things. No matter how alien the set-dressing, there’s a comfort to be found in knowing the rules. You’ve done this before.

Then, one of the game’s bizarre and increasingly upsetting creatures wrests that comfort right out of your hands. You are not fucking in control. You have stumbled into something far older and far more powerful than you ever hope to be and it does not care if you understand it — you simply experience it.

It was when I stared into the dark unknown of Year Walk that I felt the icy pangs of something I hadn’t known for a long time: fear. Real, honest, unsettling terror. I had no fucking clue how far this game was going to go; how deep into the woods it would take me. I was right there along with the nameless protagonist, wandering into the frigid darkness of Sweden, nary a clue about what horrors await me underneath the night sky.

The last time I had been that scared was reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a novel whose form morphs and undulates alongside its mind-bending story. You might find yourself reading a 30 page footnote, or find the text slowly shrinking until it’s just a single word printed on page after page. It’s both a satire of academic writing and an metaphor for the primary setting of the novel, a “haunted house” whose walls are subtly shifting. Just when you think you have a handle on it, it wriggles out from underneath you, leaving another plotline in its wake.

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The comparison is even more apt in the game’s second half. Without giving anything away, make sure you free up an hour or so after you beat the game proper, it blows the whole thing wide open.

The strange part about Year Walk though is that, much like House of Leaves, it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be scary. It simply is. The mythology that it has woven together is a bitter and uncaring one, developed by a people who fought back the darkness and cold of a harsh land.

It’s simply an extension of a time where human life was fragile and ended seemingly without cause.

Playing Year Walk made me feel small and pitiful, a cog in a much larger infernal machine that would keep running long after I rusted away.

As I finished the game, I couldn’t shake a sense of being watched from the shadows, a creeping dread that chilled my bones. It would sneak into my dreams, ripping me from sleep in the small hours, my eyes wide open. The very same sensation that had caused my features to tighten as I drove deeper into the dark woods of Sweden had found its way into my actual life.

 It was the feeling of being scared.

Pixels or Death gives Year Walk a 4.5 out of 5. Played to completion on a iPhone 5, next to my wife, who innocently slept through my journey into the darkness of my own soul.

You can purchase Year Walk through iTunes for $3.99.