America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 16th Mar 2020 | 1,535 views
An idyllic town, breathtaking scenery, and buried secrets are found in Red Thread Games’ newest narrative adventure: Draugen. Founded by Ragnar Tørnquist, with several Funcom developers following in tow, Red Thread set out on concluding the venerated Dreamfall series and creating their own independent projects. Considering their storytelling heritage and technical prowess, it’s hardly surprising to see them tackle their own walking sim. And while this self-described “fjord noir” presents a few subtle tweaks to an overstuffed genre, an uneven narrative and enervating game design leaves this Norwegian thriller haunted by better examples on the market.
Set during the 1920s, Draugen centers on naturalist Edward James Harden (nicknamed “Teddy”) and his accompanying ward, Lissie. Having received a dispatch concerning the whereabouts of Betty, his long-absent sister, Edward ventures to the pastoral hamlet of Graavik (pronounced “Grow-Vick”) to find her. As thrillers tend to go, the story’s not that simple. What begins as a simple trip to find your sister becomes one of unearthing this secluded Norwegian town’s secrets, and some of your own.
As with most narrative-heavy titles, the dialogue is one of the easiest ways for writers to both flex their collective wordsmithing and to understand each character’s personality. And for a supposed noir story? It’s a shame that I somewhat respect the latter without enjoying the former. While Lissie’s happy-go-lucky contrast with Edward’s pompous attitude is a nice dynamic, the “old beans” and other era-specific sayings often sound disjointed; sometimes, I wonder if Skye Bennett (Lissie's VA) was straining to express the odd turns-of-phrase. This isn’t your grandfather’s film noir. There’s no Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet here.
For what it lacks in punch, some credit is due to its bilingual style. In dialogue and collectible notes, there’s a healthy mix of English and Norwegian. With Edward being a noted erudite, important hints and clues are translated by him—and used effectively in a few dramatic moments. Although I’m not as well-versed in foreign languages, I thought I caught some touches of older Germanic words splashed in as well. Draugen may not have a razor-sharp wit, but finer details like this ease the player into taking in this foreign place.
The finer details, or the miscellaneous qualities, also highlight the other writing strengths of Draugen. I must admit that it took a second playthrough to catch subtle telegraphing of plot twists. The issue is each twist examined individually varies from out-of-the-blue to expected, and not all reveals have the same impact. It also operates on what could be called "twist mismanagement", because one of the second act reveals can be incidentally discovered in the game menu’s extras, where there’s a digital comic book that’s a tell-all of Edward’s troubled past. Granted, relying on something outside the game proper may not be the best example, but I’m still left confused about what this addition accomplishes.
Perhaps this extra comic may elucidate as to why the grander narrative feels so uneven too. In the comic we can visually see the darker backstory and feel like an invested observer, but in the game we’re relying on overly expositive psychological drama and it has to be raked over multiple times. Early on, that kind of world-building and exposition works well in easing players into the unspoiled setting. Red Thread slowly shifts up to second gear by introducing a B plot, but once you reach Day 3 there's never a comfortable speed set in managing these disparate story threads.
In sum, it’s a narrative that has appreciable qualities but stumbles on specific storytelling fundamentals. Its “fjord noir” designation is ill-conceived, with only an optional black-and-white grainy visual filter (dubbed 1923 Mode) as the closest thing to the genre. There’s a sense of missing material too, with a deflating climax leaving me with several unanswered questions. Edward and Lissie have a rapport that can be utilized to its fullest, it’s just not done in this game.
A lacking script doesn’t halt what Draugen tells the audience visually. The wonderful small town resting at the base of a fjord and mountains in every direction looks downright gorgeous. Although it’s still fair to lock this as an A/AA title, as far as a budget is concerned, it’s not hard to notice the technical chops of this studio. I wouldn’t quite say it’s hanging with Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture’s perfect recreation of a sleepy England town in respect to complexity and scope, but the postcard quality of Graavik is still respectable. What adds to this atmosphere are those pleasant moments of finding contextual spots for Edward to sketch a wholesome slice of it to his journal. Aside from inconsistent lip-syncing and some iffy issues with draw distance (even on Xbox One X), Red Thread succeeded in immersing me in this world.
While not reaching the consistency of the visuals, sound is also worthy of consideration. The diegetic sounds when interacting with the world feel appropriate and are complemented by a soundtrack with a heightened focus on melancholy chanting, marrying beautifully with the title's atmosphere. The biggest speedbump would be the voice acting. Along with the script-writing, I have some bones to pick with the directing too. I’m willing to bet a copy of Draugen ($20) that Nicolaus Boulton (Edward), Skye Bennett, and Jane Perry had either no or barely any personal interaction together in a recording studio. There are times where inflections and tones feel mismatched. The reason I’m willing to make the bet is because they’re all professionals who would—almost certainly—avoid such elementary pitfalls if in person.
Gameplay for this walking sim is threadbare—surprise, surprise. Virtually all criticism about these games can be leveled here: the puzzles are straightforward and environmental interaction is often limited. If you weren’t into Gone Home or Firewatch you’re likely not going to enjoy it. But for all of its basic qualities in today’s age, some credit is due to how some gameplay nuances compliment the storytelling.
There are two specific ideas I’d like to see incorporated more often. When my eyes began drifting away from Lissie, I was shocked the first time she said “look at me when I’m talking to you.” It seems like such a minor addition, but those contextual moments of her stopping the conversation to get your attention made her feel more human. The second quality would be the internalized thoughts shown when making specific dialogue choices. Sure, the options don’t dramatically change story outcomes, but holding the X/Y/A/B button to glimpse Edward’s thoughts before committing feels more introspective. It's like a subtler way of the player-character talking to themselves in old adventure titles.
When the credits rolled to inform this duo would return, I initially thought that was good news—if only to give them a game more engaging and worthwhile. Red Thread Games’ first step away from the Dreamfall series is a pleasant-looking title, but lacking in other respects. Little touches to the gameplay are great contributions to its storytelling, but issues with pacing, writing, and consistency are so often present. And beyond sparse easter eggs, Draugen’s one-and-done story offers little incentive to replay its three-hour tale. In other words: this is one you can a-fjord to miss.