Walking simulators, or narrative experiences as they are more courteously called, and I don’t mix very well. I think they only underestimate gamers by not presenting a worthy challenge to overcome but instead laying out just a linear narrative to sleep, I mean, walk through. At my meanest I have thought that people who make them lack funds to make movies so they have to seek out other means to get their stories told. That comes with another problem. Game developers aren’t professional storytellers so even the most praised games of the genre, such as Everybody’s Gone to Rapture or What Remains of Edith Finch, have left me cold. Then came along a narrative experience that forced me to check my views. Norwegian indie studio Red Thread Games, known for Dreamfall Chapters, describes Draugen as Fjord Noir, a psychological mystery where you never walk alone.
It’s a beautiful autumn day of October 1923 when an American scholar and traveler Edward Charles Harden, along with his young ward Lissie, comes to Graavik, a secluded rural village nesting between magnificent fjords of Norway. Edward obsessively believes that his missing sister Betty has come there during her voyages as a traveling journalist. Upon their arrival they find a ghost town. Where have the people of once-thriving mining town gone? Edward isn’t the most stable person, but Lissie tries her best to keep him on check. Days pass as Edward and Lissie explore the valley. The more they unravel the mystery of sudden deaths and the curse blamed for them, the more obsessive about finding his beloved Betty Edward becomes.
As a narrative experience, Draugen follows a familiar pattern of walking into places and poking at things to find clues that further the case. Immediately I noticed two things I liked when compared to other similar games: the first-person viewpoint is at adult’s height and a weighty head bob gives a credible illusion of walking and running around. Too many games kill immersion with an unnaturally gliding camera that hangs on a knee-high. What really sets Draugen apart from its peers, though, is that you aren’t wandering alone, lost and lonely in grave thoughts. Lissie tags along, a living, interactive sidekick to share thoughts with, giving valuable insight to Edward whose demeanor is as stiff as he’s physically frail.
Oh, Lissie. She sports such a lovely, naughty smile! Lissie is an outspoken and spunky teen, lively and mischievous, not a rigid figure of old photos we think the young people of the past must have been. We may sometimes forget that throughout the history teens have always been teens, candid and disobedient people who don’t always act according to current moral standards (until they grow up into boring adults, that is). The banter between Edward and Lissie feels credible and spontaneous, not something that has been rehearsed to a point. It’s mostly due to their excellent voice actors. Nicholas Boulton doesn’t sound anything like fanatical Druth in Hellblade or arrogant London in Echo, both exceptionally well-acted roles in his video games resume. Here, his Edward is stubborn and formal to Skye Bennett’s Lissie, a sassy and defiant free spirit acting as a sound of reason whenever her custodian is about to lose his marbles. We get to experience that, too, ensuing in a fevered run the gauntlet but with a promise of hope in its end.
Unreal engine-powered vistas bathe in a beautiful, autumnal dynamic lighting. It illuminates the picturesque sights of Graavik and Lissie’s pretty, characteristic features and casts ominous shadows when clouds drift to veil the cursed place in their embrace, a foretaste of psychological drama that plays in and out of Edward’s mind. A haunting soundtrack, heavy on strings and choral singing, pace the dramatic curve perfectly. A big problem of most of narrative experiences I have played is that they manipulate you to feel something instead of making you naturally feel it. Draugen doesn’t fall into that trap. The game appeals to emotions, heavily so, but that comes at its own weight without being artificially forced upon. Themes of loss and reconciliation are dealt with appropriate gravity, if in occasionally heavy-handed symbolism. The game is also tight, taking only four-to-five hours to finish it with no padding or slack to plod through.
Draugen builds up its mystery wisely by small means but leaves it thrillingly open for interpretations. You can somewhat drive the resolution as you see it through dialogue choices scattered across the journey but it still leaves room to think about events experienced in Graavik. We learn about Betty and we learn about the tragic events that took place in the village but what actually befell its people? And who exactly is Lissie and what she is to Edward? If a mystery was explained throughout, it wouldn’t be a mystery anymore. Draugen didn’t make me a fan of walking simulators overall, as its excellent insight is more exceptional than a norm. However, it made me a fan of Edward and Lissie and the particular brand of storytelling designed around them. I was happy and most curious when the ending credits promised that the dynamic duo will return.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.