The ‘pure’ walking simulator seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent times. The likes of Tacoma and What Happened to Edith Finch pushed the format in wonderful new directions, while more recent examples, such as Close to the Sun, Observation, or Eastshade, have all moved away from epistolary storytelling common in the genre. Red Thread Games has stepped into this void with Draugen, a mystery adventure set in the fog-prone climes of Norway–a “fjord-noir” as the team has termed it. Despite feeling slightly outdated in its core design, Draugen succeeds in telling an intriguing story laced with antiquated charm.
The first thing to note about the game is the visuals. The core location of Graavik is quite tightly contained, and the development team has used that small scope to its advantage: the hamlet is breathtakingly beautiful. Fields of flowers and autumnal trees explode with colour, lending vibrancy to a landscape dominated by the blue-green hues of mountains and lakes. The handful of homes scattered about also contribute to an ineffable sense of quaintness. Hanging over all of these various facets of the scenic backdrop seems to be a softening filter, taking away the rough edges and giving everything a dream-like quality. Players also have the option to engage a ‘1923 filter’, which sets the game in monochrome and adds an old-school film grain effect. However, while evocative in a different way, this filter detracts from the charm of the standard visuals.
Importantly, that optional visual effect is not a random inclusion, rather referring to the year in which the game is set. One October day in 1923, the American Edward Harden and his ward (the sarcastic, vivacious Lissie) arrive on these far-flung shores in search of Edward’s sister, Elizabeth—a journalist who travelled here in search of a story. On their landing, a more pertinent mystery takes precedent, as Graavik seems to be abandoned. Without meaning to be, Edward and Lissie find themselves drawn into this background story, which ranges across subjects from family feuds to small-town superstition and mythology.
The methods of unravelling the mysteries will be familiar to anyone who has played the likes of Gone Home, Dear Esther, or Perception. Letters and key items are dotted about the landscape like breadcrumbs, leaving the user to piece together these clues. Draugen adheres quite rigidly to this archetypal format, though the inclusion of Lissie as a sounding board and inquisitor does add a much-needed sense of personality. Nevertheless, Red Thread seems to have been careful to make the story experience as frictionless as possible, as the few find-a-thing challenges are so banal as to not even be worth including. This absence of ludic barriers to progression makes sense, as the developer has instead relied on psychological ones—for Edward, at least.
Draugen uses tropes from the genre—locked doors and other inaccessible areas—to prolong the experience, but relying on Edward’s decorum rather than the hunt for clues to cordon off area. For players used to freedom, this approach will likely grate, yet it makes sense from a story perspective. Being a stranger in a strange place, Edward is reluctant to transgress boundaries until desperation forces him to do so. Psychology also plays into the story in a much more significant way, though to detail it would be to spoil things. Suffice to say that the game does not quite succeed in the character study that it attempts, but Draugen remains constantly engaging nonetheless. The same sentiment holds true for the brief history of Graavik that players are exposed to, as they are left to draw their conclusions about some of the goings-on that have led to its current state.
Regardless of those questions unanswered, Draugen might be less compelling to tell its story. Almost all of the storytelling relies on Edward’s narration, as most the text in the game is in Norwegian. Nicholas Boulton’s Edward has a measured way of speaking that is oddly reassuring and calming. By contrast, Skye Bennett’s Lissie is energetic, questioning everything with a delightful balance of petulance and maturity. Lissie enjoys a greater range than does Edward, and she is, by far, the more interesting character as a consequence.
This high-quality voice work is supported by a wonderfully realised audioscape. For the most part, environmental sounds serve only to set the scene, with the score instead being allowed to flourish. Strings often dominate in a haunting evocation of loneliness and isolation. However, whether meandering through Graavik to soak in the sights or engaged in a headlong dash through dense fog, the music always matches the mood; it peaks, though, on those rare occasions when the ethereal vocals kick in, soaring and transportive.
In some ways, those adjectives suit Draugen as a whole. Slightly dated game design and some poorly telegraphed narrative elements aside, the game makes for a wonderful four-hour adventure. The town of Graavik is a delight to look at, and the stories it hides drag players deep into the mystery. The design tropes of walking simulators are backed up with more logical cause than is often the case, while the story leaves just enough open to keep the player thinking after the credits have ceased to roll. Draugen seems unlikely to win any awards for originality, but it shows what mastery of the ‘walking simulator’ format looks like.
Reviewed on PC.