So soon after writing about the Joy of the Unknown, I didn’t think I’d run into its antithesis so quickly. But taking that rickety, pencil-shaded bus ride up into the Alps, Mundaun had me in its grasp all too quickly.
Players control Curdin, a young man, returning to the remote mountain village, Mundaun, for the first time since childhood. His grandfather recently passed away, and Curdin intends to to pay respects. It’s not long before a strange mystery begins to unravel, with his grandfather at the epicenter, and Curdin takes the initiative to uncover it fully.
It is a venture into the unknown in so many ways, but never lets that feeling overwhelm its players. It’s creepy, but not so obtuse in its delivery that you’d need a walkthrough. Unnerving, but not so scary that players are constantly nervous about what lurks where, and if it’ll jump out at you. It’s frightening in its own way, but it’s not a horror game, not how I’ve recognized the genre. But it’s still effective. It is a game as much as it is an experience, using the unknown as both a feature and a catalyst.
The Accessible Unknown
First, there’s the accessibility of the unknown. An experience like Mundaun wouldn’t be any good if you were frustrated with the experience itself, right? There are light combat elements: jamming giant straw enemies with pitchforks, shooting at long-dead soldiers with a rifle, and so on. The enemies themselves are strange and unnatural, but for overcoming them, Mundaun gives players a simple difficulty option: easy, medium, and hard. For players who want to feel the terror of traditional horror games (ie, “It saw me, death is nigh.”) to those who want to go back to the more unsettling elements (like myself) out of combat, it’s nice that players have the option to choose their experience. Although it doesn’t change the fact that the enemies are creepy. I dread them in a different way than I’ve dreaded Necromorphs or zombies before.
Movement-wise, Mundaun is functional. I sprinted as often as I could; Curdin has the good sense to not get tired or rely on a stamina bar. As long as players want to sprint (and can, based on terrain), they will. Occasionally, the enemies will scare Curdin into a fearful crawl, but that only encouraged avoidance and momentum. In the times bereft of enemies, movement felt natural; stopping to admire both the unfamiliar mountains, hobbling onto a bench to appreciate cliffside landscapes, and stumbling through a dim, underground bunker. Mundaun makes the most of its movement by giving players the tools, but asking they slow it down and appreciate the world, even when they’re afraid of it.
Mundaun, as an experience and a place, is littered with puzzles. As much as I’ve bemoaned needing a walkthrough for certain puzzle games, Mundaun never forced my hand like that. It stands even further apart from some of its more horrifying sister experiences, making the journal and its collected information a core mechanic. Nostalgic photographs and children’s drawings, tucked between the pages, serve as reference points for the mountain’s myriad mysteries. Compared to my recent rantings (to an audience of one) about Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Mundaun’s approach to objectives and reminders is blessedly more direct and actionable. Get you a protagonist like Curdin, not Daniel.
All of these simple design choices help to make the player feel welcome as a player, and rolls out the red carpet for the true star of the experience:
The Unsettling Unknown
Everything about Mundaun is off. It’s not horrifying, by any means. The quiet mountain village is a far cry from Lycan-infested towns, derelict space stations, or haunted castles…but it’s still unsettling. It’s off. Not just because the Swiss Alps is a place, a lifestyle, a culture I’m not familiar with…though that doesn’t help.
It’s the entire game being spoken in, according to the game’s website, its “own obscure spoken language,” Romansh, and having it subtitled. It has the same effect as it does in other experiences of the unknown: the words beg attention, and demand to be understood as the characters speak. But it is unsettling for the reality of it: as recently as 2019, Romansh, as a real-world language, had fewer than 50,000 Swiss speakers remaining. Romansh, like so many other languages before it, is actively falling out of use, risking linguistic extinction in the coming years. We’re hit with our own mortality in plenty of storytelling experiences, but rarely the mortality of less tangible things like language.
It’s the musical direction of Michel Barengo’s soundtrack, diegetic and otherwise. It’s crackling choirs and organ music piping in from different tiny radios, a beat-up old truck spouting folksy music for the driver and passenger, and the musical stylings of other radios around the mountain. It’s the soundtrack amplifying, but never terrorizing. It grows and swells with player input (or lack thereof), never out of the blue, never randomly. But at the same time, it knows when to fade to the background, letting the eerie stillness of the mountain do a better job than instruments ever could. The soundscape doesn’t tell players how to feel in the moment, it responds to the world as players experience it.
It’s (spoiler alert) pulling out the scary stops exactly once in the whole experience, making me jump in my seat and spiking my heartbeat. Making me wonder if, when it would happen, getting just comfortable enough, and then hitting me out of nowhere. It knew I wasn’t expecting it, and it rattled me.
It’s the setpieces, mundane in description, but unsettling in practice: collecting honey, meeting an artist, wandering a bunker, dropping off some hay. Taking such little tasks that we take for granted, and spinning them to be just strange, just off enough to sound our internal alarm bells.
It’s the aesthetic: hand-pencilled textures, shadows where there ought not be shadows. Menacing feelings of “you don’t belong here” without outright saying it, without making any indication of it in-world. It’s a symphony of both love in its art, and unsettling vibes in its exhibition.
It’s the momentum, the act of travel itself. It’s keeping players jumping from one mystery to the next, but encouraging exploration all the same. It’s that same movement, that exploration, that serves as both reward and challenge: in the daylight, the mountain is picturesque, serene, and beautiful, even with everything you uncover. At night, the stars glimmer as beautifully as ever, even as fabled monsters lurk around to bury you in the straw and snow. Everything around you is strange, and off-putting, and occasionally wrong, but it still beckons for you to take it all in, whether in the sun’s light or the moon’s glow.
Everything about Mundaun is off. It takes the familiar and foreignizes it, not just in culture and location, but in feeling. This mountain begs to be traveled, begs its mysteries to be uncovered, begs you to make the unknown known…but tells you in the same breath that you ought know better than to try.
All images courtesy of Mundaun’s Steam page.