Developed By: Outlands
Published By: Sometimes You
Release Date: 03.06.2018
North for Nintendo Switch opens with a slow panning shot over a desert. Somber electronic music plays, setting a melancholy, ponderous tone for the scenario that will play out over the next hour or so. A letter from the protagonist to his sister appears; this is how the story of North will be told. You play as an immigrant freshly arrived in the North, having fled across the desert from the war-torn South. The city is your typical dystopia, heavily inspired by the cyberpunk aesthetic. Between the synthpop soundtrack, moody scifi noir setting, and name-checking it in the game’s ad copy, North tries pretty hard to wear a Blade Runner influence on its sleeve, but to me it more accurately evokes the themes and style of the author of Blade Runner’s source material, Philip K. Dick. As a huge fan of his work, I found the thoughtful, avant-garde exploration of the immigrant experience that is North to be a worthy tribute to Dick’s body of work. Unfortunately, for all its narrative weight, there is one glaring omission from the experience; at its core, North is so concerned with being art that it mostly forgets to be a game.
First, the good; the narrative experience of North is a fairly short one (it took me around 45 minutes to complete), but it packs a heck of a punch. The immigrant’s journey begins with a letter to the protagonist’s sister, and the remainder of the story plays out in a similar epistolary format. Every time you visit a new area, a letter icon appears in the corner of the screen letting you know a new letter can be sent. You drop the letter off at mailbox, and the text of the letter reveals the goals of that particular area, as well as the means to accomplish those goals. Through the process of exploring the city, the protagonist goes through the motions of assimilating into the culture of his new home; he joins the local religion, gets his working papers, and undergoes a psychological evaluation before finally obtaining his citizenship with a signature Philip K. Dick dystopic mind-blowing twist at the end.
North packs a ton of excellent world-building into a small package. The synthpop soundtrack is slow and moody, doing most of the heavy-lifting in the tone-setting department and gives the game most of its personality. It is the game’s main claim to a Blade Runner influence; Vangelis would be proud. The graphics are very minimalist, prioritizing shapes and colors over fully-formed figures. The other residents of the city that the protagonist meets are the most detailed parts of the game; their inhuman forms and garbled language develop a feeling of alienation and otherness in the player, hammering home the themes of the immigrant’s journey.
Unfortunately, that’s where the problems with the experience begin. The graphics are intensely dark; fitting for the setting and theme, but problematic for navigation. The locations are relatively small, so it won’t take long for players to find things, but the darkness of the areas can make things difficult to find. The aforementioned mailboxes which drive the story forward are especially hard to see sometimes, and other objectives and pathways can blend together and be hard to see along the way as well.
I found a few bugs along the way as well. The sound cuts out during loading times, which are rather small, but for a game that relies this heavily on ambience it’s very noticeable when there is a break in transition from scene to scene. Also, at least one letter explaining the next objective didn’t pop until after I had achieved that objective; specifically, passing the psychological evaluation requires taking your roommates pills to control your dreams in order to prove you’re gay. I wandered around trying different combinations of things until I figured it out, and then I got a letter notification telling me how to do what I had just done. Every other quest worked the reverse way; the letter popped up first, and mailing it was how you learned how to pass the objective. I don’t know if this is a bug or not, but it was odd, and oddly, it was the most game-like task in the game.
As I said in the open, my main problem with the game is that there just isn’t much “game” here. For the most part, tasks are laid out in the letters without much room for exploration. Even though I think the psych evaluation letter may be a bug, I still found it the most satisfying task in the game because it actually required some problem-solving skills. North is a mildly interactive thinkpiece, placing very little emphasis on gameplay and instead placing its entire focus on the narrative. Given how much I appreciated the game’s immigrant journey themes, I suppose it’s not much of a problem, but when I sit down to play a game I want to play a game, not walk through a short film.
TL;DR: Perfect score for narrative, no points for gameplay.