If there’s one thing everyone knows about Scandinavia, it’s that it’s the home of Ikea and Lego, but a close second would be the astonishingly rich wealth of folklore and legends – stories that have been the inspiration for titles from The Lost Vikings to the PS4 God of War. Most famous of these are the familiar exploits of Odin, Thor, and Loki, but there is more to Scandinavian folklore than those pesky gods. Röki focuses instead on a much smaller scale, almost domestic level of myth, and in doing so makes for an emotional and beautiful meditation on family and loyalty.
The backstory of Röki is a melancholic one. You play as Tove, a young girl who must look after her younger brother, Lars, as their dad has lapsed into depression after her mother died giving birth to Lars. This is a stark and emotive beginning, but one that is introduced with sensitivity and charm. Rather than focusing on this loss, the game introduces Tove’s responsibility through simple daily tasks, such as keeping the fire lit and cooking the family meal. We quickly empathise with Tove’s position as a girl forced into being mature before her time, an initial impression that carries through the entire game. This is in stark contrast to the classic Jim Henson movie, Labyrinth, a comparison text that often came to mind throughout Tove’s adventure. In that movie, the focus is on Sarah coming of age, whereas here Tove has already had to grow up due to family tragedy.
This is heavy material, so it is a testament to Röki’s success that it remains a gentle and charming experience. Tove is a brilliantly written character and demonstrates a great blend of sensible carer and naive child. Hell, even Lars isn’t annoying – a rare thing indeed in gaming where younger siblings are almost always insufferable. Their father is given space to grow through the narrative as well, with the result being that all three feel like real people who have suffered from terrible loss, but come out the other side stronger for their experience. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was genuinely moved by the game, whether through small asides or larger narrative developments.
Aesthetically, Röki has a simple beauty that is totally in keeping with its setting and tone. Developers Polygon Treehouse have acknowledged the influence of Moomin creator Tove Jansson (as evidenced by the main character’s name) and there are many similarities with the magical blend of darkness and innocence in Röki’s world. While not as detailed as some other games, the artstyle perfectly complements the narrative and conveys the child-like imaginations of the young protagonists. I was reminded of the brilliant cartoon Hilda, which similarly represents a young girl and her interactions with the myths and creatures of Scandinavia. The music is also beautifully judged and helps to set the mood of exploration and excitement whilst also feeling appropriate.
Röki is at heart a point and click adventure, a genre that is often synonymous with frustrating pixel hunting for objects and trial and error attempts to combine everything you might find along the way. Fortunately, Röki is a wonderfully streamlined example of the genre that makes great use of quality of life mechanics such as a button press to highlight interactive objects. There are also few examples of the more egregious moments of obscure logic. This does mean that Röki is relatively easy, and this is my main criticism of the game, but instead succeeds in combining narrative and gameplay into an interactive and emotional adventure. The central themes and narrative are handled so well that the absence of roadblocks to progress instead becomes a positive as you will want to follow Tove’s journey to the end.
The title of the game refers to a monstrous creature that demolishes Tove’s house and kidnaps Lars at the beginning of the game. Whilst the graphical style ensures that this doesn’t become too terrifying for younger players (the game in general would make a great family experience and help to facilitate some important discussions) the sense of loss and despair in Tove’s reaction is palpable. In setting out to find and rescue Lars despite her fear, she becomes a truly inspirational hero and one well in keeping with the mythological influences.
The themes of loss and family extend further to the overall narrative, as it is revealed that Tove and Lars have become caught up in an ancient battle between the four Guardians of the Forest. Represented as giant animals – wolf, bear, stag, and raven – these godlike figures are the ones Tove must persuade to help her in her quest. Having banished their raven sister for her relationship with a human, the Guardians must confront their own guilt and pride in order to bring about a reconciliation that will save Lars. All of this is conveyed without relying on lengthy exposition and the changing reaction of the Guardians in the face of Tove’s bravery and determination is excellently done. I look forward to replaying the game with my children, both of whom are self-confessed mythology nerds.