When it comes to personal experience, Draugen is nothing new to me. Emphasizing narrative importance in video games is something I’ve had my fair share of here at KeenGamer. Even so, there was something alluring about the trailers for this game that reverberated an essence of charm and intrigue. A breath of the past; promising introspection; tender embracing of ensuing adventure. In only a minute of my time, I wanted to travel to Graavik, the game’s setting, myself.
Amusingly, it was only later, past the point that I received the game, that I realized it would be dark. I noticed one publication even labeled it as “horror,” much to my dismay (horror and I don’t get along). To some degree, it polluted my expectations for its course, though not without promise. Draugen was still something I wanted to experience, if only for the potential I saw in its preview trailers. The mystery of Graavik developed into a sort of intangible ambiguity, similar to what I ultimately thought of the whole experience.
Draugen is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Playing Draugen, I can’t help but think back to two other games I’ve played for review: Unknown Fate and The Other Half. Both games share varying similarities to the present topic, particularly with their stories. Suspenseful tales involving isolation, slowly entailing some introspective dynamic with the lead character. Where the games linked had a noteworthy prospect of gameplay mechanics, Draugen is firmly set in realistic interaction. (I will discuss more of this in the “Gameplay” section.)
With these comparisons, it’s hard not to think of what former games had done better in the same regard. Personal taste notwithstanding, there’s a much higher emphasis on incorporating the darker aspects of the story in more interesting, more fantastical ways. Draugen tries to keep things simple, more peaceful, until a point where it all falls apart. The inevitable twist is effective, and the payoff keeps the intrigue lasting, but all that comes prior feels perhaps too ordinary.
Most of the issues I have come down to the writing, which this game gambles by making the sole motivator. I’ve discussed before with games that only prioritize a single aspect (typically story or gameplay) being easier to find problems with, since they have nothing to fall back on if all else fails. With Draugen, my initial reaction was vastly negative, with the characters spouting expository details and little more. Fortunately, as the mystery unveiled itself and the characters became more consumed, the writing proved more engrossing. What will ultimately give this game worth is the mystery aspect, which has a natural and believable build-up. What may prove more of a mixed bag are the central characters.
Edward Charles Harden and Lissie are the two stars of Draugen, aside from some references to other important characters. One’s enjoyment of the game could very well rest in the chemistry and dialogue attributed to these two. As stated before, I initially loathed them, particularly on first introduction when they’re rowing the boat to Graavik. Lissie is talkative, constantly spouting unsubtle expository details and weird phrases. Edward is more stern, more of the stereotypical responsible adult of the two, trying to keep Lissie in check. Their differences are never in doubt, as the story (almost) always keeps them together. Bickering and teasing are a vast part of their back-and-forths, and unless that sounds promising by description alone, I can’t find the confidence to recommend it.
Of course, much of the information I provide is intentionally vague, as I feel the story is the driving point and shouldn’t be spoiled. What I will say is that the story weaves about with the characters’ development quite well, even if initially blunt. I found myself at odds with the random dramatic spikes between the two characters, but with new information came haunting clarity. About halfway through Draugen, I was totally intrigued by where the story could go. By the end, however, I was left somewhat disappointed.
As I’ve matured, I’ve found subtlety to be a fantastic proponent of storytelling. There is much subtlety to be found in Draugen—where there is practically none is in its ending. In a flash, the player is given all possible information and history they need on a given character in one short spiel. This seems so… elementary, and something I’ve criticized in the past with games. “Infodumps” tend to kill the tension and intrigue of a given story, particularly one full of moral ambiguity and complex characters. It feels incongruous with the rest of the story, as though the writer was worried people wouldn’t “get it.” At least the mystery surrounding Graavik was given more consideration, as that was left almost as vague as when the characters arrived. The sting of what could be the “point” of the story appearing like a neon billboard in the arctic is lackluster, nonetheless.
Draugen isn’t quite desolate enough to be a walking simulator, but it’s got more walking than anything else. The basis of gameplay involves the player talking, interacting with (few) important objects, and moving. That’s pretty much it. Those looking for expansive freedom in gameplay liberties will feel as lost here as Edward and Lissie do in Graavik. Because of this, I’ll reiterate that Draugen takes a notable gamble on its story being enough, as the fancy of gameplay is close to nil. Unless, of course, people enjoy walking, sightseeing, opening doors, calling people, and climbing over minor obstructions in video games.
With titles like the aforementioned Unknown Fate, a similar story is told that also emphasizes the importance of entertainment exclusive to video games. Interaction can be done to the core minimum, as Draugen does, but it could also go beyond and provide some relief from the story or other aspects. Unknown Fate has puzzle elements and an improving mechanism that gives more variety to gameplay options. Draugen has nothing like that—one’s capabilities remain the same from beginning to end. It is far closer to the spectrum of “visual novel” than it is to what others would call “actual video games.” Some may have an issue with this, which is why I wanted to highlight this aspect upfront. It won’t be for everyone.
Of this quality, I had no qualms about the way it decided to incorporate its gameplay. Many of the issues I had with it are generally trivial, or on the level of minor annoyances that deterred me for a couple seconds. For example, the prompts to interact with objects come in the form of a small circle that place themselves on said object. One cannot get too close to these objects, or the prompt will go away, and one also has to have the circle in sight to access it. This happened to me more times than I’d like to admit, but as I said, it’s a trivial matter.
The aspects of gameplay that I did enjoy came with the implication that it added to the narrative intrigue. There’s a mirror placed in a room in the home Edward and Lissie stay in that one can look into at any time. From what I’ve found, nothing about it is important, and looking is not necessary to progress. Even so, I appreciated some attempt at giving Edward a face (as the first-person view never leaves throughout Draugen). I would’ve liked it more if his face changed when looking at himself (I checked frequently), but to no avail.
Additionally, there are sections in Graavik where Edward can sit down and draw the environment around him. What follows is a looping cutscene where Edward is taking in the atmosphere around him, while some bittersweet tune plays. It’s simple, but I really enjoy the natural bliss that comes with it. Like I were in Graavik myself, watching someone share my taste for the hues of trees and the convoluted sky. Apart from the mystery, these are the parts that gave Draugen a soul.
Graphics & Audio
Trailers for this game gave an impression of stylistic quality that I figured wouldn’t match in-game presentation. I more refer to the people in this case, as the shades and identity for Graavik are quite captivating. What players will be seeing most of, outside the sights of Graavik, is Lissie’s face and mannerisms. Lissie’s face, while not entirely grotesque, has a hint of uncanniness that doesn’t quite reflect her more extreme moods. She gets excited, furious, and tremendously worried throughout the course of the story. Her faces are evident of that, but the animation is limited to the shape of her eyebrows and the alignment of her lips. Seeing as her face is so prominent, this could lead to some mixed results for the more dramatic moments.
Otherwise, Draugen is a good-looking work. Graavik is a perception of nostalgia that I would never be able to see due to my age, brought to life in vivid colors. Its finer details, though unfortunately non-accessable, provide more for the story than it lets on. To some degree, it compares more favorably to the general format of visual novels by actually providing an outlet to wander. I may not have minded the lack of gameplay variety if I were given more freedom to explore outside the boundaries of the main storyline.
I am about to say something I have never said before: This game has very good voice acting. Astounding, I know. Draugen features a three-person vocal team for its entirety, though only two are prominent. The stars are Nicholas Boulton and Skye Bennett—familiar names for those who take note of video game voice actors. Both do a great job of bringing Edward and Lissie to life, although hampered somewhat by some uneven writing. Bennett particularly (who has the most work) doesn’t land all of her lines, but does more than enough to make up for them. Boulton is in a more comfortable, reserved spot that doesn’t (generally) call for extremes, making his work easier. Nevertheless, it’s a benefit to the story that not all games can achieve.
Draugen‘s musical score also manages to impress, even if minimally. From my own experience, I tend to remember the softer, quieter, peaceful tracks that play when all was still. When the situation proved dark or unnerving, I hardly recalled anything, though perhaps it was due to a lack of music (which is good in those cases). A nice emphasis on orchestral music gives the setting (1920’s) a more realistic charm. My mind always flashes back to the drawing sequences—I may have liked those a bit too much.