There’s not much to do in the Norwegian countryside other than walk around dusty farmhouses and chase ghosts of the past.
I’m a big fan of the sarcastically described “walking simulator” genre. Games that many would debate only meet the criteria of a “game” because you actually have to press buttons to “interact” with certain objects when most of the experience is walking around and looking at things, more along the lines of films where the player is the cameraman. What I enjoy most about these games is the thing that most people would probably hate: By limiting how much influence the player has, the developers are able to tell far more tightly structured narratives, showing off a level of skilled writing not often seen in games where the player dictates the course of events.
As much I think player participation is necessary to good game design, I also doubt whether What Remains of Edith Finch would have been quite as brilliant if you could abandon the story half-way through to go climb a tower and light up a chunk of map. Draugen takes a similar stance to Edith Finch by throwing away complicated mechanics and instead focuses on telling the player a story, and while not reaching the heights of other games in the sub-genre, still manages to provide an engaging and enjoyable afternoon.
I say afternoon because Draugen is not exactly long if we’re talking pure hours of content. A very linear experience, I completed the game in a single sitting, which isn’t a bad thing. I think it was a purposeful decision to trim Draugen to a playtime that wouldn’t take hours upon hours to slog through; the best stories are punchy, they get to the heart of the crisis quickly and don’t outstay their welcome. In Draugen, the year is 1922 and you’ll play as Edward, an American who has travelled to an isolated town in Norway to search for his missing sister, Betty. He’s accompanied by his ward, Lissie, and it doesn’t take long for things to become very spooky. The town is abandoned, everyone is missing.
There are no signs of violence or struggle, all the inhabitants have just vanished. It’s an interesting, if commonly seen, mystery that didn’t fail to grab my attention. I’d be selling the story short if I didn’t confess to gasping audibly several times throughout the game; some excellent plot twists keep everything moving at a pace that never feels to slow, a common issue I find with narrative-based games.
Look, I’ll admit that most of this review is going to focus on the game’s writing because there’s not much else to look at. In terms of mechanics, you walk, run and interact with things. That’s as complex as it gets which I don’t consider a terrible thing. See, Draugen knows what it is: It wants the player to engage with its story and nothing else. Many games of this ilk feel the need to shoehorn things like puzzles or timing mini-games to earn the title of “video game” when 9 out of 10 times all these do is ruin the pacing of the narrative.
Draugen has none of these and thus has some of the best pacing I’ve seen in a narrative based game and for that I thank it. The story never lulls, building some great intrigue and delivering on the mystery of the island in a way that some may find unsatisfying, but I enjoyed. It’s a very postmodern story with aspects like unreliable narrators, the complications of a twisty timeline and many paths that never really go anywhere. I could have completely misinterpreted many elements, but hey, that’s the glory of postmodernism.
God, I’m a ponce.
The characters while initially grating grew on me over time. I started to feel for Edward’s blind desperation for his sister and even though they seem a little too close at times (it was a little creepy, Ed Boy) I was rooting for him to uncover the truth. Lissie is definitely the more interesting of pair, starting out as an annoying caricature of 1920’s youth spouting phrases like, “Old boy!” and “Fiddlesticks!” in a very unironic way. Yet as the story went on she became more grounded, a sort of inconsistent moral compass to question the actions of Edward. The writing can be hit and miss with a tone that sometimes wants you to take it seriously but also is totally fine with characters calling each other “Old Bean”. I wasn’t alive in the 1920s, I’ll admit, but some of the period dialogue does feel like it was written by someone who got most of their information from Blackadder.
Yet despite those inconsistencies, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the experience. Walking around the abandoned village is gorgeous, the Norwegian mountains and rivers tumbling all around you, the sound of a light breeze sometimes drifting through your ears. There were times where just looking at the environment made me feel chilly; It’s a haunting yet idyllic location that perfectly captures the spirit of the game.
“Haunting yet idyllic” is perhaps the best way I could describe Draugen. While not bringing anything inherently complex or mechanically deep to the table, what it brings instead is a mug of hot chocolate, a delightful story book and the attitude of an experienced storyteller. While the narrative and characters can be somewhat inconsistent in quality at times, overall Draugen provides a neat, tightly-paced snack of an experience that is perfect for a cold Winter’s day indoors.
Last Updated: May 28, 2019