Divination and Terror with Daniel Olsén and Year Walk
It is Tomasmässonatten, and the time is right for revelation. Will you learn the mysteries of the future and save your love from her engagement, or will you succumb to the nightmare creatures lurking in the winter night? Begin the Year Walk, blow through the keyhole, and tempt your fate.
Back in 2013, a creepy adventure game based on Swedish folklore was released on iOS platforms. Two years and a bevy of positive reviews later, Year Walk has become quite the phenomenon among horror/folk tale enthusiasts. As far as I can tell, the game follows the adventures of a young man embarking on an ancient pagan tradition known as Årsgång, one which, if performed correctly, grants the user foresight and eldritch wisdom. Yet, the ritual is not without its dangers. After blowing through the keyhole of a church, the user temporarily loses his salvation, exposing himself to the dangerous, amoral entities of the pre-religious world. According to T. Kuusela,
A complex form of divination in Swedish folk tradition… The tradition of year walking is predominantly recorded from Southern Sweden, and was usually practised at Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Different regions of Sweden give contrasting explanations for how this was accomplished. From Småland and Blekinge, the year walker was supposed to lock himself up in a dark room, without speaking to anyone nor taste food or drink. At midnight, he (or she) walked to the parish church – or a cluster of different churches – and circled it three times (or more), then he (or she) blew into the church’s key hole. With this the year walker temporarily lost his (or her) Christianity. When this happened, supernatural beings appeared and challenged the year walker. If the walker managed these tests, glimpses of the future could appear; either in vision or by sounds. These could be interpreted as glimpses of what would happen the following year. The phenomena could vary greatly regionally or even in the same district.
I have yet to play the game myself, but the stark, grim artwork and mysterious music have captured my interest. Already intrigued by rumors of the game perfectly encapsulating that frightening siren song of the unknown, it was with great delight that I discovered that two additional pieces of media have been released to fill out the Year Walk mythology.
First, I discovered that Swedish composer Daniel Olsén has written, produced, and released an accompanying soundtrack for the game that can be streamed via Bandcamp. The music is a perfect companion to the art, a dire exploration of Swedish folk tales and ancient musical traditions written on electronic organs and bowed crotales.
Having not played the game, I can only impart the feeling evoked by Olsén’s compositions, but I can assure you, they are characteristically fitting. The Year Walk soundtrack plays like a journey deeper and deeper into the frozen heart of an ancient, forgotten grove of trees. Danger looms around every corner, embodied in the slinking, skittering, and creeping of individual tracks like “Ugglornas Hemlighet” and “Änglamakerskan”. Beauty abounds too, the sort of rugged but also fragile beauty so often found among the dying trees haloed by falling snow on a cold winter night, as found in songs like “Stina” and “Glittermåne”. Each track of this composition takes you from trial to trial, terror to terror, but hope is ever dangled before you like a fleeting glimpse of light through the crooked branches. Equally unsettling and uplifting, Olsén’s work here rivals many major horror film scores I’ve heard, always bleak but often hopeful.
The second piece of accompanying art is actually a short storybook that details the ghastly folklore creatures featured in this game. The short books can be accessed and downloaded for free here and, like the older understanding of fairy tales, contains harrowing cautionary stories for children to be on their best behavior lest some malicious bogeyman from the arcane wilds punish their willful disobedience. Although the stories themselves lack the maturity and depth that will appeal to adult readers, the art is fanciful and engaging. The stories themselves remind me of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and are worth at least the short reading time for those seeking that nostalgic thrill of youth.
Year Walk is out now on iOS, Steam, and the Wii U eShop.