– By David Sawczyn –
Since their inception, video games in general have had a hard time being accepted as a legitimate art form. Considered only toys and playthings, the emotions they were designed to invoke in their players were sensations of power, pleasure, and escapism. However, with the rise of independent game companies in these recent years, games have been able to show that they can be just as culturally relevant and just as powerful as any other form of art. They can move us, inspire us, fill us with terror, give us a laugh, or even give us an example of how we can live our own lives. In our brightest times, they can give us comfort and joy. In our darkest times, they can speak to our hearts and show us what we need to move forward. As in any media, the best stories are those which show us ourselves.
Developed by Thunder Lotus Games, Jotun (2015) is a compelling story about loss and redemption. Jotun uses the Norse mythology as a way of exploring the dimensions of life beyond death, without mentioning any mainstream religion. However, the game has Christian themes with the overarching goal of redemption and acceptance into heaven. Our protagonist, Thora, is a young viking woman who died a less than honorable death. Being lost at sea instead of falling in battle, Thora is unable to enter Valhalla. Even though she lived an honorable life, the circumstances of her death doom her soul to wander the Void, Ginnungagap. Immediately, the story begins with many things out of the protagonist’s, and the player’s, control. Most games use death as a punishment for the player, signifying the end of the game. Jotun, however, uses it to kickstart the story, and perhaps a thought, even a small one, about what happens after death.
The gameplay in Jotun is very simple. Player actions are limited to just movement, a light attack, a heavy attack, a dash, and a special power-up. Made in the old 2D adventure game style, it struggles when it comes to depicting the more three-dimensional levels, especially those with overlapping areas of different heights. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a traversable surface and a barrier. It addresses this problem somewhat by building the levels with multiple tiers in an isometric view.
Jotun’s strengths lie more in its art style, music, and sense of scale. Inspired by the animation of Disney and Studio Ghibli, and by the art of similar 2D adventure games, Jotun uses what is called a “hand-drawn” art style. It is a combination of both traditional animation, and digital animation techniques. It gives the game a simplified, realistic look, while still allowing for the flexibility of a cartoon. This technique lets the game stay rooted in realism, but, at the same time, appear as a storybook come to life. Jotun emphasizes its roots in storytelling, and the art follows suit. The music and voice acting also contribute to the immersive nature of the story. All the voice-over dialogue is in Icelandic, making the player feel as if they are listening to an authentic Viking tale. As subtitles are required for most players, the dialogue is kept succinct, and out of combat as much as possible.
One of Jotun’s biggest strengths is also its greatest weakness. In order to create the sense of scale, and the sheer immensity of the title creatures, the camera zooms out very far, throughout various points in the game. Battling a giant automatically makes a fight more intense, and Jotun takes this size difference even further. Standing next to a Jotun, Thora is but a speck, a tiny pixel. This game goes out of its way to make the player feel small. There are very few enemies for the player to battle as they are exploring the worlds, but all of them are bigger than Thora. The struggle and the triumph against a mightier foe makes victory all the sweeter. Jotun emphasizes this through its epic music, scrolling vistas, and giant boss battles.
However, while fighting giants is fun for the player, they are few and far between. Jotun, like many games, must maintain a delicate balance between exploration and action. The player wants to see all the game world has to offer, but they do not want to wander aimlessly in empty spaces. The camera makes exploring the more maze-like areas a bit difficult when it zooms out to show the area to the player, but then zooms so far in that the player can only see their character, not the area.
Another needlessly difficult factor is the map. When the player pauses the game, it shows a stylized map of the area where the player is, but not where on the map the player is. The decision of how easy an in-game map is to read, versus the realism of how easy a map is to read, ultimately comes down to what the overall feel of the game is trying to evoke. Not including a player marker on a map is understandable from a design perspective, but the map should, therefore, be more detailed so that the player is less likely to get lost. There are many games out there vying for attention, and boredom through a lack of activities is the main reason why players will abandon a game for a more exciting and fulfilling one. There are few things in a game more frustrating than being unable to find the main route towards progression without any side activities to occupy the time until the player finds the goal.
In Jotun, Thora’s goal is to defeat the Jotun and prove herself worthy to enter Valhalla, and so the Jotun bosses are the main focus of the game. In between bosses, there must be levels to explore, puzzles to solve, and items to collect. There are these things in Jotun, as there are in most games, but they are rather sparse. The biggest danger in between bosses are the environmental hazards that are easily avoidable. As the story of a journey this works fine, but many gamers have come to expect more content than what many indie developers can deliver on. Jotun walks the line between moments of great calm and moments of great intensity.
Jotun is a gem of a game for those who want a short, story-focused game with difficult and intense boss fights. It awes with its spectacular visuals and thought-provoking story. Thora died a life unfulfilled, with wants and regrets, but through her determination, proved herself worthy. This game shows the player that, while death is inevitable, it is not to be feared. Rather than distracting the player away from reality, Jotun gives the player a view into one person’s struggle with reality. This is not to say that any game that has death as a major story element is automatically deep and thought provoking, but Jotun shows that death is not an end. Using Thora’s story as a catalyst, it seeks to inspire the player to be more introspective, to think about their struggles with life, and of what the future holds for the player’s own afterlife and redemption, a hard turn away from the “superman power-trip” most games use.
David Sawczyn is a Game Development student at JPCatholic, who loves games and how they connect with us by shedding light on our own lives and choices. In between grinding levels, he enjoys observing life, and is still figuring out the story of his own journey.