The New Year is upon us. I don’t know where you live, but here in New York it’s cold, and windy. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground. I’ve never liked New Year’s.
It’s partially because my birthday so nearly coincides with it. I turned 25 yesterday, which I’m none too thrilled about. It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m another year older.
Tonight is a time for celebrating: friends and family, champagne, a kiss at midnight. But for me it’s proof positive that I’m aging. Instead of looking forward to a fresh beginning, I can’t shake the feeling that New Year’s is a testament to the slow, inexorable march of time.
Which is perhaps why Year Walk resonates so much with me. Set on New Year’s Eve in the bleak, snowy woods of 19th century Sweden, Year Walk is a dark first-person point-and-click adventure game for iOS devices. And it happens to be my “game of the year,” whatever that means.
You play as a man whose beloved is promised to another. Wondering whether you’ll end up together, you embark on the titular “year walk,” a sort of vision quest that supposedly lets you see into your future. The årsgång (literally translated as “year walk”) was once a widespread practice in Sweden: at least a century old and almost certainly Pagan in origin, it was performed on feast days, particularly New Year’s Eve.
According to legend, year walking was no easy task. It required fasting, abstaining from both food and drink while others feasted, as well as complete isolation. Often people locked themselves in dark rooms, as they were not allowed to see a fire for the entire day. Needless to say, on a cold New Year’s Eve, going without the warmth of a fire was quite the sacrifice.
The year walker, having followed these steps, would leave her dark, cold room at the stroke of midnight, venturing into the even darker, colder woods. There she would encounter strange, frightening creatures that would test her physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Provided she hadn’t died from exposure, she’d reach a church and, circling the cemetery, her eyes would be opened to the future.
But the visions were not always pleasant. Perhaps the future is best left unseen. In this way, Year Walk is a poignant meditation on life, love, death, and loss.
It’s also one of the most interesting game I’ve ever played. Year Walk blends fantasy and horror in a way that’s as beautiful as it is haunting. And, when it comes to mobile touch-screen games, it’s one of the best I’ve ever played.
I only recently (within the past few months) got a smartphone, yet even I can see that Year Walk uses the medium in unique ways. At one point, you are collecting the ghosts of unwanted children, aborted fetuses, for a horse who has risen from a lake (in any other game, this premise would be preposterous and absurd, but in Year Walk it’s chilling). To find one of the fetuses, you have to “walk” your fingers, like they were legs, to an otherwise unreachable place on the map. It’s the most unique use of a touch-screen I’ve seen in a game to date.
The puzzles are more sensory than any I’ve experienced in other point-and-click adventure games. Most are tactile, like the one I mentioned, but many engage other senses that are so often neglected. One puzzle has you following a siren’s song, choosing the next chord in the sequence. Some are obviously dissonant, but others seem to work, and if you’re not savvy to music theory, this can prove difficult indeed.
But this is not what makes Year Walk special. You can also download The Companion, an app that extends your experience by explaining, in depth, the mythology on which the game is based. Yet, when you reach NG+, The Companion becomes an integral part of the game, giving you the tools you need to discover what actually happened on that fateful New Year’s Eve.
In so doing, Year Walk breaks the fourth wall in such a delicate way that you barely even realize it’s happening. It blurs the line between reality and the supernatural, fact and fiction, so subtly that you begin to question which is which. And its melancholic narrative, which has more than a few scary moments, will stay with you for a while.
I urge you, all of you, on this New Year’s Eve, to purchase Year Walk ($3.99). Even if you don’t play it until tomorrow, when you’ve sobered up, I promise it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.