In recent years there has been a notable trend in the indie gaming community marked by the rise of games devoted to engaging a player's empathy, rather than their rage. Although some dismiss the ability of video games to evoke empathy in players, it is difficult to deny that games like That Dragon, Cancer or Dys4ia leave the player feeling something approaching understanding at their conclusion, even if that feeling falls far short of the actual, lived experience of losing a child to cancer or gender dysphoria.
In this sense, North, the latest release from Outlands Games, perfectly walks the line between fantasy and reality. The premise of the game is straightforward: You are a refugee seeking asylum in a strange city inhabited by even stranger creatures. (I hesitate to call them "people.") You've come from some unnamed locale in the south and find yourself disoriented and confused at local customs, a confusion you convey through letters to your sister back home, which also serve to move the narrative of the game forward.
"We wanted to make a game that highlighted the Kafkaesque absurdity of a refugee's situation," said Gabriel Helfenstein, one half of the duo that comprises Outlands Games. "Our main goal was to confront the player with feelings like confusion, boredom and frustration without putting her in an outside or observer position. It was an interesting challenge to make an unpleasant game that is still engaging."
Although North makes no pretensions to being a so-called "empathy game," it is precisely for this reason that it does such a standup job of engaging the refugee experience. This might seem counterintuitive, so let me explain.
A quick glance at Outlands' release catalogue and it quickly becomes clear that this is a game developer which revels in the bizarre esoterica of everyday life, where the marginal is pushed toward the center in beautifully rendered pataphysical reversals. Outlands games are short and experimental by nature, and North certainly carries on this tradition, although it feels significantly darker (both aesthetically and thematically) than previous releases.
The gameplay of North is simple enough, and, with the exception of a few frustrating leaps in logic, hardly warrants mention. The soundtrack is killer, and although North is a choose-your-own-price release, if you purchase the soundtrack (composed by the other half of Outlands, Tristan Neu), 50 percent of the proceeds will go to Refugees on Rails and Refugee Open Ware.
What ultimately stands out most about this release is the mood of the thing, which might be described as unsettling, although even this feels inadequate. Rather, North is grotesque in the tradition of Poe's short stories and rides on the waves of a dark surreality that one would find at the intersection of Lovecraft and Kafka.
If this doesn't sound like the makings for a typical refugee narrative to you, you're absolutely correct. Although North lacks the heavy-handed literalness of empathy games like Project Syria, this only allows it to better negotiate the intense feelings of horror, grief, confusion and guilt that accompany the plight of refugees.
"Visually we were influenced by German expressionism, which is a good approach to create a very foreign world," said Helfenstein. "In terms of its design, before starting to make games we worked on a web documentary about European migration policies with a few other journalists from across Europe. We also worked in refugee centers and saw all these people getting lost in endless paperwork and absurd procedures. So we had all this background knowledge and personal attachment to the refugee situation that we wanted to come across in the game."
This is not to say that North is a game about the ongoing European refugee crisis (although according to Helfenstein it was inspired by it) or that it even comes close to capturing the trauma experienced day in and day out by the estimated 50 million refugees around the world. Yet this is precisely why it succeeds as a game about a refugee—explicit appeals to reality could only serve to cheapen the lived experience of refugee populations.
Rather, the horror of North is found precisely in its distance from reality. Its setting is removed in both space and time, and it is this aspect of the game that lends the refugee narrative therein a sort of universality in the Platonic sense, without needing recourse to dubious claims of authenticity or reality as might be found with other empathy games.
In short, if you come to North hoping to "understand" the refugee experience, you'll be disappointed. (For what it's worth, if you try to understand the refugee experience by doing anything short of talking to the refugees themselves, you'll likely be disappointed, or at the very least, misled.) That said, North feels like a breath of fresh air in an indie gaming landscape that is quickly becoming saturated with titles that address hard hitting topics, but still feel as though something is missing. One can only hope that other developers take notice.