“I quit,” I shouted at Stu, Unwinnable’s head beard-pixie, as I flounced out of his office. “And I’ve got dirt on you guys that’ll put you in videogame jail for years. Just you try and stop me.”
About a 5 minutes later, an email bounced into my inbox from Brain&Brain, the developers of a new game called Burly Men at Sea. All it said was this:
“Click here for charming folklore
a feeling of wonder
and hairy fishermen.”*
I booted up the game and sent an email of my own: “Hey Stu, remember that super-fun joke we just did together about me quitting…? Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Man, I hope you laughed as hard as I did about that videogame jail thing. Love you.”
(It wasn’t that much of a threat anyway. Everyone knows the locks on videogame jail cells are made from broken matchsticks and hair ties, and your belongings are in an unlocked chest beside the exit).
Burly Men at Sea is the kind of game that’s worth crawling back to an ex-boss to write about. It’s an utterly unique wander through an eccentric and very Scandinavian folklore landscape in the company of the Brothers Beard, three bewhiskered fishermen. Everything about the game is as charming and enchanting as that imaginary email didn’t actually say,** from the underwater beasties and friendly landforms you meet on the journey to its dry wit and minimalist graphics. Think Guybrush Threepwood re-cutting a Wes Anderson movie. Think very, very Swedish.
A lot of games give the impression that their designers are trying to build on a vision or a particular image. With Burly Men at Sea, it’s more as if Brain&Brain are trying to seize upon a feeling. I always felt like I was in contact with something that could be touched but not grabbed and held onto. The fishermen’s adventures are as inconclusive as they are surprising and wonderful; the characters are archetypes; even interaction with the game is often superficial. Meaningful choices are rare, and the interface sometimes drew me in – enclosing the brothers within a circle that becomes a winking eye, for example – only to distance me again with a sudden re-framing of the screen or a burst of colour.
The designers re-invent and play with folktales, some that have been re-made and re-made by Swedish and Danish farmers and fishermen and other folk besides for 1000 years or more. But, however intentionally, there’s also something in this pushing and pulling of the player that mimics the experience of engaging with these ancient fancies in a modern world. Burly Men at Sea is the memory of a children’s fairy tale. It’s opening a wardrobe and glimpsing, behind moldy jackets and shirts and old scarfs belonging to someone else, a world of magic. And then being allowed to open the door again for another peek and a chance at jumping through.
* Disclaimer: Does not accurately reflect the tone, content or bounciness of press releases sent to Unwinnable’s inboxes, not even the ones from bubbly Scandinavian indie devs.
** See the gloomy disclaimer above.—Declan Taggart definitely quits this time (until he doesn’t again). In the meantime, find him at @NonsenseThunder. Burly Men at Sea are currently berthed over at Steam.