Gaming Frequencies: NORTH

Mar 19, 2018 By Austin Trunick
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One thing is certain: you don’t fit in. The people here, they look different than you. They speak a different language. They worship a different god. You’re stared at with suspicious eyes, asked to take on the labor that none of them are willing do themselves, and expected to conform to their society at the cost of your own heritage. This is your new home. It’s not paradise, but it’s far better than the place you left behind.

The premise of NORTH is a tale of one immigrant’s journey, not from the East to the West, but from a fictionalized Hellscape referred to only as “the South,” across a burning desert, and to a new, dystopian home called “the North.” This new land is a scary place, for all of the reasons described above, populated by inhuman beings and portrayed with stylishly minimalist visuals and sound. The story is told without dialogue, via letters written to your sister back home. Something like an interactive novella, NORTH is not a long game at all; a savvy puzzle-solver should be able to get through it in little more than an hour. Available across most platforms for $4.99 or less, and is a unique interactive experience worth seeking out.

We spoke with Gabriel Helfenstein of Berlin-based developer Outlands Games about creating the grim, nightmarish parable that is NORTH.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: NORTH is a vision of an immigrant experience as seen through a dark, sci-fi lens. What was your inspiration to tell this story? 

Gabriel Helfenstein, Outlands Games: Before working on NORTH we took part in a documentary project dealing with European migration policies. Through this project, we had the opportunity to meet a lot of different people affected or somewhat related to the contemporary immigration debate (refugees, of course, but also politicians, scientists, inhabitants of border towns or places like Lampedusa and so forth). Sadly, this documentary was never released, mainly due to a lack of funding.

So on the one hand, we had all this information and knowledge about the subject that we wanted to share and use in a game, and on the other hand, there was a certain personal frustration - the need for closure. Add to that, the fact that when we started to work on NORTH, the refugee “crisis” in Europe intensified and it became even more urgent for us to make a game about it.

The choice of a dark almost abstract sci-fi world was mainly made to allow us some distance to the subject - and also because we simply like working with this aesthetic.

While it's set in a very abstract, alien world, NORTH does make ample use of what look like 19th-Century illustrations and early 20th-Century photos. Can you describe any guidelines you worked with when designing the visual aesthetic of the game?

One important point is that we didn't want NORTH to be what is often called an empathy game - by which I mean a game that is supposed to put you in the shoes of another person (in this case to make you feel like you understand "what it is to be a refugee").You cannot approximate the experience of a human being in a 30-40 minute video game, especially if this experience is not one you share yourself.

The abstraction of the environment, this combination of sci-fi visuals, mid-20th century videos and 19th century illustrations helps us to produce a certain confusion and to create a world that resembles spaces the player might have encountered before, while at the same time providing something new and disorienting which doesn't look like places or scenes the player would normally associate with "real-life" refugees. This allows us to address the questions posed by contemporary migration control in a more universal way, not bound to what is happening in the news. The game is not about an actual Syrian refugee but about emotions like confusion, boredom and disorientation in the face of the unknown – feelings refugees know for sure, but that don't constitute the totality of their experience and are universal enough so that anyone can relate too them. Basically, through the visual design we try to bring the players closer to refugees without giving them a reason to assume that they now understand the whole "refugee experience".

By not including any save function at all, the game asks players to experience its entire story in one sitting, which lends NORTH an extra sense of urgency. Can you tell me about what led you to that decision? 

I think that taking away the comfort of saving creates an urgency that resonates somewhat with the immediacy of a real life experience or threat. Generally in games, even when you can die violent deaths, you never really feel in danger because you know you can just reload your progress or take a break and try again later. Forcing the player to play from beginning to end takes away this convenience.

I also enjoy playing short games in one sitting, I think it can be a far deeper and more intense experience than playing a 10-15 hour game over several days. It's also the reason why I like short books that you can read in 1 or 2 hours: I think there is something really special in this kind of almost hallucinatory experience where you spend a short time completely immersed in a fictional world and then leave it forever.

The story begins with the surreal image of a Hellish landscape, along with a score that reminded me of Angelo Badalamenti's more ambient compositions for David Lynch. While the game's music is sparse, it's effective. What were your influences on NORTH's sound design?

Our influences for the soundtrack were Popol Vuh, Disasterpiece, Lasos, Cliff Martinez, Suzanne Ciani and Klaus Schulze.

The soundtrack is available for sale, with half of the proceeds going to two very worthy charities that help provide technology to refugees across Europe. Please tell us why this was such an important cause to you. 

I think that a more techno-friendly approach to the integration of refugees could be helpful. Very often, asylum seekers in Europe are taught manual skills in order to help them find a job. Of course this is good if it gets them work, but it too often confines them to low income jobs and excludes them from the possibilities of entrepreneurship. Integrating asylum seekers (who very often already are highly skilled and have a bunch of diploma European countries refuse to accept) through tech jobs could be a good way to give them equal chances to be European citizens.



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