Review: North


North
by Outlands

Shibboleths are hid­den rules. Pronounce Bicester biss-ter; take only the bis­cuit that’s near­est to you; for god’s sake don’t sit next to any­one on the bus unless all the non-adjacent seats have been taken. Videogames are made of hid­den rules, and there­fore have a unique way of explor­ing cul­ture and the way it sep­a­rates insid­ers from out­siders.

North is a game that under­stands this. In North, you are tasked with claim­ing asy­lum in a bleak, oppres­sive city. In order to suc­ceed, you must first come to under­stand the rules of the city and its bureau­cra­cies.

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I try to con­vert to the dom­i­nant reli­gion (a pre­req­ui­site for asy­lum) but, kneel­ing at the Great Eye of a for­eign God, I can­not: YOU HAVE NOT BEEN SEEN, bel­lows the voice of the sys­tem. I try to get my immi­gra­tion doc­u­ments from the doc­tors, but as I reel from the psy­che­delic visions brought on by their lat­est exam­i­na­tion, they stare at me implaca­bly: noth­ing hap­pens.

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All of North’s puz­zles pro­ceed from this con­fu­sion. North takes the inher­ent­ly con­tem­pla­tive nature of an adven­ture game — that teas­ing feel­ing of stuck-ness where you know there is a solu­tion to the prob­lem but you can­not fath­om what the alien intel­li­gence that con­struct­ed it could pos­si­bly desire — and mobilis­es it into cri­tique; a cri­tique of sim­i­lar sys­tems that exist in our world.

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North is con­fus­ing because it keeps the play­er in the dark. There is no tuto­ri­al, no min­imap, no list of objec­tives in the UI. How the play­er char­ac­ter can achieve their goal is never explic­it­ly stat­ed, and only implied grad­u­al­ly as the game pro­gress­es.

How North man­ages to achieve this with­out becom­ing inac­ces­si­ble is large­ly down to its cen­tral con­ceit: let­ters, sent between the pro­tag­o­nist and their sis­ter. The game opens with a let­ter, explain­ing why your play­er char­ac­ter has come to the city, how they don’t under­stand very much, but they will try to write every­thing down and write to the sis­ter more often. After that, at set points in the game (most impor­tant­ly when the pro­tag­o­nist encoun­ters some­thing use­ful, or fails to do some­thing which will help advance their objec­tives) a swishy papery sound plays and an envelope icon appears in the bot­tom left of the screen.

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The envelope indi­cates that the play­er can now inter­act with the hand­ful of post­box­es scat­tered across the envi­ron­ment, and send their sis­ter a let­ter, which either pro­vides some back­ground infor­ma­tion on the set­ting of the story, or gives an explic­it clue to a puz­zle the play­er has encoun­tered.

The impact of this design is to shape the flow of the game so that the play­er should fail, should be bewil­dered and at a loss, before they can begin to under­stand what it is they have to do.

Games train us, as play­ers, to expect that our verbs will have pre­dictable results. When I play an adven­ture game and select ‘talk to Governor Marley’ from a verb coin, I do not expect Governor Marley to then stab my PC through the chest. When I play a clas­sic JRPG with a but­ton to ‘inter­act’ with NPCs, and I press this when adja­cent to an NPC sprite and noth­ing hap­pens, I might press the but­ton again (assum­ing I’d done some­thing wrong) or won­der if there was some sort of glitch that meant the NPC didn’t have any dia­logue coded for them. In most con­texts, either of these two behav­iours would be bad game design.1

But North deploys this kind of opaque­ness to great effect. At the Church, the play­er is prompt­ed to ‘[Right Mouse] to Convert’, but won’t actu­al­ly be able to do this until they’ve met the pre­req­ui­site of star­ing into each and every one of the game’s CCTV cam­eras. They’re given a verb that *says* it does a thing (Convert), but it actu­al­ly doesn’t do the thing, and it’s not clear why.

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Similarly, in front of the doc­tors, they are prompt­ed to begin a med­ical exam­i­na­tion, which trig­gers a bizarre dream sequence. They then find them­selves back in front of the doc­tors, where they can ‘begin exam­i­na­tion’ again. Taking this action won’t move them any closer to a win state until they’ve read a let­ter that clues them to take spe­cial drugs to allow them to dream lucid­ly, and then that won’t do any­thing until they’ve trig­gered anoth­er let­ter that tells them what action they have to do in that spe­cial ver­sion of the dream. Once more, the play­er is given a verb that’s sup­posed to do a thing, and here real­ly seems to do a thing (an exam­i­na­tion obvi­ous­ly takes place), but it actu­al­ly doesn’t do the thing, and it’s not clear why.

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This process of repeat­ed fail­ure — of unlearn­ing my assump­tions and slow­ly learn­ing what the game want­ed me to do — was some­thing I found con­fus­ing, exhaust­ing, and often very iso­lat­ing. Are these hoops I am jump­ing through non­sen­si­cal or have I sim­ply start­ed to lose my grip on real­i­ty?

And that, per­haps, is the point. This is just a taste of the absur­dist night­mare that forms the daily expe­ri­ence of asy­lum seek­ers and migrants world­wide. Boys claim­ing asy­lum from Africa who told of their trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences being con­script­ed as child sol­diers are forced to lie down and demon­strate how they shot at their ene­mies; Australians on bridg­ing visas are denied health­care, and suf­fo­cate because they don’t have enough money to heat their home prop­er­ly; asy­lum seek­ers are forced to ‘prove’ that they are gay.

The puz­zles don’t always work as they should. Adventure games are tricky to bal­ance, and even with a built-in hint sys­tem in the form of let­ters, often I found myself stum­bling over solu­tions for prob­lems I hadn’t start­ed solv­ing yet, or clues that didn’t real­ly work prop­er­ly, or puz­zles that were just very demand­ing. There’s one sec­tion in a fac­to­ry where North gave me three ‘lives’ — I found it thor­ough­ly demor­al­is­ing, and I’ll bet a lot of play­ers bounce off the game right there. North fur­ther gives the play­er no abil­i­ty to save, which is basi­cal­ly unfor­giv­able in a genre where being stuck is part of the expe­ri­ence.

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The explic­it story ele­ments that exist in North are used spar­ing­ly, either to flesh out the world and its dark atmos­phere (por­traits of author­i­ty fig­ures with men­ac­ing glares, brief allu­sions to a night­mar­ish, war-torn desert) or to cre­ate ten­sion to drive the play­er for­ward — will our broth­er and sis­ter be reunit­ed? The twist end­ing, when it came, felt both sur­pris­ing­ly appro­pri­ate and some­what over-hyped. The drama of the final set piece fell flat for me because the game made me expe­ri­ence it at its own pace. Triumphantly approach­ing what I thought was the final item to trig­ger the end­ing, I was forced to trudge back through the area to sift through dozens of post­box­es whose mes­sages I had rash­ly neglect­ed to read.

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There are lots of clev­er moments in North. The way the level archi­tec­ture drew me to a point on the map that was com­plete­ly pitch black, leav­ing me dis­ori­ent­ed and fran­ti­cal­ly wheel­ing my mouse about look­ing for a safe way to get back. A ran­dom event which sud­den­ly meant the ele­va­tor the play­er uses to go from floor to floor has peo­ple in it, which caused me to recoil in dis­gust: a sud­den and unwant­ed inti­ma­cy in a bar­ren city, a social sit­u­a­tion I had not pre­pared for and whose con­se­quences I couldn’t ade­quate­ly pre­dict.

But the thing that’s stayed with me is the absur­di­ty of the hid­den rules of the city, and the hor­ror of under­stand­ing that North’s fic­tion is far more pleas­ant than the West’s real­i­ty.

Notes:
  1. Ian Danskin explains how an exam­ple of the for­mer is used to con­struct a very par­tic­u­lar sort of joke in Ben There, Dan That. As one com­menter notes, this kind of sub­ver­sion is a hall­mark of the Warioware games. []

Sebastian Atay

About Sebastian Atay

Sebastian Atay is just happy to be here. He likes games, ephemera, overthinking things, and trying not to be a terrible human being.