Bad North is a game that exemplifies the importance of aesthetics in game design. In it, you control a tribe of Vikings tasked with defending your island home from an onslaught of longboat riding rival tribes. Gameplay is real-time strategy style, you control a handful of units defending against tens of enemies from all directions.
The key is to get good beach cover, sending units to wherever an enemy longboat lands. It requires that the player stay vigilant, watching for threats from every angle. But even while the basics of gameplay sound frenzied, Bad North remains a relaxing game to actually play. How does it pull that off though? Well, it's all about the artistic direction.
The thing that really strikes me about Bad North, is how quiet it is. Actual music is very rare and only ever to signify something. The beginning of a battle, the setup phase, etc. Instead, seagulls call in the distance, rain falls quietly on the beach as you battle, and the sounds of battle are subtle. Even in the heat of battle, the violence feels far off.
It's fascinating what effect the quietness of the game has on me. Even in moments when I know, I'm losing control of the battle, the music tempers that frantic feeling really well, making it easier to calmly assess the situation and react accordingly.
The most prominent word in Bad North's marketing is minimalism. It's a core concept that carries through every aspect of the game, especially in the visual department. The visual language is simple and effective, making use of muted blues, grays, and browns to do most of the talking. And over most of the game, there's a subtle mist, you almost would never it were there, if not for the enemies appearing out from within it.
Bad North's view point creates a tangible distance between the player and the terror of what is going on in-game. This allows for a more cerebral, rather than, visceral playing experience. It allowed me to let go of the anxiety-inducing aspects of the game and grip more firmly onto the strategy.
Why This Matters
Though I've been playing games a long time, there are games I can't play because they make me anxious. They're games that lean heavily into creating a feeling of desperation. They do this by using music that heightens the player's emotions and visuals that pull the player in. Bad North is the exact opposite. It detaches the player from the action in a way I've never seen before. It's an example of a game that takes a familiar form and creates something that feels fresh and new. And that's pretty amazing.