Log: Year Walk

I’ve been watching a lot True Detective lately and I gotta say that show is outstanding. Not for its premise; it’s just a simple cop show with all the typical tropes sewn in for instant appeal and recognition. But what separates True Detective from the run of the mill police drama is the uncanny conflicts neatly layered into the plot. I’m cutting the show’s merits short, but there’re layers to its universe which are grounded in absolute nonsense, from pagan rituals to cosmic fears. It’s realistic in every facet, but the investigations the characters conduct always leave them with cryptic and clandestine results. How this show straddles the line between fact and fiction, realism and surrealism, and television diegesis and audience is what keeps this show grounded, while still managing to get under your skin.

Simogo’s Year Walk does what other spooky adventure games do. It has puzzles, monster closets, and an eerie setting that stays one step ahead of you. Like True Detective, what separates this game from the rest of its ilk is its tenuous grasp on reality, and its ability to transcend the realms around it. The Year Walk Companion is intrinsic to the game’s foundation and acts as a portal through which we, the players, can crawl through the worm holes linking the game’s fiction, the folklore that inspired it, and our own reality.

Like any adventure game, Year Walk entails a lot of wandering around to search for items or a plot point. Rather than any kind of hint system, the game offers the aforementioned companion app; a kind of travel guide for the player to navigate 19th century yuletide Sweden. It’s a short encyclopedia detailing some of the traditions and folkloric creatures involved in a divinatory Scandinavian ritual called Year Walk, or Årsgång. Reading these entries gives you shallow hints as to how to progress in the game –though it does so passively, informing you of the premodern mythos of Scandinavia first and foremost. The game is based on these ancient fears and customs, building an adventure out of an established lore. In doing so we not only experience the game’s story but learn about the culture that gave birth to it. I’d go as far as to call this approach educational.

Using real-world folklore or mythology to tell a story in a game isn’t uncommon, but it’s often done as a means to ground the story in an intuitive setting, like the sequels to God of War. Year Walk shows us the fears and practices of old Sweden, traditions that (I imagine) aren’t known to most people. Walking away from this game I learned about of the commonality of infanticide centuries ago, or how Scandinavian legend holds a monster called the Brook Horse, a creature serving a purpose not unlike the Ogopogo does in Canada.

Year Walk's church gate.

“…we, the players, can crawl through the worm holes linking the game’s fiction, the folklore that inspired it, and our own reality.”

Spoilers Follow.

The game’s ending is pretty bewildering and bleak. You don’t get much of a sense of what’s going on, just of what happened. Then, by some deus ex machina, the game flickers a message claiming that the story’s not over, and that what you saw doesn’t have to happen. You’re granted the passcode for a locked section of the Year Walk Companion. It opens the diary of Theodor Almsten, who was responsible for writing the entries in the encyclopedia. This is where the game reached its most chilling point, opening a tunnel between our world, old Sweden’s, and the game’s.

The journal chronicles Almsten months of researching the forgotten custom of the Year Walk, and while doing so experiencing some strange phenomena. Almsten was investigating a particular individual who may have been the last to perform the ritual, and ventured to his place of residence. Every event he learnt of is connected to a supernatural occurrence in the game, and every photograph he took during his exploration pertains to a setting in the game. As the journal goes on the folklore he studies bleeds into his dreams, and eventually begins to manifest in various aspects of his life.

Within the diary lies symbols, hints — a path carved out for the player if they just pay attention. Using these suggestions to perform certain actions in the actual game unlocks a less nebulous ending and a proper conclusion. Turning the game into a short investigation for the player is Year Walk‘s most enthralling aspect, melding fact and fiction into the real world, and forcing the player to endure Sweden’s most unearthly folklore and the game’s story in their own subjective reality.

There was the game, Scandinavian legend, and a brief mystery novel buried in a single cohesive experience. Reminds me of games I used to play as a kid, namely the Carmen Sandiego series. The structure of these overtly educational games wrote a story using real world devices, and then a solution that demanded your exploration of the given topic. In Year Walk, Simogo blends this overlooked adventure formula to create a verisimilar horror novella, straddling the line between our world and the realm of the paranormal.

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Log: Hotline Miami

We, as a species, have an appetite for violence, evident from the popularity of action films or the mere existence of the Colosseum in Italy. This fact in itself, contradicts with our so-called “civilized” state today. But for the most part arts feeds violence through a passive consumption, the audience simply watching and unengaged in terms of instrumentality. However, in video games the consumer is granted a degree of agency, a role Hotline Miami surfaces in the ebb and flow of its uncanny narrative.

Ostensibly the game is dual-stick brawler, leading the player from locale to locale clearing rooms to some unknown end. Beneath the bloodsport that the vibrant art style depicts, the game depends more on puzzle/strategy elements with an emphasis on reflexes. Charging head-on to defeat enemies is one way to go about it, but watching their patrol patterns, organization, and arsenal, paves the way for mastery of the game’s mechanics. It encourages you to accept death and experiment with different tactics, ushering entirely different strategies depending on the layout of each chapter. There were times when I had to calculate which enemy I had to defeat last, which resulted in the most exhilarating scenarios; having a plan that was conjured a split second ago plume with the blood of some gaudy gangster is an experience that gives off a cold sweat.

The brutality of Hotline Miami.

“Hotline Miami teeters on this surrealism, cutting abruptly to focus on the absurdity and ubiquity of violence in its diegesis.”

Spoilers follow.

The very violence that composes the game’s attraction is also subject to debate and censure within the game’s diegesis. Grotesque characters will comment on your actions with puzzling interrogations, condemning the player at every turn. “Do you like hurting other people?” asked someone in a Rooster mask, sitting comfortably in a dimly lit apartment. Hotline Miami teeters on this surrealism, cutting abruptly to focus on the absurdity and ubiquity of violence in its diegesis, leaving the player confused and disoriented. You never get full details on what the story involves, but the confusion that revolves around the violent acts of the game is part of its savage appeal.

There’s a dichotomy that they set in place between Jacket and Biker (the game’s protagonists) forcing you to think about the nature of violent video games and the agency inherent to the medium. As Jacket, you go about unquestionably murdering whoever you’re instructed to kill. Even people who beg mercy must be dealt with in order for the chapter to end. But after his story is complete, you play as the Biker, and gain a lot more agency when it comes to your decision making. For instance, there’s a building filled with friendly people who distance themselves from the Biker because he’s holding a cleaver — yet you can still kill them, if you choose. After berating you for senseless mass murder, the masterminds behind the game’s plot finish the script with “you’re move,” to let the player call the shots and decide their outcome. Do you kill the two organizers, or do you just walk out? It’s your call. But the point is, mercy wasn’t an option before, surfacing the cognitive dissonance between the role of the player and their previous, functionally-limited avatar, Jacket. Why do we commit murder in video games? Because the game told us to, just like Jacket, who got phone calls to take out thugs — requests which he never disobeyed. Though as the Biker, as a player with knowledge of the developer’s plot to lure and perpetuate video game tropes, you have the conceit to make your own decision.

This binary between who you play as (Jacket with no agency) and who you are (Biker with considerable agency) permeates the entire game, most overtly demonstrated by the masks Jacket wears to adopt his various abilities. The masks represent us, the players, all unique in capacity and ability yet conforming to the standards and stipulations of what games make us partake in, and still, we manage to go about playing the game in entirely different ways. And it’s with this analogue for player uniqueness that Hotline Miami couples personalization with absolute empowerment. The way you play dictates how quickly and how efficiently you progress, keeping the game’s difficulty while demanding precision from the player. Once you understand the internal logic of the game, you realize that each and every failure is entirely dependent on your actions, and thus, each success leads to a satisfying and idiosyncratic end, just as they do with Jacket and Biker.

Log: Mass Effect 3 – Citadel

Mass Effect 3 has that third act issue that plagues just about any serial work, in which the high stakes of the conclusion dominates, or entirely suppresses any of the quieter moments. I don’t mind this in single pieces, after all, a story has to come to a close. But a series seems to suffer from this when the individual segments are interlinked by a single story. Mass Effect 2 has this laid back, space faring adventure arc, where side stories more or less carry the bulk of the game. It follows the same structure as Star Trek, focusing more on characters and less on an encompassing, high stakes fight for the people of the galaxy.

Throughout my adventures on the Normandy SR2 I could spend time with the crew, go about quelling arguments and attending to personal matters. With Mass Effect 3, it’s all about how quickly we can save the galaxy. There’s this enormous pressure put on you — by the environments, characters, and plot — to fight off the apocalypse. My issue here is that the entire third chapter of this brilliant series focuses on the needs of everyone else, and not so much on your crew and their personalities. It’s all about urgency, about this universal genocide. I particularly enjoyed Citadel over the other DLCs because of how it reunites you with simpler times, where saving the galaxy came second, and loyalty to crew members came first.

The story that carries this short romp through the Citadel is inane, but it’s executed with confidence, and over-dramatized characters to complement it. In short, a clone of Shepard’s is out to steal his identity and replace him, with hopes to establish humanity’s dominance over the galaxy in cooperation with pro-human terrorist group, Cerberus. A new character, Brooks, is a Cerberus officer who plays a role parallel to that of Miranda Lawson’s in Mass Effect 2. She starts off as a nervous and clumsy Alliance officer — an ally, who sets up a lot of jokes with her behaviour but eventually reveals herself as the obnoxious, soap opera mistress she really is. It is as crazy as it sounds, but the game makes up for it with an emphasis on camaraderie and humour. Just about every chunk of dialogue involves some joking around and poking fun at some of the designers’ decisions, such as Shepard’s robotic speech in saying “I should go” to exit conversations.

Mass Effect 3's Silversun Strip in its DLC: Citadel.

Gameplay in this bit is largely the same as other DLCs, simply adding variations to enemies and gun modifications to suit your fancy. The story takes you through corridors as the series always does, but the environments are fleshed out with lurid architecture and interesting NPCs. The spaces range from the austere to the affluent, containing areas to free roam at your leisure once you complete the story. Silversun Strip is the nucleus of this side of the Citadel, taking notes from the hazy, beaming art style of Bladerunner. Neon lights flood your vision with every turn, people chatting about their enthusiasm for the next Elcor adaptation of Shakespeare. There’s this gaudy casino where you’ll find sleazy lawyers and patronizing rich folk, rapt with silly mini-games to boot. It doesn’t end there, there’s an arcade with even more mini-games, and a combat simulator which plays like a single-player mode for what’s offered in the game’s multiplayer; the basic mode in which you’re to defeat all enemies in the arena.

The best part of this adventure lies at the tail end of things, where you get some closure with your crew before you head back to saving the galaxy (again). Like the core story, you get emails from the crew members asking you to join them in various activities, which really play into short cutscenes that discuss their deeper personalities or explore what they do for recreation. You adopt this fancy apartment, throw a party — a last, intimate, hurrah with your team. It’s not just with the characters from this game, you get to spend time with old friends from the dog days of prior escapades. People like Samara and even Wrex. While I’ve been spoiled by games like The Last of Us, the stiff animation doesn’t do much to degrade the quality of the dialogue; the characters are still a joy to watch play off one another, from aggression and embarrassment to remorse and sentimentality. Everyone jokes around, get’s drunk, butt heads and show their true colours, one last time. Of course, they pay the price the next morning.

I was pretty nonplussed with the ending for this trilogy. There were a lot of lofty themes on technological progression, ontology, and divine intervention — which is fine and all but I also wanted to see what became of the story told between my avatar and my crew. I wanted to know how everyone was dealing with the threat of genocide by synthetics, and even more, I wanted to know how everyone was just plain doing. I got that. That’s what this DLC was: pure fan service. It was written knowing that the people playing must’ve finished the actual campaign, completing this sendoff with an evening among friends. In the final cutscene Tali’Zorah, who I romanced in my playthrough, draws the penultimate line of the trilogy by claiming that “We’ve had a good ride.” And after that last get together with the crew, I couldn’t agree more.