Commentary

03/06/2013

Larvae Atrocitas

Year Walk and the creation of a digital myth.

By: Joseph Leray

Filed Under: Criticism Horror Mobile Psychological

Year-Walk-main

Find a map of northeast Mississippi. Along the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway is a trio of small towns that constitute the closest thing I have to familial stomping grounds: Amory, Aberdeen, and Okolona form a triangle bisected by Highway 45.

My mom explained to me once that a six-legged woman scuttles up and down the railroads that criss-cross this part of Mississippi, preying on hobos, vagabonds, runaways, and various other gadabouts. The body-horror of a cannibalistic spiderlady was kind of creepy and garish, but it’s not a particularly compelling urban legend — I never met anyone outside my immediate family who’d ever heard of her.

Myth-making is hard work, though, and maybe Anna Leray hasn’t had much practice. Folklore has a way of persevering, of sticking to a place’s collective consciousness like sap. Simogo’s Year Walk is a game imbued with the myths of Simon Flesser and Gordon Gärdeback’s native Sweden, and it exposes something universal about the most effective myths, urban legends, and folklore: they demand a certain realness about them to work.

Year Walk comes, literally and narratively, in two parts — the game and a companion app, both on iOS. The game itself is breathtaking: it’s elegantly designed and superlatively evocative. Its narrative is understated, and the puzzles are well-implemented and play to the strengths of touchscreen gaming. Year Walk’s horror is created by its audio direction and level design in addition to more straightforward signifiers.

The titular year walk is a process by which people can see their own future. During transitional times during the year — solstices, Christmas, New Year’s Eve – those interested in year walking would lock themselves away for a day, deprived of food, light, and company. At midnight, walkers attempt to reach the local church or lichyard, beset upon by creatures and phantasms going bump in the night. Should a walker reach the church he — year walkers are typically men — will be able to see into his future.

Caveat ambulans: those who succeed on their walks are powerless to change or alter the future, only glimpse it.

Structurally, Year Walk is similar to any number of adventure games. The playable space is cordoned off into discrete screens, each with a few entry and exit points. Two-dimensional trees, wagons, and dead children litter the three-dimensional space, and moving between two different areas pulls its flat elements into place like a pop-up storybook.

The stark black-and-white coupled with the stillness of the game’s audio design — the crunch of my steps in the snow is deafening — are enough to set players on edge, and they couple nicely with the game’s uneven geography. Year Walk never establishes a sense of scale or relation when it comes to how each screen connects to another, leaving players lost and disoriented in a constantly shifting world — bloody footsteps appear out of thin air, for example, and the town’s mill turns on its own, independently of the wind.

Year Walk’s ghostly forest notwithstanding, its companion app is more interesting to me. At its most basic, the Year Walk companion is an encyclopedia of Swedish folklore, introducing players to the concept of year walking, as well as the mystical monsters and creatures a walker is likely to encounter: the Huldra, the Brook Horse, the Myling.

This may be a concession to demographics — App Store browsers are notoriously fickle, and a foreign country’s local mythos sounds intimidating  – but it’s also a slick design move. The companion app does all the heavy lifting for establishing the game’s premise, leaving the game unburdened by clunky exposition. Similarly, having more information about the world’s ghastly inhabitants doesn’t make players feel more prepared or confident on their walk — it just adds to the list of things to be afraid of.

But the companion’s app real triumph is the meta-narrative it establishes. Completing Year Walk produces a code that unlocks a hidden section of the companion, ostensibly filled with lead writer Thomas Almsten’s research notes. Almsten is an ethnologist and Lund University, but his research of year walking led him to Vedtorp, where he learned about a series of grisly murders.

These murders form the basis of Year Walk, and eagle-eyed players should spot the connections. In 1894, Daniel Svensson stabbed his lover Stina Nilsson to death. When he went to trial, he told the judge that he had seen himself commit his crimes during his year walk, that the power to change the future was beyond his control. He was found guilty and executed, and his story is the premise of the game.

Year Walk’s second puzzle similarly recreates the murder of four orphaned infants by a woman named Lisa Rasmussen. Almsten’s research gives Year Walk an air of found-footage or documentary horror, like the Blair Witch Project or Cropsey, and players control Daniel for the bulk of the game, even if they don’t find out much about him until they read the supplemental information.

Almsten journal documents a period of about six months: he continues his research, sending scripts and drafts to Simogo, giving lectures at Lund, and drinking copious amounts of whiskey as he descends into madness. His journals end the night of his own year walk, compelled to find a way to help long-dead Daniel Svensson by an otherworldly force he calls “the Watchers.”

The companion app is subtle — not so subtle that I didn’t realize that it was becoming part of the game’s larger narrative frame, but enough that the process by which I came to that conclusion was unsettling and unnerving. I got goosebumps reading it again just now, even though I already know its not real. It’s not that the companion app is scary, it’s that the not-knowing is psychologically and emotionally draining.

While Lund University exists in fact, Thomas Almsten is not a real person, nor is there a town in Sweden called Vedtorp. It actually means “wood shed” in Swedish, the traditional place to begins one’s year walk. Year walking, incidentally, seems to be a product of Simogo’s own invention, as opposed to the other fantastical elements of the game which have well-documented roots in Scandinavian folklore.

Almsten’s story handles year walking concept in two ways. One of the first journal entries explains that the oral tradition chronicling the year walk myth has died out, which explains the dearth of information on the subject. And Almsten’s own year walk at the end of the story is framed as a manifestation of mental illness or paranoia. Not only does the companion story to Year Walk purport to be non-fiction, it finds ways to rationalize and explain away the metaphysical, time-bending aspects of the game. Almsten’s diary is presented as both “real” and realistic.

It’s this relative groundedness that makes the companion app compelling reading, though. That the demarcation between fact and fiction is so messy and malleable makes sussing out the Year Walk companion disorienting, which is how it achieves its suspense. By the time it becomes perfectly clear that the companion app isn’t just an elaborate peek into the writer’s life, but an integral part of Year Walk’s metafiction, it’s too late — the Watchers have taken over and Almsten’s walk, like Svensson’s, is inevitable.

It’s important to remember, though, that while Thomas Almsten (and Daniel Svensson, Stina Nilsson, and Lisa Rasmussen and her four dead orphans) is not a real person, Simogo presents his story with all the trappings of empirical truth. Almsten does research, reads courts transcriptions, and cites contemporary newspapers. The companion app itself is largely a just a list of Scandinavian folk-monsters, and by presenting a fair amount of true information, Simogo encourages players to read the rest as similarly factual.

The companion app’s purported realness stands in contrast to Year Walk’s obvious fantasy. The companion app rationalizes the mystical, but the Year Walk game takes it at face value and makes it literal. At the end of the game, Almsten eventually bridges that gap.

Armed with new information about year walking and Stina’s murder, players are encouraged to play the game again, to re-do the crucial parts of Daniel’s life. By the time the connection between the two layers of the game is made, the companion app’s “real” quality has bled over into Year Walk proper. If we can believe part of Almsten’s story, then we have to believe in its connection to Daniel’s life in Year Walk. How far readers are willing to stretch before they break has a kind of transitive property, and its this process that elevates Year Walk from a creepy puzzle game to an artifact of digital urban legend.

If you say “Bloody Mary” three times in a mirror, she will slit your throat on the spot. If you walk to a church at midnight, you’ll meet the Grim, and he’ll show you your future, but you’ll be forced to kill your lover afterward. How do I know? A person from Lund went to Vedtorp and did it and kept a journal about it.

The thematic thrust of the game is that the spiritual and paranormal aren’t bound by sharply-defined categories. Furthermore, Year Walk tells us, these things are dangerous.

The narrative frame skips freely between fact and fiction, the world is geographically incoherent, and Almsten’s greatest insight is that year walking shakes off linear time. The entire project exists in an in-between state, between one app and the other. It’s as easy to get lost in the game’s fantasy as it is the game’s explorable forest.

“My friend Jonas Tarestad presented a short movie script called Årsgång to me early 2012,” Simogo’s Simon Flesser told Touch Arcade when asked about how the Year Walk project got started. “It was odd and fascinating, and seemed to have an almost game-like structure. Things just snowballed from there and we decided to work together to re-work into a game.”

I never understood what he meant, until just now. “This would make a great game!” is an oft-repeated line from game developers: when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. But Almsten’s ability to reach back in time, to allow Daniel Svensson a do-over, is the great promise of video games: the chance to right wrongs and mend regrets. That the game — even at it’s most fantastical — is presented as a series of true events makes it all the more effective.

A story about a Mississippi spider-woman who eats children up and down the railroad system could have been a keeper: Northeast Mississippi is covered in rail, the development of which led to a series of timber booms and, more recently, the establishment of a furniture manufacturing hub. April in Amory, Mississippi invariably brings the Railroad Festival with it, a local holiday that in theory celebrates the crucial role the KCM&B Railroad played in the town’s establishment. In practice, it’s a weekend devoted to eating Bethel Apostolic Church’s apple fritters, the first sunburn of my home state’s preternaturally hot summers, and — for young men and women of a certain age — sparking and quashing middle-school romances.

It makes sense that there should be some sort of folklore that takes the railroad into account, but the the six-legged lady gets too weird, too fast. It’s too easy to summarily reject her as fake. Year Walk is fictional, but it’s real enough in all the ways that matter. Truth is stranger than fiction, but it’s scarier and more poignant, too.

Filed Under: Criticism Horror Mobile Psychological

About the Author:
Joseph Leray is an associate editor at Destructoid. His work can also be found at Touch Arcade and MTV Multiplayer.

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