Draugen a scenic game about delusional thinking
By CHRISTOPHER BYRD | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 20, 2019
Draugen is a pleasant vacation from the world of mainstream gaming. Its protagonist is not a hero, but a man traumatized by his past. Its pacing is leisurely rather than hurried. Its mysteries court the mundane more than the spectacular.
Billed as a “fjord noir,” this short, narrative-driven game is set in 1923, in a small Norwegian village bordered by sparkling water. The area’s rustic charm is undercut by an atmosphere of tragedy that’s captured by a sign that hangs over a hastily boarded up church which, when translated from the Norwegian, reads: “God is not here.”
Along with his enigmatic companion, 17-year-old Lissie, Edward Harden of Hanover, Mass., journeys to (fictional) Graavik to investigate the disappearance of his sister, Elizabeth.
Edward believes that Elizabeth was working on a story for a New York publication when she went missing. Before setting out on his journey, Edward corresponded with Anna Fretland, the wife of one of the village’s most prosperous business executives, Johan. Though Anna hasn’t heard of an American journalist knocking about — and given Graavik’s smallness, it’s impossible to imagine that a foreigner’s presence could go unnoticed for long — she and her husband extend an invitation to Edward to stay at their farmhouse.
Alas, after Edward and Lissie make their way up a hill to the Fretlands’ home they find it as deserted as they do the rest of the village. Not without a touch of misgiving, Edward heeds the advice of Lissie and ventures into the unlocked house. Hoping that the Fretlands will return shortly, he crashes on their couch in the parlor. Upon waking the following morning, with the Fretlands still nowhere to be found, Edward and Lissie decide to search the surrounding area for clues.
Over the next few days, Edward and Lissie uncover signs that indicate that the citizens of Graavik were deeply divided over a long-running feud between Johan and his twin brother Fredrik, whose relationship went south after a mysterious incident occurred some two decades ago at a mine they once jointly operated. As Edward grows increasingly anxious over the fate of Elizabeth, his bond with Lissie is strained.
From the opening scene in the game, it’s clear that the two make an odd pair. Aside from their age difference, Edward is bookish and introverted, whereas Lissie is energetic and fond of peppering her speech with slang. More significant, though, Lissie displays a greater empathy toward the missing villagers and their problems. This leads to her vexation over Edward’s single-minded concern for Elizabeth. Still, she is unjust when she says to Edward, “Your soul lacks poetry, Edward Harden. I pity you.”
If the player so chooses, Edward can sit in quiet repose at different places in the village and sketch the landmarks around him. It becomes increasingly obvious as the game goes on that there’s more going on in Edward’s imagination than is apparent.
At length, one realizes that what connects Edward’s plight with that of the villagers is a tendency to overvalue their own interpretation of events. In an epiphany near the end of the game, Edward says, “It is as painful to wake from a vision as it is to be born anew.”
I didn’t find Draugen’s narrative twists surprising in the least, but that didn’t severely impede my enjoyment of the game. I found it interesting precisely because it makes the point that life is filled with anticlimactic moments and that sometimes the search for dramatic connections can lead to delusional thinking. I think more than enough games have made a virtue of bombast. Here’s to hoping that more developers and players find inspiration in low-key titles.
Draugen is a first-person psychological mystery set in 1920s Norway. You play as American Edward Charles Harden. Accompanied by his ward, Lissie, a gregarious, independent and enigmatic young woman, the duo explores rural Norway in search of Edward’s missing sister, Elizabeth.
Photos courtesy of Red Threat