“Year Walk” is one of the strangest horror games I have ever played.
Released in 2013 by Simogo, the player follows the story of a young man as he participates in the Swedish ritual of year walking, an old custom that involves entering the woods on New Year’s Eve and interacting with supernatural creatures that dwell there as a means of catching a glimpse into one’s future.
At first glance this premise seems as though it covers relatively familiar ground within this genre, but the agents of horror I encountered in the game pleasantly surprised me.
While many horror games or movies are content to frighten the player or viewer with monsters that are exclusively characterized through their connection to terror or violence, such as “Resident Evil” or “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Year Walk” instead draws inspiration from the bizarre and complex creatures of Swedish folklore.
This can be seen in one of the earliest sections of the game where the player encounters a Huldra, a siren-like ghost who acts as guardian of the forest the story takes place in. While certainly terrifying, encountering her during my play-through was a hauntingly beautiful experience of exploration and music-based puzzles.
This inherent complexity is also demonstrated in the in-game encyclopedia, which not only warns about the Huldra’s penchant for killing but also teaches the player rituals that allow them to communicate with her and ultimately gain her assistance in progressing further into the woods.
While this sort of unconventional monstrosity certainly makes the world of “Year Walk” more compelling, it also becomes the driving force for the game’s mechanics.
As mentioned with the Huldra, in order to progress, the player must perform a series of rituals as a means of interacting with various creatures in the game. Successfully piecing the information together to complete each of these rituals demands studying each creature and the stories that surround them by reading the in-game encyclopedia. There are also clues sprinkled throughout the environment that I vigorously kept track of on a scratch piece of paper.
This type of studying or analysis as gameplay demands a suitably strange or complex subject, whose systems of motivation and communication would be difficult or perhaps only partially capable of being deciphered. After all, one look at Jason Voorhees and his machete and hockey mask combo tells me everything I need to know about his character. However, if I’m confronted by a horse in a suit floating down an icy river in the middle of the woods, as the player is in “Year Walk,” that same sense understanding or clarity is completely lost.
In a way that speaks to why I often found this game so terrifying or unsettling. Horror at its most effective eludes our expectations or understanding. Through intermingling monstrosity with beauty, mystery and even humor, “Year Walk” is certainly successful in this aim.