In my mind, there are four stages of weirdness in the gaming scene. Stage one is your normal everyday title, games such as FIFA, Call of Duty, and Battlefield, that give you a simple goal, and nothing more. Stage 2 is the same, but this time we find huge dragons or elves or unicorns with flaming wings in place. Think something like Destiny, but the goals are pretty much the same. Stage 3 then moves you into the land of the unknown and strange – Inside, Limbo or Layers of Fear, all of which let you create the narrative in your own brain before letting the atmosphere take you on a journey. Stage 4 however is the ultimate level of all that is odd, weird and offbeat. And in my mind, there is only one game in that group… that game is this game. North.
After a recent turn on Steam, North has come to our consoles for the whole world to try and work out what in God’s name is going on.
As you load up, a stunningly colourful opening sequence flies above a landscape – fully accompanied by beautiful music – that brings memories of the opening to the film “The Shining”. The title runs across the screen in big letters… NORTH. It begins.
The game informs you that the experience is a short one (maybe one hour in length) and that there are no saves, or pauses, or tutorials. It does however tell you that if you see an envelope icon, you should find a postbox and post a letter. Yep, I was really scared now.
North is played out in a first person viewpoint and you can walk and interact with certain things. In one section you can run too – like run really fast. The area that you arrive in comes without an explanation; a sort of courtyard in a city at night. You have a postbox with which you can post letters to your sister, who lives in the deep South… which is a barren sort of desert place that you’ve probably escaped from. These letters provide the only tangible clue to a narrative and are your only hints to how to complete certain tasks. It is in this area where you have a door that says ‘home’, a door that says ‘church’ and a door that says ‘work’. An elevator is behind you, but you can’t access that at the moment because you need to complete the other areas in a certain order. So what do you do? Well, that is North in a nutshell.
The game has some of the strangest combination of imagery, design and concepts I’ve ever encountered. I don’t want to talk about what happens too much, because it would immediately spoil the very short experience that is awaiting you. It does however play out like a mad dream, or like a David Lynch nightmare where everything is twisted and reality is deformed and broken. In one sequence you find yourself activating strange machines in a boiling hot mine, whilst in another you are given a test in a police station where you’re shown a bunch of random images and you have to say whether you recognise them or not.
Personally I think the game is a large analogy for the problems found in migrating to another country and the hoops, hopes and anxieties you have to go through to assimilate yourself into another culture. But you may have other ideas, because the beings you meet in the game are actually alien in appearance and the language is unusual and impenetrable.
Even after completion though, North has stayed with me, running around in my head for a couple of days. I guess that was the intended nature from the developers. It’s thought provoking, frightening and, like all good art, you’re either going to absolutely love it or completely hate it.
The visuals that make up the entirety of North are a mix of real photographs and pieces of art all set across unusual landscapes that distort and unsettle. The dream sequences, especially one set in a doctors surgery, are brilliant but at the same time some other sections come across as being a bit bland. It’s all a mixed bag really. The soundscape however is superb and works brilliantly within the game themes and structures. Strange noises mixed with heartbreaking melodies are the order of play here and it once again unsettles the soul.
But all that said, I have really enjoyed my hour of madness with North. For just under £4 the game is set at the perfect price for anyone wishing to take a gamble into the unknown. You need to be able to commit to that time for a run through and will need to be prepared to leave your linear, story driven mind at the doorway. However, should you be able to do that and fancy picking up some Gamerscore, the Achievement hunters out there will find possibly the easiest 1000G ever.
It’s important to have games created like this; games that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but are happy to push experimentation and storytelling to the limits. Give me more please.