March 6, 2013 11:58 PM | Staff
With Year Walk, mobile developer Simogo tried more than one tack not broadly proven on the crowded App Store. First, the studio wanted to make an atmospheric horror game based on the old lore of its native Sweden, probably a complex proposition in a market more accustomed to bright and friendly than unsettling and arresting.
On a saturated storefront where familiar touchstones jostle for a little bit of attention, Year Walk's quiet darkness takes the risk of being different.
It's a departure for the studio, too, which built its reputation on charming, musical and touchable games like Beat Sneak Bandit and Bumpy Road; the 1950's filmic feel that looks cartoonish and cute across the rest of its portfolio can be used to textured, haunting appeal with Year Walk. When name recognition and branding is essential in a busy marketplace, this left turn is also a brave choice.
Simogo also chose not to aggressively market Year Walk but rather to be coy, intending to recapture the sense of novelty and mystery that once shrouded new releases in the pre-internet days. The studio hoped to encourage fans to take up puzzling out some of the symbolism inherent to the game on forums, and didn't budge when pressed to substantiate facts about the gameplay.
It's not an approach that would work for any indie studio, but Simogo has a track record of quality titles that clearly leverage the mobile platform in creative ways. That it's used that leisure for risk-taking and innovation is just one reason Year Walk's poised for potential hit status.
Mature horror Industry-watchers often broadly question whether the iOS market is good for supporting titles that go beyond time-wasters, brain-teasers and physics-flickers -- things players do more to kill time than to deeply engage. But the intimacy offered in particular by the iPad's big, luminous screen is encouraging some devs to do immersive, atmospheric things.
Proper jump-scares and creepy auras are rare on the App Store, but Year Walk stands out by serving up a few. The studio leans on the historical strength of its art direction to portray its creepy snowfield of symbols and legends with grace and restraint, giving the game a more grown-up, elegant feel than much of what passes for horror these days in the console space.
Sonorous and tactile The games that feel the most polished on the App Store have the luxury of subtle controls and sound design, leading players to the experience of an intimate relationship with touch and response. Year Walk's snowy wilderness feels so vital you could get cold just playing it.
Lonesome creaking footsteps in the soft snowfall make the perfect sound, abandoned village machinery makes haunting clunks and creaks, and sepulchral cries startle from the silence. Even if you sit down intending to toy with it just for a few minutes, as is the nature of our relationship with apps, it pulls you in and makes you long for the feedback of interacting with it.
Innovative angle Born from Simogo's desire to combine the first-person perspective with its forte in two-dimensional graphics, Year Walk features some creative design. Players pull to the left or right to traverse the landscape, but flickering, spectral arrows also gently clue you in as to when you can move forward, or deeper into the environment.
You really feel like you're forging through the snow for distant objects, and the use of multi-touch allows you to occasionally carry some grisly finds to locations they can be used, simply navigating with one fingertip while holding with the other. It's a resourceful perspective shift, creative design problem-solving.
Grounded storytelling One exciting element of Year Walk is the consistency of its themes and universe, and how some core ideas are represented continually from beginning to end. In a simple touch-based game with no characters, AI, dialogue and a bare minimum of text to read, that concepts become familiar, and that they allow players to extrapolate narrative relevance.
The result is effective minimalist but impactful storytelling, something that seems like an essential skill if lithe mobile apps are to broadly evolve to become more than toys.
Excellent extension There is a free Year Walk companion app that provides background on the mythology of the game's symbols and storytelling. It's far from necessary to solving the game, but can feel like a touchstone given the game itself prefers to hand-hold very little, and to explain less.
It definitely feels like a callback to the age when manuals were meaningful companions, and subtly rounds out the experience -- especially given that beating Year Walk once provides a key to unlock more of the manual's secrets, leading resourceful puzzle-players to an alternate ending for the main game.
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article originally for sister site Gamasutra.]