Deep in the Scandinavian woods, a girl follows a trail of footprints in the snow in search of Lars, her missing brother. But even as she wakes the guardians of the forest to aid her quest, there are nightmares in her own past that she must confront before she can face the monster who abducted Lars. In Röki, an adventure game developed by Polygon Treehouse and published by United Label Games, the stakes are high, the clock is ticking and creatures from fairytales haunt the shifting shadows.
But it isn’t the stressful or frustrating experience that I initially assumed it might be. As someone with disastrous coordination and poorer reflexes, I shy away from AAA titles or indie games with a real-time combat system. Unless there’s a casual or “god” mode (thank you Hades), boss fights make me intensely nervous, and because my lack of dexterity prevents me from progressing, I may even rage quit in the middle of Hollow Knight, although I’m hungry to discover more of the game’s tragic story and rich lore.
I avoid the shooters and hack-and-slash action games with enticing visuals and immersive storylines because despite carefully strategizing my moves and optimizing character builds, I end up dodging a second too late, and there are no options to skip a section where you’ve failed fifty times in a row. I even quit Genshin Impact because my archer couldn’t hit a formidable Ruin Guard on time.
I initially blamed my struggles on my lack of practice rather than a disability. I grew up in a middle-class South-Asian household where gaming tech was largely unaffordable and inaccessible, and it wasn’t until late in high school that I started to get into gaming. I discovered the joys of gaming with the help of an ancient laptop and an unpredictable mouse while uncovering the 2-hour mystery of the empty house in Gone Home. To catch up with my gamer friends, I cycled through a bunch of classics, only to die a million times and give up mid-way because I couldn’t hit the right button fast enough. After being mercilessly slaughtered in Tekken and constantly made fun of and ridiculed for not playing “well enough” by my more abled and experienced peers, I almost gave up.
So, I gravitated towards online collectible-card games, visual novels, management sims, and story-heavy games that relied on turn-based combat systems and solving puzzles. I tracked down rare indie titles and tediously cross-checked reviews to find games that would be accessible for me, that I wouldn’t have to abandon mid-way because of a difficult platforming section or a deadly boss-fight. But a frequent criticism of puzzle games, and one that I sort of agree with, is that they’re often slow-paced, and monotonously hunting for tiny clues can completely break the deeply immersive experience that video games are known for.
Instead of following the trail of a story through the eyes of a protagonist, the game becomes more mechanical with the occasional Google search to decipher a code or find the right combination of ingredients to unlock a door that you’ve long forgotten why you need to open in the first place.
But all the elements in the point-and-click puzzle adventure game Röki, richly inspired from Scandinavian folklore, neatly fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Relying on the internal logic of folktales, the gameplay mechanics and the captivating story seamlessly blend together. The end result is a cohesive, coherent, and deeply immersive adventure in the snowy wilderness, brimming with magic and mystery.
In Röki, running around from place to place using the interconnected roots of a tree, collecting items to placate a water-spirit or befriend a Troll, and memorizing inscriptions on dusty tombstones to unlock a secret chamber, all feel very natural and real, placing the player in the protagonist Tove’s shoes. She is a character that players can connect to, not only because her struggles and emotions feel familiar but also for how the game succeeds in dissolving the player/protagonist distinction altogether.
Röki isn’t doing something new altogether with the genre. Rather, it understands the nature of folktales and puzzles completely and does the adventure genre better than most earlier iterations. It closely mimics the structure of a traditional folktale where the protagonist solves a series of puzzles or conflicts to progress the story. In a fairytale, the hero or heroine must pass several tests to prove themselves worthy, rely on their wits, cunning, and problem-solving skills, or use certain artifacts and unexpected magical help to escape monsters or further their quest.
Moreover, a fairytale sets its own rules and laws, and must strictly abide by them. It has its own patterns and repetitive motifs -events may happen in sets of three or seven, certain numbers and time of day have greater power, even certain characters have their own peculiar function- and the tale must stay true to its own rigid internal logic for its moral lesson to be as effective. The curious oddities within a folktale, also emphasize their cultural value, preserving ancient traditions, superstitions, and histories.
As an example, Cinderella must assemble the set of non-magical items that her fairy godmother can now transform into a pumpkin-shaped carriage drawn by mice-turned-men. Even as the girl dances with Prince Charming, she must leave the ball when the clock strikes twelve, and the glass-slipper that she leaves behind is sized in such a manner that of all the people in the town, it fits only her and no one else.
Röki does something similarly folkloric, giving a new and refreshing spin on Scandinavian legends. It thus makes sense that in order to fix a broken set of machinery, Tove must first draw out the mischievous house spirits or the Tomte with a bowl of milk. Early on, she reads out an illustrated fairytale to her little brother, and the four creatures from the story are later revealed to the guardians of the enchanted forest. In Nordic myth, the Fossegrim is a water spirit that takes the form of a young man playing a fiddle by a waterfall, and he may share his musical knowledge if a human offers him a piece of meat. Thus, Tove too must trick and bewitch two trolls to bring him a flute and a bit of meat to learn how to bend and control water.
An innocuous parish register contains the name of a drowned girl that Tove quickly realizes is connected to the Nokken, a shape-shifting water creature known for drowning unsuspecting visitors. Even the Nattamaras who appear as visions during sleep-paralysis, take the form of “nightmare parasites” in the game where Tove traverses a surreal and hellish landscape to uncover the truth of her past, highlighting how fragmented memories are also pieces of a puzzle that once put together can reveal important truths about one’s true identity and history.
Röki turns the site of folklore into a puzzle waiting to be solved, with the help of cunning, quick-thinking, and the timely aid from magical strangers, rather than brawn, dexterity, or brute strength. The cut-scenes of an imprisoned Lars give Tove’s quest a sense of immediacy and urgency, acting as an imaginary ticking counter. Moreover, the game is divided into smaller, standalone units that Tove must solve in the manner of mini-quests to reveal a greater treasure. A mouse-click highlights all the interactive objects in an area, which is useful for spotting some of the easy-to-miss clues. The final segment where the player controls both Tove and her father to breach the castle walls and rescue Lars is another moving experience, enshrining the folkloric values of companionship and collaboration to achieve an end goal. At every step, the puzzles in Röki instead of breaking the immersion only serve to reinforce it, investing the player in a story about adventure and family that feels fantastical and personal at the same time.
For me, playing Röki was a beautiful, immersive and magical experience as for once, I could defeat monsters without relying on my poor motor skills, and hunting for clues felt organic as though I were transported to the eerie landscape myself. My heart skipped beats, panicked, raged, rejoiced, and even wept as I delved deeper into Tove’s tale and the tragic story of the wilderness itself. Even at its few tedious moments (such as the exasperating sundial puzzle) when the game felt unsolvable, I felt Tove’s grim determination and optimism that no matter how difficult things got, I would somehow succeed rather than hitting a brick wall and being forced to give up. It also rekindled my love for folklore and fairytales.
Although Scandinavian players or those familiar with Nordic myths might slyly chuckle at the way the ancient tales have been adapted, the universality of certain folkloric tropes and traditions is such that Röki’s internal logic is a language that is easily graspable and translated across cultures, even to a girl in India who hasn’t been able to play that many games yet.
With breath-taking art, easy gameplay mechanics, atmospheric voice-overs and subtitles, and an engrossing storyline, Röki is a relatively accessible adventure game that promises both casual and seasoned players an unforgettably immersive experience.