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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.