North is one of those games that makes no sense unless you really dig deep for it’s strong underlying meanings. It’s surreal.
I downloaded the .exe of North that is available from the Outlands website on a pay-as-you-like basis, and admittedly, the images used to promote the game don’t give anything away. In fact they leave you speculating on what it could be like. It looked to contain elements of a horror game with jump scares.
The darkness. The letters written to the protagonists sister in confused wordings. The silent characters stuck in an animation loop, looking like they’re losing their mind, and -of course- eerie synth-pop music dominating the diegetic sounds assembled to create an uneasy atmosphere. All of these are elements which would normally be assembled for a horror game.
The story though, focuses on you, a man who has applied for asylum within a city that is inhabited with alien creatures and unusual customs. It’s a game that doesn’t explain to you what you need to do in order to get asylum, instead it throws you into the darkness of this city that wears a dark, cyberpunk cloak, coming across as a distant cousin of Blade Runner. You are treated very similarly to how your character is, you’re both confused about what’s happening around you, and it’s down to you to explore the world and figure out where you need to get yourself to next in order to drive the narrative forward. Reading your letters to your sister before you post them allows you to find tips on what to do.
I find the whole game to be quite surreal, and very strange. It’s supposed to be dealing with the contemporary refugee crisis, and can’t decide on whether it’s focused on an adventure, or puzzle, gametype. While there’s puzzle elements however, they come through strange actions that the game tries to make subconscious – the mines need you to quickly gather stones, the cameras need to see you, the pills need to be taken. All small things that all start to open your characters eyes to what’s going on.
The creatures you’re with in the city look alien – their heads a vertically elongated shape, their eyes barely noticeable, their darkly coloured skin sags across what looks like a starving frame. There’s a building you can venture to, called “Home” but as you walk in, you’re greeted to a poverty ridden pit, populated with three of these creatures. One lays upon an uncomfortable looking mattress sleeping, another stood directly up against a wall, waving it’s arms around in a silent distress, and one round in a room littered with crates, stood looking at a wall with pictures stuck up. It’s not clear what’s going on, they speak in their native tongue. There’s even a weird monstrous creature in a room that leads to the Mines, just stood there moving around inside a pool of some form of substance, waiting to be fed..
Each letter, as stated above contains content written by your character ready to send to your Sister back home, a new letter is written each time you reach a progressive point in the game/ These will allow you to understand what it is you need to do next, and where you need to go. Annoyingly you’d need to keep a mental note on the letters you’ve just read though, because once posted you can’t re-read them as there’s no inventory or journal system. You don’t even have controls listed for you in-game, in fact I’ve only seen the controls on the main website, and the splash screen before you boot the game up.
Apparently, the story is said to be “Dealing with the issue of the contemporary refugee crisis” and I’m probably being dumb, but I only see your character as the refugee. You’re the guy that’s entered this place, and is in fact, different from the rest. I could be missing a trick here though, maybe you’re meant to feel like a refugee and this gives you an insight into how refugee’s feel?
From what I can tell, the game starts to open itself up to a sci-fi element where your character becomes “seen” and joins a church, after that you head to the second floor and find a police station where you get taken to a room full of memories. You need to decide if you recognise them or not, but this is where you character starts to wonder if the higher powers are stealing everyone’s thoughts and keeping them prisoner. The third floor is where this basically becomes confirmed as you visit the doctors who make you take a pill. You fall into a sleep, a sleep that is filled with psychedelic imagery, heavy beats, gentle synth’s, and distortion. You wake up.
Amid the themes of surveillance and being in an alien, foreign land, there’s also another thing that start’s popping up quite quickly and runs throughout. The doctors, the only creatures in human form in the game, give you pills that send you into a trance like state, but, once within that strangely disembodying trance you are tested, asked what is true and what isn’t. Combine that with the fact that the strange creatures of ‘Home’, and the picture littered floors of ‘home’ itself – give off a feeling of hopelessness and forgotten memories. The doctors, testing the refugees who came to the land, making them give up what makes them what they are, possibly trying to brainwash them into a new culture. Or, or, maybe everyone in the dark city is helpless, trapped, and stuck in a state of trying to remember that which they gave up.
Regardless of the meaning, be it culture whitewashing, or mental brainwashing the game continues to mess with your mind throughout – there are titles that suddenly pop into existence, white on black. “Wake up” “You have been seen” – where the visual style reminds me of Blade Runner, the style of narrative reminds me of Requiem For A Dream in the way that it uses not just these visual quirks, but also sound effects to drive forward the actions, making them resonate through the world. The title screen’s deep pop, the echoing ring of a button press, the electro-techno music that plays in the mines.
That’s why I like this game. The controls are just simply move and click, which allows you to focus on the actual deep meaning within it. It’s incredibly clever and I really enjoy playing it. Although I can’t see why there isn’t a skip option for the title screen which drones on for far too long. I’m not sure if anything more will be added to it, but after playing this for a while, I can see room for improvement, but otherwise I see this as a pretty solid indie gem.