Arts video game review

Here Be Draugens

The artfully constructed world of ‘Draugen’ belies a narrative that might be better suited for the silver screen

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Players get to experience beautiful landscapes in Red Thread Games' 'Draugen.'
Courtesy of Red Thread Games

Developed and published by Red Thread Games
Available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One

After several weeks of startup bugs, we’ve finally managed to dive into the Fjord Noir, Draugen. The player plays as Edward Charles Harden (Nicholas Boulton), who embarks on a journey to the Norwegian town of Graavik in search of his missing sister, Betty. He soon finds that there is more to Graavik than meets the eye, unravelling secrets about its ill-fated people and himself. 

Accompanying Harden is Lissie (Skye Bennett), a chipper young woman who serves as a foil to Harden’s dour demeanor. She is one of the highlights of the game — we quite enjoyed her wit and her challenges to Harden’s one-track insistence on finding Betty. Stellar voice acting on the part of Boulton and Bennett brought the conversations between Harden and Lissie to life. 

Draugen is an aesthetically impressive game — the setting is gorgeously rendered (although lower graphics settings are crippling), the voice actors are amazing, and motion-capture animated characters are very human (in the right ways). Graavik has many vistas for the player to appreciate the scenery, opportunities that Harden uses for sketching in his notepad. The environment also tends to fit the mood of the narrative — deepening suspense, sharpening paranoia, and strategically clouding Harden’s vision.

Despite its outward beauty, the game’s interface is not always clear, nor intuitive, amounting to largely opaque dialogue options. While it was interesting to see how Harden’s thoughts inform the dialogue options (further content appeared when each option was hovered over with a mouse), it remained unclear what the implications of selecting any particular option would be. It felt like the player should have been able to impact how Harden would react to new situations by framing his thought processes and subsequent utterances with their choices. Selecting different dialogue options, however, did not have a material effect that we could find within the game. 

The game utilizes its surroundings and narrative to give the player a look into Harden’s mind as he grapples with the secrets of the town and his own psyche. While this is very compelling on a surface level, the revelations that Harden has about himself and the way they are presented feel somewhat simple upon a second playthrough. A person on a journey confronting the demons of their past is definitely a common trope, and while Draugen provides a unique setting for such a scenario, the framing of the narrative leaves something to be desired. We felt as if we were being led by the hand for the majority of the game, rather than discovering the narrative or putting the pieces of the town’s puzzle together for ourselves. 

While unreliable narrators are common in psychological horror-esque narratives, Harden’s struggles feel too familiar. The internalization of false truths as a coping mechanism is a trope the story relies heavily on and feels stale in the face of myriad games and narratives that utilize the same Freudian concepts to illustrate a character’s deteriorating psychological state.

Ultimately, for its length and style, this is a game that we’d rather see as a film. There is virtually no replay value, the narrative fits comfortably in the 3–5 hour range, and the only real gameplay is in the dialogue, which is fine for a film-esque experience, but lackluster in a video game. We are heartened to see that a sequel is in the works, and hope that the sequel adds more dimension to Harden’s character beyond someone who experienced tragedy and suffered a psychotic break because of it.