Draugen review | Unresolved

It’s red herring season, and they’re out in force. Here’s our review of Draugen…


 

As far as first impressions go, Draugen knows what it’s doing. It’s the early 1920s, and we arrive at the remote, tiny Norwegian village of Graavik by rowing boat. Our middle-aged protagonist Edward (aka ‘Teddy Bear’ or ‘Old Bean’) made the journey from Boston to Scandinavia in search of his disappeared sister Betty, a journalist who, for an unknown reason, was on her way to Graavik the last time Edward heard from her.

With him in the boat is his ward Alice, or Lissie, an imaginative 17-year-old girl with lots of attitude who delights in coming up with all manner of fanciful nicknames for our protagonist (see above).

In many ways, Graavik and its surrounding landscape is the third major character of the game. Nestled against the mountains and the cold shores of the fjord, it makes a big impression despite its humble size. It’s gorgeous and eerie all at once; its entire population seems to have vanished from the face of the earth, and its picturesque huts and homesteads with old-timey charm lie abandoned in the middle of breathtaking but cold natural beauty.

Avalanches rumble on the summits of distant mountains while the ghostly silhouette of a Nordic church peeks through the mist atop the precipice overlooking the harbour.

Here, we begin our search for Betty, and an investigation into what happened to the villagers. Most of the village is open for exploration, but our progression through the story is entirely linear. We find letters and other documents that hint at a bigger story; there’s talk about lost Viking treasure, a terrible murder, a curse, and the Draugen, an undead creature from Scandinavian folklore.

Throughout all of this, we converse with Lissie via a very simple dialogue system that’s less about influencing the way the story plays out and more about illuminating Edward’s thoughts and inner life. Next to Lissie, however, he appears downright dull (he is, in Lissie’s words, “such a pill”. She’s not wrong). Her wild speculations about what might have happened and irreverent yet empathetic character are consistently delightful. When she isn’t quipping or poking fun at the Old Bean for his tiresomeness, she’s dancing around, practising handstands, or climbing trees.

Sadly, Draugen is a mystery game, and the thing with mysteries is that an unsatisfying resolution can retroactively spoil even the most enjoyable experience. Draugen seems to be aware of the problem and circumnavigates the danger of a bad resolution by deciding to have no resolution at all. By this, I don’t mean that it ends with a pleasurable kind of ambiguity that allows us to speculate (Lissie-style) or come to our own conclusions. For that to work, there’d need to be a foundation of tantalising and meaningful clues to work with.

Draugen takes that away by revealing to us that all the clues or “breadcrumbs” (as Edward calls them) we’ve been following for several hours are essentially nothing but red herrings on top of more red herrings. Its narrative twists don’t intrigue, but simply reveal the artifice and meaninglessness of the mystery.

A good twist in a mystery story is like having the rug pulled from under our feet, only to discover a previously hidden trap door that opens entirely new avenues of intrigue. In Draugen, there’s simply nothing beneath the intricately patterned rug but naked floorboards. It was pleasant to look at and was doing its job just fine, so why take it away? It’s a rug better left unpulled.

It seems oddly proud of this blunder. In one especially awkward example, Edward rebukes Lissie by saying: “This is real life, not a whodunit by Agatha Christie. There won’t be a convenient series of clues leading to a tidy resolution.” It feels like the makers are winking at us, but they don’t seem to understand that there’s a giant gulf between having no “tidy resolution” and essentially burning the whole house of cards to the ground.

Draugen willfully takes away every single reason why we’d care about the events of the game in the first place, and as a result, feels like a mockery of our investment of time and intellectual energy. And if the game doesn’t take its own mystery seriously, who could expect players to?

It’s impossible to convey just how egregious a misstep Draugen commits without spoiling the end of the game. The intriguing premise, the wonderful setting, the entertaining writing, the haunting soundtrack; all of it is squashed beyond recognition by what is the narrative equivalent of witnessing a car smash head-on into a concrete wall in slow motion.

The only question I was left with in the end wasn’t about some intriguing aspect of its story, but simply: “Was that it?” Alas, it was. I was desperate enough to play it a second time, not because of a lingering fascination with its mystery, but simply because I was convinced I must have missed something. But I hadn’t. There are no subtle revelations one could miss, no alternate endings, no new game plus, no post-credits twist. All we get is a dubious assurance: “Edward and Alice will return.”

Tantalising as that might be in many other situations, to be honest, maybe it’s better for them to stay lost in the fjords.

Highlight

Even the story’s terrible resolution doesn’t completely undo Lissie’s charm. Voice actor Skye Deva Bennett conveys not only teenage cheekiness but also a deep empathy that Edward so sorely lacks. Lissie plays a much-needed counterpart to Edward’s obsessively intellectual temperament, and their back-and-forth makes the game come to life.

Verdict

A gorgeous mystery game, tragically hampered by a baffling refusal to engage with its own mystery.

45%

Genre Adventure
Format PC (tested)
Developer Red Thread Games
Publisher Red Thread Games
Price £16.99
Release Out now

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