Dead In Vinland is difficult to describe. It’s a game about managing a family, and eventually a small band, of refugees displaced by vikings, storms, shipwrecks and other nightmares of the pseudo-medieval era. It’s a game about managing resources like water, food, lumber, and ore to keep your small colony operational. There are jobs, skills and emotional levels of colonists who have to be managed. And, on top of that, it’s a game that tells a story about a group of people brought together by tragedy and violence. Somehow it all coheres into something wonderful. Dead In Vinland is one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played.
In strategy games, there’s this idea of “one more turn.” The basic concept is that a game of that kind can get its hooks into you. You take a turn, and at the end of that turn you yearn to do just one more. And at the end of that turn you take just one more. And then you’re awake at 3 a.m. wondering what happened to your life. For me, Dead In Vinland hits that exact same rhythm as those strategy games, and the reason is simple. It is a game that demands you manage it, intimately, day-to-day. It is a game of small-group micromanagement. It’s a fiddly object.
The rhythm goes like this: The player controls a family who was hounded off their homestead by raiders. Escaping via boat, horrible storms washed them up on a strange island. Now they live in a small homestead, and the world moves on in days and nights. A day is split up into two phases, and your family can do different jobs in each of those phases. In the morning, you might fish, scavenge, and explore the island. In the afternoon, you might cook meals, work on building new facilities, and chop wood.
All of that is in preparation for the night. This is when your family eats the food you’ve made, drinks the potable water you’ve boiled up, and talks about the major events of the day. Sometimes those events include talking about the new people you’ve recruited to your village. Sometimes they have to do with the tithes that you’ve had to pay to Bjorn, the warlord who controls much of the island. In many other instances, it is merely the continuation of narrative threads about the family, their history, and the strange moments that happen on the islands.
During these days and nights, you have to manage the physical and emotional states of those village members. These states are measured with numbers, and they’re named things like “illness” and “depression,” and if any of those values crack 100 for a core character, your game is over. In many ways, this tight focus on individuals and their numbers feels a lot like Darkest Dungeon, a game that always keeps the player on the tightrope of feeling like they’re succeeding and knowing that they’re a mere moment from failing. Each night is an opportunity to double down on your failure or to pull yourself up from the abyss, and those moments are often determined by slim margins. Were you able to harvest enough water today for everyone to drink? Did you gather enough berries so everyone can eat?
On top of this, there’s an entire exploration mode of the game. After all, you need to know what’s up with this island, and it’s a big procedurally generated space with dozens (or maybe even hundreds) of different events to be found. This macro system overlaps perfectly with the other village and personal management modes I’ve described so far.
An illustration: One of my villagers was dying. She had been wounded in a battle, and a “Bad Wound” trait was ticking her injury stat up every night. It was my first game, and I didn’t know that I needed to build a village facility that could heal her. I was searching my inventory desperately, looking for anything that could take her injury stat down, and I came up with nothing. I was resigned to losing the game, and in a last-ditch effort I put my youngest village member out into the island’s interior. It was there that I found a box washed up on the beach. In that box, shockingly, were some bandages. I used them on the village member, brought her back from the brink of death, and kept playing. I pumped my fist in the air. It was a good feeling.
I’ve avoided talking about the combat of the game so far because it is, to my mind, the game’s only real failing. While 90% of the game is a spreadsheet management game with a strong narrative layer that binds it all together and gives it context, the combat is a samey slog that takes place on a simplistic tactical board. The movesets of the various characters don’t feel distinct, and I often thought that I was getting completely wrecked (or that I was winning) for very little reason. It’s bad, and it hurts the entire game.
Dead In Vinland scratches the same itch as Darkest Dungeon’s less combat-focused parts and King of Dragon Pass’s more personal moments. It’s unique in the world of games, and it shows what the medium can do when it’s committed to a distinct vision of what numbers-and-narrative can do when they’re understood as intertwined and integral to one another.
Dead in Vinland was developed by CCCP and published by Playdius Entertainment. It is available for PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.