In recent years, it has become increasingly common to see “indie” games released on Steam for anywhere from a few cents to a couple of dollars. These games are typically slapped together from free assets over a week or two (if that) in the hopes that some gullible newcomers will see the price tag and jump without thinking. Few, if any, of these games, ever escape the slums of Steam (unless they’re particularly hysterical), and I can think of precisely none that have secured release on an actual console.
NORTH – developed by Outlands Games, originally released on itch.io in February of 2016, and subsequently on Steam in April of that same year – was released on PS4, Xbox One and Switch today, and it has forced me to reconsider my snap judgments of the lower strata of Steam titles, at least in some ways.
The game casts players in the role of a refugee who has fled the South and is now trying to gain asylum in a surreal, neo-noir city populated by unsettling but benevolent goo monsters. In order to be admitted, you will have to go to work in the mines, adopt the religion of the North, undergo medical examinations, and prove that you are not a terrorist.
One of the most interesting aspects of NORTH is the way in which it reveals information to the player. There is no start menu, pause screen, or direct tutorials. Instead, you will need to explore the slums, and upon interacting with almost anything, send a letter to your sister who is still trapped in the South. These letters not only explain the tasks that you will need to do to gain asylum, but they provide the foundation for the biting social commentary at the heart of the experience.
While the tutorial aspect of the letters was useful when I needed a helping hand figuring out one particular puzzle, more often than not it felt strangely blunt in a world with so much ambiguity built into every aspect. The skyline is blurred and foggy, the shapes of your fellow refugees are uneven and not always humanoid, and the language they speak is hardly human. Even the climax of the story is far from conclusive, and yet each task is explained by the player character to the real-world player with an impossible level of understanding and a tonally inconsistent sense of literality.
Where NORTH comes closest to excellence is in the way that the story, setting, and the thoughts of the protagonist come together to create a wholly outlandish yet entirely believable reflection of our own world. Even though the message suffers a bit for the bluntness of its delivery, the perspective of a refugee being made to lose so much of himself in order to be safe is a powerful one, and something that I hope to see explored in more games in the years to come.
The emotional weight of the game is undermined, though, by the myriad ways that it can be compared to the scam games on Steam. Character models are poor, textures are muddy, and the controls feel like a default Unity First Person Character-Controller in the way that your camera continues to rotate a few degrees past the point where you released the joystick.
The latter proved to be the most irritating, as it actively inhibited my ability to interact with the world without having to make tiny corrections to the camera’s position. While none of these things are exclusive to games created with the intention to make a quick buck, everything about NORTH, save for its narrative, feels like something made for a 48-hour game jam then refined a little for release. What it does not feel like is a game that has already been on the market for over a year, giving the developers ample time to tidy everything up.
The only other issue worth mentioning is the game’s length when compared to its ever-increasing price point. To beat NORTH takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, with my playtime clocking in at about 45-minutes. This seemed fine when the game launched on itch.io for free, with 50% of any donations made being split evenly between “Refugees on Rails” and “Refugee Open Ware.” It was slightly less fine when for its Steam release, the price was increased to $1.99, with no indication of any proceeds being donated to anybody. It became dramatically less fine when the console release jumped to $2.99 with no apparent improvements to the game, and still no indications of proceeds being given to charity. While I’m glad to have experienced the story, $3.00 for 45-minutes of janky gameplay feels like a bit of a stretch.
NORTH is not quite like any game I’ve ever played. It feels like hybrid of the sloppy, possibly exploitative games that make up the seedy underbelly of the Steam market and a surprisingly thoughtful, well-intentioned indie game with a great deal to say about the real world. If these developers are simply inexperienced, then I’d urge them to keep at it, because there is something special here even if it does look shoddy and play poorly. If not, then at the very least I’ve learned not to judge a game by its cover. Who knows? It may just have as much heart as this bizarre, compelling experience.