Adventure Gamers Awards
Golly, there’s some frightfully spiffing twists and turns in Draugen when it isn’t going overboard with the old-fashioned dialogue, what what! The first-person “fjord noir” (an unusual sub-genre which I can only hope encourages future anomalies like “car park-erotic drama”) from the studio behind Dreamfall Chapters is set in picturesque 1920s Norway and draws you into an intriguingly busy narrative filled with cursed mines, Nordic mythology, family feuds and potential child murder. But despite a surprising mid-game plot reveal and some genuinely creepy atmosphere, the upper class British slang is just too grating and the story eventually too overwhelming for even this old bean to fully delight in.
The plot joins Americans (no doubt of high class backgrounds; hence their propensity for Britishisms) Edward Harden and his younger, annoying companion Lissie on their quest to find Edward’s sister Elizabeth (or Betty, as she is also confusingly called). From the last letter he received from his dear sis, Edward believes that Elizabeth is somewhere to be found in the quiet, rural Norwegian village of Graavik, and is driven to travel there from Massachusetts, meet the mysterious Fretland family who live there, and find out why he hasn’t heard from his sibling since. Rather than a big Norwegian welcome (Velkommen?) though, the pair disembark to find the village completely and rather eerily empty. That, coupled with their boat suddenly disappearing from the dock, means there’s nothing for it but to investigate the unsettling town and uncover what happened to its inhabitants, and possibly Elizabeth along with them.
So far so foreboding, and Draugen does an excellent job of ratcheting up the spookiness as you go about your journey. Edward spots things out of the corner of his eye that suddenly disappear, and there’s an ever-pervading sense that you’re not the only ones left here. The sound effects in particular build a very troubling atmosphere – all creaking floorboards, banging doors, and ringing bells with nobody ringing them – which, alongside some quite disturbing plot points really help keep you on edge as you venture deeper into the secretive village and its surrounding environs. The game’s score, composed by Simon Poole, adds further creepiness to the tense parts, swelling suddenly as Edward makes another portentous discovery or using ominous percussion strikes to mark that something disturbing may be just around the corner.
Alas, your companion Lissie does her best to destroy this atmosphere with her chirpy and sarcastic nature. She’s obviously supposed to exist to wind poor old beleaguered Edward up (and later story developments do explain the reasons behind this a little more). Even so, the constant “old beans” and unnecessary “we’re sitting ducks out here, quack quack” chatter start to grate precisely a few minutes into the opening chapter, and no amount of explanation several hours later really helps exonerate that. It’s frankly a bit of a relief in the few scenes when she says “pip pip” and Edward can have a breather for a while.
Unfortunately, gabbing with Lissie is a key part of the experience, so there’s not much peace and quiet to be had. Fortunately, voicing Edward and Lissie, respectively, actors Nicholas Boulton and Skye Bennett do a good job of bringing to life their ongoing dialogue and making the relationship between the pair feel believable, a very necessary feat considering how much of the story rests on their telling of it.
Draugen is split up into six chapters, with each chapter representing one day. Over this time, Edward and Lissie delve further into the mysteries of Graavik by exploring new areas of the Fretlands’ house and the village surroundings. The rather frail and easily tired Edward will frequently rouse from his slumber at the beginning of chapters to find Lissie missing or away investigating something, so players have a “Call Out” option to try to find her, which uses something akin to echolocation to follow the shape of her voice (a pulsing circle much like an audio wave) to her position.
When you do find your companion, you’ll often be presented with one or two short single-word conversation topics to choose from, e.g. “Betty” or “Graavik”, which when highlighted show a further brief description (“Edward wonders yet again what drew Elizabeth to this remote place”). You’re usually only able to pick one topic out of the list of conversation options, whilst the others disappear, but it’s hard to know how much of a difference, if any, selecting one subject over another makes in story development, as the game doesn’t seem to bring up any of your previous choices later on. Still, it does add a slight degree of replayability to the short story, which can be completed in just a few hours.
Those three hours or so will see you take in the village of Graavik in its entire Norwegian splendor. You can almost taste the fresh outdoor air as you trudge (using either a gamepad or keyboard with your mouse as the camera) beneath the autumnal orange trees and past crisp snow-capped mountains, rendered in scenic 3D both in broad daylight and fog-shrouded darkness of night. As you go about exploring, there are set points where Edward can sit and sketch the quaint rustic scenes before him, which then get added to the pages of his journal. Whilst there’s little point to discovering all the drawing spots apart from unlocking an achievement, they’re still welcome little breaks from some of the more harrowing parts of the story. The journal also includes a hand-drawn map of the area, which fills out more as you discover new places, and can be brought up at any time if you’re not quite sure where you’re supposed to be going.
Much of the rest of your time in pretty Graavik will be spent interacting with points of interest (denoted by ever-present hotspot indicators) throughout places like the old mine, a boarded-up church and the abandoned general store to further the story. There’s no in-game inventory as such, so any items like a key or items of clothing that Edward is certain are Elizabeth’s get stored for automatic use when needed. The lack of puzzles or item-combining frees you up to become fully immersed in the backstory of the Fretlands and the village’s dark past by investigating mementos like diary entries and photographs.
The streamlined gameplay – you can often wander anywhere but rarely have a reason to diverge from the linear path – allows the story to be brought heavily into focus, with so little else to occupy your attention. For the most part it delivers: Edward is an unreliable narrator, and as his search for his sister becomes more desperate, the game has surprising revelations under its belt to shock you, including some that cause great friction between the two protagonists and others that deal with Edward’s own internal struggles.
It’s a shame then that by the end of the game it still isn’t sure whether to focus on Edward’s issues or what he and Lissie uncover about the village. The former are given closure on one important point and yet left wide open in others, while any loose ends from the mystery of Graavik are literally dismissed in a noncommittal throwaway line that frankly seems like a bit of a cop out. You’re left wanting to know what really did occur here and why, and whilst the credits tease that this might not be the last we see of Edward and Lissie, I’d have much preferred to have the main plot points specifically relating to this chapter of their story (even if there is more to come) to be resolved before moving onto another adventure – especially as there’s so much emphasis earlier in the game on determining what happened.
Another mystery that may never be solved is why the game is called Draugen at all, given that the titular mythical monster from Norwegian folklore is only mentioned in offhand anecdotes, and even then only once or twice, ultimately being of no consequence at all to the investigation. If there is more to come from this series, perhaps that part of the tale will be fleshed out further, but it seemed like an odd pick for this debut adventure at the very least.
Look past the hokey dialogue and slightly odd title choice and there’s a suspenseful tale of tragedy running through Draugen. Its twists and turns come as real surprises, and its gorgeous scenery belies the chilling atmosphere that envelops it in bucket loads. But just as you’ve forgiven it for the linguistic “flourishes” of its talkative co-star and are settling into the unsettling adventure, the game decides to abandon any hope of ever figuring out what’s going on and sends you on your way again, back through those clear blue fjords. Poor form, old sport.