The only way is onwards.
Of all the new genres to come out of the indie game boom, walking simulators have proved a good testcase for demonstrating how far creators can push ambiguity. North, the new investigative first-person adventure from developer Outland, makes a great claim as being the bravest yet in this regard, exploring themes like immigration and surveillance through the obscure and metaphorical instead of the literal. As a bite-sized journey North poses some interesting questions about the many Orwellian-inspired concepts it evokes, even if its execution isn’t always entirely successful.
North places you in the role of an unnamed traveller, exiled to a world filled with strange language, alien creatures, and seemingly vague concepts. Played out in a similar fashion to other walking simulators like What Remains of Edith Finch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and Gone Home, where North differs is in its desire to make players piece the story together rather than have one thrusted upon them. It only takes roughly an hour to complete (20 minutes if you leg it!), making it an easy experience to immerse yourself in for one sitting.
I use the word ‘immerse’ in particular because North is fantastic at creating a thick sense of atmosphere. Largely due to the absence of many other people in the game’s three-tiered city. While exploring you’ll traverse everything from shadow-induced cityscapes to desert-like mining factories, all of which work well to make you feel unsettlingly observed at all times. Your time spent in these locations is primarily spent solving basic logic puzzles and mind conundrums that’s meaning and importance is only really revealed by writing letters to your sister.
Many challenges work in the following way: Enter a room, try to find what to do in said room, post a letter to you sister revealing a clue about what to do, before returning to the room to do it. This unsurprisingly results in a lot of back-and-forth exploration, but North’s letter system is in theory only there to aid those who have no idea what to do next. The issue with this is that the next step in these puzzles are often so obscure you’ll often have no choice to rely on the letters. In this way, it wouldn’t be out of the question to describe North as a pretentious experience. But at least it’s one that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Visually North can be best described as fine. It’s not doing anything that’s ground-breaking or visually spectacular per say, instead relying on some very unnerving imagery to convey its points in some manner. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t a horror game. However, some sequences are set to surprise and catch you off guard. One in particular that comes to mind involves being forced to accept a pill, but even then, what plays out on screen is largely static.
I can safely say that before diving into North, I’d never previously played a game like it. At times I’m trepid to even call it a game, but to describe it as otherwise would suggest that it’s in some way successful in its unorthodox execution. Definitely not for everybody and at times a little head-scratching, but for less than the price of coffee North might be a trip worth taking for those wanting to be challenged more in the medium.