Trudging through the snow towards the top of Mundaun’s mountain, I spy a shape shambling in the distance. The cruel horns that protrude from its head bring to mind the severed goat’s head in my backpack, and the twin peaks of the mountain that have loomed over me from the very beginning of my journey.
It’s hard to tell exactly what this thing is that is now clearly stalking its way towards me as the music twists ominous towards pizzicato violin strings, but I have seen sketches of it in the huts and chairlift stations dotted around the snowy outcrop. I have no idea whether illustrations were accurate, but I don’t want to hang around to find out.
Everything in Mundaun is sketched in some form, as the whole game’s visual style is rendered in beautiful scratchy graphite by developer Micahel Ziegler. The hazy, undefined nature of the handful of aggressors in the game are always foreshadowed by brief glimpses in hand-drawn renderings that represent paintings in the world.
Curdin, the character whose story you are witnessing, also documents the world obsessively in his journal, collecting scraps of paper, sketching maps of the environment every time you take a seat on a bench. Like many games, the Journal acts as a place for you to check your objectives, but as a tactile object, it makes you feel grounded in this idyllic village in the Swiss Alps, which is cut off from the world by a sea of clouds.
DRAWN TO DEATH
He has been drawn here by news of his grandfather’s death – burnt alive in his own barn – and is determined to understand to find out what happened to him. Things go off the rails rather quickly, as numerous malign presences make themselves known: an old man curses you with a wooden hand that can bend the environment to its will; a maniacal painter appears to have orchestrated the barn painting by conjuring it into the real world via acrylics.
As you explore further, mysteries pile up: a mute girl seems to be leading you forward through visions and crude illustrations, Curdin physically steps inside memories to explore the past, and a cowardly priest has his pristine chapel turned charcoal black in a storm of coal. Things start surreal, and only get more bizarre as time goes on.
The uncanny nature of real-world sketches turned into 3D models suits the tone of Mundaun perfectly. Something always feels wrong, and warped textures and crude models are a feature here, not a bug. Everything is impressionistic and blurred at the edges in a way that gets under your skin – the uncanny is ever-present, and you start to find new shapes and meaning in the pencilled lines.
SKETCH IT OUT
There’s also a wonderful feeling of reciprocation between the sketches you make in-game, to the sketched world you discover piece by piece as you ascend the mountain, to the screenshots that will inevitably fill your hard drive as you discover tableaus of morbid beauty.
As you wander between your objectives, your ultimate goal to chase down the strange old man who appears to have sealed your grandfather’s fate, Michel Barengo superlative score constantly swirls around you. The soundtrack alternates between blissful piano compositions and the sort of sickness-in-the-soil avant-garde drone that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Haxan Cloak album.
When enemies become aware of you, you slow to a crawl as your blood chills, and the music turns on you. Eric Lorenz’s sound effects rattle in your skull, the clanging of bells in the distance, the rustling of straw as the wicker effigies around you point at you, causing your wooden hand to contort unnaturally.
BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS
There is light combat, as you can force enemies away with a pitchfork, and set fire to straw men with matches. You’ll want to avoid conflict as much as possible, not just because of the mechanical disadvantage you find yourself at, but because of hideous sound effects you’ll need to deal with. It’s a pitch-perfect realisation of conflict in a game like this: never too fussy, but enough of a hindrance to keep you on your toes.
Between these moments of darkness and fear, there are moments of quiet poignance: Curdin will find a sketch or an object in the world and comment on it and his childhood. Everything feels extremely grounded, and well realised, drawing on Swiss folklore in a way that makes the soot-black evil lurking just underneath the surface feel rooted in the world.
An element of this is in the rituals abound in Mundaun, both occult and domestic. Whilst you fulfill the tasks you jot in your journal, you find yourself doing the chores and jobs of your forebears, gathering hay, collecting honey, retreading old rhythms at the same time you attempt to erase that same past.
NOTHING THAT A CUP OF COFFEE CAN’T FIX
These rituals pull you further into the game: you can make coffee to buff your resistance to fear, but it requires a pan, water, coffee grounds, an oven and a cup. It allows you to centre yourself during the terror, and take pleasure in something simple, but like everything in Mundaun, these moments never last.
Mutability is inherent in pencil art, after all, and a few quick strokes can turn a familiar pattern askew. At certain intervals, Curdin will need to go to sleep, but you’ll find every bed surrounded by wards against evil, candles in window sills, crude symbols hung on walls – a wooden bib covered in spikes that your grandfather wore to ward evil away.
There is a pervading sense of dread that amps up as you get further towards the core of your journey, and you wonder if there is any way to escape the consequences of the pact Curdin’s Grandfather has been running from for years. As you step into the past, you feel like you may have a chance to undo it, but as the world and time distorts around you, it feels like these are things may have been written in ink, not pencil.
Mundaun is a real triumph of horror, full of stark, well-realised images, incredible sound design, and a score that can stand with the best of horror. I still don’t know if I have found the best conclusion to Curdin’s story as the game branches and changes as you make certain decisions, but the blurry edges of its sketched world will be lingering at the edges of imagination for weeks to come.