Year Walk scares players by leaving them alone in the woods.
I love October. I love the autumn weather, the colours on the trees, and, most of all, Hallowe'en. To celebrate this most spooky of holidays I'll be discussing topics related to horror each week of the month in a series of editorials called . . . OCTERROR!
The Blair Witch Project, to me at least, is the scariest movie ever made. I've seen it a handful of times throughout the years and, even knowing how everything is going to unfold, it never fails to get me. There are a lot of reasons for this. The scarce descriptions of the witch herself allow the imagination to do the kind of horrific legwork that a visible monster never could. The tale of disappearing children that leads to the chilling finale is also pretty hard-to-beat nightmare fuel. But it's probably the idea of being completely lost in a wilderness teeming with unknowable dangers that leaves the biggest impact.
Year Walk, an iOS horror adventure by Sweden's Simogo, is a game focused on exploring this particular fear. According to the developer, the ancient tradition of årsgång or "year walk" that acts as the game's background was practiced by some Swedes until roughly 200 years ago. The year walk was intended to provide glimpses of the future through a strange kind of self deprivation. The walker would spend an entire day in a dark room, usually on special holidays like New Year's Eve or Christmas Eve, before beginning a journey to their regular church at the stroke of midnight. On the way they could not speak to others, eat, drink, laugh, or act anything other than completely serious. To complicate matters further, the walkers were said to have visions of mythological creatures along the way. Crows, the spirits of dead children, and river horses would act as omens that hinted at things to come throughout the following year. Having endured all of this, the walker would come to their church, circle it in a specific pattern, and then be shown personal images of their future by a goat-headed creature known as a Church Grim.
Though I couldn't verify whether or not the tradition of årsgång is based on historical fact or is just a piece of in-depth mythmaking by Simogo — I can't read Swedish, but I suspect the year walk may have been invented wholesale — is besides the point. What Year Walk does is use a strange, forgotten custom that feels believable enough to provide the foundation to a truly effective horror story. The game opens in daylight, but, in accordance with myth, shifts its first-person perspective to a dense woods at nighttime soon afterward. From this vantage, players have to crunch across the snow on their year walk, solving macabre puzzles involving spooky dolls, witch-like monsters, and ominous trails of blood. Simogo's audiovisual design makes Year Walk a haunting experience. Its storybook presentation and touch-based control scheme create a level of depth that is significantly enhanced by sparse sound design and frequently creepy music. Being lost in the game's dark, spooky woods is truly disorienting and, due to the frequent appearance of bizarre monsters, extremely unsettling.
The effect is similar, in a way, to the nighttime wilderness setting of a game like Parsec Production's Slender: The Eight Pages. Year Walk's mechanics are very different from last year's surprisingly effective indie horror game, but the two titles share one thing in common: design that forces the player to explore nearly pitch-black woods by themselves. Both are frightening in different ways, Slender offering more immediate shocks and Year Walk slow boiling its tension for a longer-term effect, but each builds terror by isolating their players in the woods.
The wilderness is uniquely frightening to us, especially in modern times when technology has made it easier than ever before to feel socially connected even when physically alone. Games that take the experience of being alone in the woods, stumbling along blindly in the dark, are able to capitalize on this very universal fear to great effect. I may not ever want head out camping at night thanks to psychological trauma inflected on me by The Blair Witch Project, but wilderness-set horror games like Slender and Year Walk make sure that that specific type of fear can always be experienced vicariously . . . from the safety of home.