I've never been one for playing games on the touchy Spod, despite buying a fair few on recommendations. I'll buy them full of good intentions for playing en route to work, but then I find myself catching up on reading via Byline or Pocket and all of a sudden the commute is over.
Still, a few exceptions have managed to temporarily turn my head from blogposts and articles. Super Hexagon is a dizzying headrush of a game, each play lasting mere seconds rather than minutes - simple yet infuriating, it's maddeningly compulsive until the point where your eyes & brain stop cooperating and curl up into quivering balls. Even watching the trailer is likely to make your head squirm, and bear in mind this is in-game footage...
For a while I was hooked on Dark Meadow, a stunningly designed sort-of-survival-horror with the best voice acting I've heard in a game for years and a fascinating storyline unfolding as you play. Alas, the combat - of which there is plenty - got a bit repetitive after a while, and following a switch to freemium (it originally cost four quid!) it feels harder to progress without shelling out more real-world cash to buy fictional objects. That said, the good still outweighs the bad, and I enjoyed immersing myself into a strange spooky story that revealed its hand little by little. More of this sort of thing, thought I, if only with more exploring and less hack/slash/hack/slash.
Then I rather gave up on iOS gaming, apart from the odd brief hit of Super Hexagon. There they sat, games like GTA3, Dead Space, Puzzle Craft, Worms 2, The Incident, just waiting to be played - why buy any more until I've done so? So away from the App Store I stayed... until... this.
I first read about Simogo's Year Walk on TUAW a couple of weeks ago. Even though I normally wouldn't pay much attention to game reviews, my interest was grabbed first with a beautifully designed image of an old Scandinavian house in a snowy wood (right), more storybook than screenshot, then by a review which was clearly doing its best to enthuse wildly about a game while giving as little away as humanly possible:
...the whole tone of the game is serene, mysterious and vaguely creepy. Year Walk is an experiment in using the iPhone's touchscreen interface to immerse you in a feeling, in a mood [...] I'm still sort of reeling from my experience with Year Walk -- I haven't yet finished the game by a long shot, but even the little time I've spent with it so far has left me with a huge, great impression. This is a very, very artful and well-designed project [...] Definitely don't miss out, but do enter into it with an open, ready mind.
The icing on the cake was the fact they'd even produced a free companion app to the game acting as a primer to the seriously unsettling Swedish folklore that fills the story to the game (such as Mylings).
At £2.49 for both game and companion, I decided to give Year Walk a shot. Installed, I loaded it up one evening, popped some headphones on, and...
Immediately it's clear you're getting into something special, devoid of menus, instructions or even a visible avatar for yourself (the only indication of your existence is the sound of footsteps crunching through snow as you turn and move). At first it does indeed feel more like a storybook, albeit the kind that wouldn't get read to Bagl for a fair few years yet, but through trial and error you discover the purposes behind the game as it unfolds beautifully in front of your eyes.
And Year Walk really is beautiful, in a cold, subtle, almost dreamlike way. Muted colours, sometimes almost monochromatic, create a powerful atmosphere of tense silence. There's some superb imagery in this game that wouldn't look out of place on the printed page or an animated short. Similarly, the sound design is excellent, with just the right amount and type of music to complement the story and build on the atmosphere. Aside from Dark Meadow, I've not seen anything remotely like this on the App Store before. Just look at the Games page and the onslaught of primary colours and cartoon nonsense - Year Walk stands out like a particularly fascinating sore thumb. Frankly, even if the game itself was godawful, I'd have been happy enough just to soak up the spooky visuals and sounds.
Thankfully, it is a good game. It's a game of exploration and puzzles, the kind where you'll want a notepad and pen to hand, the kind where you'll often find yourself on the verge of popping on to the internet to find the solution until, just before you do, it clicks - and, oh, the satisfaction when it does. Little details count, but aren't handed to you on a platter - this is a game that rewards attention, and gives no quarter to those expecting a quick snappy fix of fun. Don't load this up for a quick 10 minute game - make time for it and let yourself be drawn into this increasingly unsettling world. I did try playing it while commuting, but literally found myself continuing to play once off the train and walking to my destination (miraculously not walking into lampposts/falling down manholes in the process, but it felt ridiculous all the same).
To say anything more runs the risk of spoilers - and the less you know about Year Walk before going into it, the better it is. The only proviso to that is reading the companion app, which gave context to the increasingly bizarre imagery (that horse in a river, for example) which doesn't spoil things in the least. Indeed, I'd say it's actually essential to have if you want to fully experience Year Walk - in a way I'd certainly not expected when the game started.
The only downside, if there is one, is that Year Walk is a game very much suited to playing at night, preferably in the middle of winter, yet the nights are getting noticeably shorter at this time of year. That said, it's snowing out there as I type, and when I took a walk in the local countryside earlier today I couldn't hear the crunch of my own footsteps without Year Walk coming back to me. Like any good story, it lingers in the subconscious after the end, never quite letting go. Highly recommended - and beware the Church Grim.