Gamer’s Paradise: Simogo’s Eerie Year Walk Breaks All The App Store Rules
The rapid rise of the iOS App Store offers unprecedented opportunities for game developers to reach new audiences—but it’s also created unprecedented competition. An incredibly saturated mobile market means developers have to cleave close to familiar genre constructs or brand names to attract crucial customer attention, and it can be hard for new ideas and creative voices to attain meaningful success in the crowd.
But for a developer with a good track record on the Store, part of the reward is a chance to innovate. Swedish mobile indie Simogo has been successful with a portfolio of delightfully playable games including Kosmo Spin, Bumpy Road, and Beat Sneak Bandit—the latter won last year’s Best Mobile Game at the Independent Games Festival.
The studio’s calling card is a loving attention to art and sound design that give its games a unique charm. The worlds Simogo makes are full of plinky tunes, cozy handmade textures and taut, clever controls—success on touch-based platforms demands a certain level of aesthetic polish that makes the player feel directly engaged with a tactile space, and Simogo has mastered it.
This year Simogo is in the IGF again, with Year Walk, nominated for Excellence in Visual Design, but the game couldn’t be more of a deviation from the studio’s distinctly-cute previous work. Year Walk is an atmospheric horror game inspired by Swedish legends, and there’s not much else like it on the App Store.
“Year Walking” is apparently an ancient Swedish tradition that involves seclusion, meditation and late-night walks to the church, with the creatures of rural myth appearing along the way. The game tasks players with exploring a haunting, snow-covered wood etched in mysterious sigils, following the subtle sensory cues to solve environmental puzzles and reveal the outcome of the vision quest.
Year Walk is very minimal on text, but the sound design is incredible, from the soft, chilly creak of footsteps on snow to distant sepulchral whispers—playing with headphones is highly recommended. There’s the occasional proper jump-scare, too, so try it in the dark if you’re into that kind of thing.
The game’s clearly interested in recapturing the mystery and complexity of puzzle games lost over time in favor of the goal of making games “accessible” and understandable to as many people as possible. Nothing in Year Walk feels too obscure or unattainable, and solutions never feel unknowable or unfair, but neither does the player ever feel overtly directed or hand-held.
Year Walk also has a companion app that players can use to study the Swedish legends that the game uses – it informs the rural animal myths and makes the creepy, touchable game world that much more intriguing. But it also has a locked section, only accessible by attentive players who’ve completed the game. There’s a little bit more story and puzzle detail to untangle.
The desire to leave some mystery for the players even extends to the game’s marketing—which is to say there was hardly any. Simogo took pains to be secretive about the details of Year Walk ahead of its launch, which is nearly unheard of in this era of constant information, preview videos, teasers, and the reams of screenshots that precede any game launch. The studio carefully revealed tiny video hints that alluded to the aura of Year Walk, but not to the details of its story and experience, and fans had fun puzzling some of these out on forums.
In addition to creating atmosphere and mystery, the team was interested in exploring the power of horror and in making a first-person game in two dimensions—a rather unique challenge to which Simogo found some creative solutions. Some of the game’s most interesting puzzles need players to have two fingers on the screen, while simpler movements can be done with a single swipe.
Year Walk may have a different atmosphere than the studio’s other games, but it’s distinctively Simogo; its desaturated palette has the same 1950s-animation feel that its other titles tend to favor, except in this context it’s much more creepy than it is cute.
It’s a fascinating success story for App Store game development: A creator with its own strong signature was able to break out of what fans expected from the studio—and had the faith in its concept and in its accumulated goodwill to reject the paradigm whereby fans supposedly need as much information as possible about a product before buying it.
Beyond that, Year Walk represents a studio taking a leadership role when it comes to innovating and creating new and unusual game forms on the crowded App Store, where familiarity is believed to breed success. No matter how crowded the market is, talented creators can gain visibility and acclaim by rejecting expectations and experimenting with the ideas they’ve longed to explore.