Fjords is a videogame junkyard. It’s where old pixels and stray lines of code, glitches and all, enter a new, broken afterlife. Maybe you played these husks in their former lives, when they made up platformers or Metroid-style games. They were easier to understand and unpack then: Walk and jump through a series of interconnected levels and, through thorough exploration, gain new abilities that allow more of the world to be seen/explored/conquered. In those games you are a conquistador; in Fjords you’re a clueless tourist.
Fjords revels in brokenness. This, by itself, isn’t exception. Glitches have now become an aesthetic. One of the bigger games of the year, Saints RowIV4, uses glitches, in the form of grotesque character models, in a self-aware, winking way. The upcoming indie title Axiom Verge plans to emulate retro glitches, incorporating slow down and flickering as power-ups to weaponize the nostalgia. Kyle Reimergartin, the designer of Fjords, goes one step further. In Fjords brokenness is not just part of the glitch chic trend. Everything feels, deliberately, half-formed. You play as a pizza delivery person trying to deliver to scientists. Maybe. Once in the world there’s no guidance. The graphics are sparse, a no-bit look. The terrain is blocky and uneven, which wouldn’t be a problem except that Reimergartin deprives the player of a jump button. The music sounds like a haunting series of drones, except in a few maps with a series of chirps. The geography of the universe sometimes fails to follow its own rules. There are mountains that segue into weird steel towers. Fjords is even designed to be broken and subverted, by carving out new paths that don’t seem intentional, but always seem to lead to something new. It’s possible to fall through a crack in the world and dive into the ASCII fires down below.
Even the hero’s journey template is torn up at the start. There’s no slow march of progress. Instead of gaining powers that open up new parts of the world, there are computer terminals scattered about. They can be used to alter the parameters of the game, which is necessary for exploring. Waterfall in the way? >SET WATERFALLS F. Want to know what else you can change? >HELP. You can turn on ghosts that let you take over their body and float through the scenery. Everything is available right away. Or turn on bombs that are left behind whenever you grapple or magically levitate away. But you can also teleport into a wall with the too-good-to-be-true warp ability. Or trap yourself with magic. A quick tap of the K button will reset you back at the last spawn point. You will use it a lot when you play Fjords.
Fjords is the first game that I played in 2014, which feels right because it seems like a step in a different direction. Fjords is part of the SHARECART 1000, a group of games that use the same save file. Play one game and it affects the variables in the save file, which leads to changes in another game later when you load it up. Play another game in the compilation, like Michael Brough’s Post-Future Vagabond or Damien Sommer’s YouAreABountyHunter, and when you return to Fjords doorways appear in the rubble of blown up blocks and the map is strewn with escalators to nowhere. It comes across as a bit gimmicky in some of the games in the collection, but in Fjords it feels like a way to engage with the idea of games as variables and lines of codes.
The last few years have been packed with mainstream games about games. There are games examining the developer’s relationship with the player (Bioshock, The Stanley Parable), or the player’s relationship with videogame violence and power fantasies (with mild success in Spec Ops: The Line and to dreadful effect in Far Cry 3). Fjords is one of the few games about the relationship between the designer and the game itself. There are games that allow the player to shape and design their own levels, but few that call attention to the code that underlines everything the player is doing. Fjords is its own remix, and by allowing the player to, partially, co-design and shape the world, or subvert Reimergartin’s design, draws attention to how games are made, even if in the most abstract of ways. Reimergartin made Fjords a sometimes frustrating, sometimes hauntingly sparse place. He made a broken world, and teases that it can be fixed or understood by the player.
Filipe Salgado works at a bank, but he’s not all bad. Sometime he writes for Kill Screen or writes stories about the deserts of the American Southwest on his blog Big Talk, Real Slow. You can also follow him on Twitter @philthe25th.