Please be aware that spoilers abound in this post.
Grief has got to be one of the most universal human experiences – something that will affect us all at some point in our lives – but also the most personal. It famously affects us all in a multitude of ways, differing not only from person to person, but also changes depending on where we’re at in our own lives. It’s a topic that is notoriously difficult to talk about, as others’ experiences can feel totally inaccessible to us – we find ourselves, mostly involuntarily, judging others’ grieving processes – how would that help? Is that really healthy? It’s then quite astounding to see a game come along that manages to deal with the topic of grief and how it affects us in an open and mature way.
After Nintendo’s recent Indie World direct, they announced a sale on indie games on their store. One little gem that I found was an adventure game called Röki. Looking at the screenshots on the game’s page was enough to entice me into buying it – the cute, expressive faces of the characters, the gorgeous cartoon stylings of the world and a focus on Norse mythology (something I’ve been getting interested in recently, although I’m really just scratching the surface) made it look like an experience right up my alley. As expected, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, and, although I hadn’t expected it, I couldn’t help but be wowed by how Röki was able to approach heavy topics with such a delicate touch.
The game starts by introducing us to siblings Tove and Lars, two children growing up in the middle of the mountains in Norway. You quickly learn that they have a bit of a tragic past as you arrive back at their house – their mum has previously passed away and they now live with their dad who seems to spend the majority of his time asleep in a drunken stupor. Tove, still a young child herself, has become the de facto caretaker for her brother, who is energetic and prone to flights of fancy involving trolls and imaginary creatures. By interacting with the objects in the backyard, we learn that Tove feels more than a little bit of resentment towards her father for how he’s behaved after her mum’s passing – she comments that she can’t believe he threw their mother’s belongings away, for instance. The story then takes a fantastical turn when, in the middle of the night, a strange creature attacks the family home, burying their father in the wreckage and forcing Tove and Lars to flee. After heading into the forest on their way to town in search of help, Lars disappears and Tove sets out on a journey to find him, which will eventually lead her into a world of gods and myth.
The game’s main motivation is reuniting with Lars, but its core theme is, as I previously mentioned, an examination of grief from a variety of different viewpoints. As the game’s main protagonist, we spend the majority of our time with Tove, and as the story progresses, we dig ever deeper into her complex feelings regarding her mum’s passing, her relationship with her father, and the responsibility she feels to care for her brother. Delving deeper and deeper into the mythological forest, Tove begins to encounter situations that don’t quite mesh with her memories of what happened to her mum and the events that unfolded in the aftermath of her death. She begins questioning her own thoughts and viewpoints, eventually realising that the grief of her mum’s death had caused her to bottle up and block out the memories of the time surrounding it. During one dive into her past, she discovers that it wasn’t her father that had thrown away her mum’s belongings, but was, in fact, Tove herself. In an attempt to protect her from the truth and her own suppressed memories, Tove’s father had allowed her to blame him for what had happened. It’s after this revelation that Tove begins to reassess her relationship with her father and her feelings towards her mum’s death.
At the end of the game, the villain who kidnapped Lars awakens Tove’s memories of the night her mother died, forcing her to relive the incident. We discover that Tove has been holding herself accountable for what happened – after what appears to have been a car crash, Tove’s father asks her to find a phone to call for help. The young Tove, however, was never able to find the phone box, and ended up having to return to her parents. This guilt had been eating away at Tove ever since, causing her to act out in the immediate aftermath and to eventually suppress her memories of the incident. Tove can only begin to get out of her own rut when she accepts that, as a child, it was not her fault that her mother died. It was not her fault that, try as she might, she was unable to find the phone on that fateful night. It’s only when she starts to allow herself to let go of those unbearable feelings of guilt that she is able to start moving on with her life and to get out of her rut. Feelings of guilt are almost synonymous with grief for many people – we often find ourselves thinking we could’ve done more, we should’ve said something different, somehow could’ve changed the outcome. In media, this type of grieving is, I believe, most commonly seen in adult male characters, so it’s a refreshing take to see it through the eyes of a child.
Another interesting character was that of the father. While the game shows that he hasn’t exactly been the greatest father in the wake of his wife’s passing, it doesn’t necessarily condemn him for his struggles. It’d be easy to simply portray him as the draining alcoholic father who cannot care for his kids, but the developers at Polygon Treehouse took a more delicate approach – showing that he hasn’t always been as self-absorbed as he appeared to have become, and even giving him a chance to work towards making amends during the third act. In media, we often see men’s grief as this destructive force from which they cannot escape – it causes them to begin to spiral, and once they’re there, it’s almost impossible for them to break out of that situation. It’s a nice change then, to see somebody who, while their grief has led them down a dark path, is able to open their eyes to their situation and take the necessary steps to break out of that loop. He eventually manages to reunite with Tove as she closes in on Lars, although they are separated by some kind of spirit world. Even though they cannot see each other, they are able to feel each other’s presence. The two begin to reconcile as they spend time together and help each other explore the castle where Lars is being held captive. When they eventually have to separate again at the end, we get a lovely little message from father to daughter, as he repents for how he has behaved, and apologises for pushing so much responsibility onto Tove, who is, at the end of the day, just a child. Through the father, Polygon Treehouse show us that, while grief may change us, it is possible to find a light at the end of the tunnel.
The world of Röki abounds with characters who carry their feelings of loss with them, from the aforementioned two main characters to the various side-characters that Tove meets along her journey – conscious trees that have lost their connections to each other, a toad mother whose children have been separated from her, a water monster that has lost the humanity that she once had. This is a world that reflects the emotional turmoil of the main characters superbly. It’s not just the heroes that carry the burden of grief with them, but the villain too. One of four giants who protected the forest, she fell in love with a human man and had a baby with him which turned out to be a monster. After seeking help from her fellow giants, they banished her and her baby to another realm. Cut off from her world and wanting freedom for her child, she resorts to kidnapping human children in an attempt to give her own son a human form. She believed that by doing so, she’d be able to free him from being judged by her siblings and the human world. It was the grief caused by her family’s actions that pushed her to commit such atrocities, making her an interesting foil for our own protagonists’ feelings.
I’m hoping that you’ve played Röki for yourself already if you’ve read this far, but if you haven’t yet sat down with it, I highly recommend you do so. Even if you already know what happens in the story, the atmosphere, the art, the puzzles are all worth experiencing for yourself, and my insights into the developers’ portrayal of grief don’t hold a candle to how beautifully they managed to paint a picture of their characters’ inner turmoil.