My favourite games take place in worlds that wrap around like a blanket. That can sometimes mean I’m able to literally take it with me, glowing screen in fiddling hands, under the covers, or it’s a game that feather-drops me deeper and deeper into a seemingly endless tomb. The tombs, the caverns, the sombre light-pierced claustrophobic spaces that are too intimidating to spelunk in the real world but majestically encompassing enough for me to explore within 2D gems: I love those worlds. And Fjords, a game set in just such a world, a sumptuously glitched cave, forces me to destroy it.
You begin in your home, to a spurring phone and an ambiguous computer. The phone gives you a direct goal, slapstick and pizza-oriented. Don’t be fooled, though; the game’s lesson is more damning. The game is, after all, yours now, yours to master, manipulate and control. You will learn that that is a frightening thought.
But for the first few minutes of Fjords, things are direct. Water will kill you, shattering you into a Mega Man death bubble of scrap code, but using a funny-sounding grapple and a funny-sounding boat you can whip by the first few screens with little issue. As an Earthbound-ian hymn increases in power, so too are you suddenly confronted by a problem. There are waterfalls blocking every navigable path. You are bottlenecked to a computer terminal, just like the one you dismissed at home, but after a little tinkering, a little typing, you discover you can, in fact, turn off the waterfalls.
So that’s when you get wondering.
What else can be deactivated? What else can be deviated? What else can you turn on? Ghosts. Bombs. Magic. Warp. The treasure chest bursts open in Fjords, and there’s almost too much potential to process. The paths given are no longer the ones you have to take. The cheats are built in. The environment, built out of rough textures and code, can be reprogrammed. You can break the game. So what’s the catch?
Well, none of these newfound god powers are perfect; some are unwieldy, others with monkey’s paw catches. Magic swaps out the grapple, letting you create blocks underneath you to go higher, but you can’t control when they stop, and in tighter corridors you can end up trapping yourself, if not suffering a flat-pressed panini death.
Warp is even scarier, creating a temporal rift to a world of texture quilts and glitches, hot flashes of an NES cart that isn’t cooperating. You can float within the open bubble of this world, and pop back into the regular reality, though you’ll often find yourself unceremoniously falling into a river or trapped inside of the wall. More unsettling still: warping seems to leave a scar on the land, a trail of stray code and error floating in the darkness.
There seem to be allies—ghosts and boats dedicated for getting from point A to B—but your own human error is costly. The gentle slide into darkness in Cave Story or Knytt is a plummet here. When those games got dark, there was a pixel-recourse, a light. Here, things start majestic, but then, after shifting through walls and foul zones, you end up in the basin of a blackened world, a shrieking hell of white text and doomed trapped players, screaming for the re-start button. (It’s K).
At one point, far, far off course, I gulped as I reactivate my magic powers, knowing that I couldn’t be haphazard with them, that they could turn on me and do more damage. At certain points, the waterfalls, your first adversary, which you thought you could safely leave off, have to be turned back on to pass by other obstacles: an unannounced admission of defeat in order to claim another victory.
Fjords, then, is an experiment in self control. A game where your abilities are like dangerous temptations, vices that can hurt in spite of the fact that you need them. It’s an omen about superpowers most games omit to instead celebrate your ego trip. Getting pizza has never felt this complicated.