Northbound: The Building Blocks of Story

Alright. I wasn’t going to write about this, but given that I’ve been complaining about Control, and how games just seemingly can’t get their shit together with basic coherent story arcs, this week we’re going to talk about Northbound. Northbound is a 2018 itch.io game that was built by a couple students as part of their coursework. It’s about three friends, all recent graduates (write what you know), who decide to go on a road trip up north to a lake that they used to visit as kids. The trip starts off fun, but increasingly becomes a drag as the friends realise that they’ve outgrown this sort of thing, and that they don’t have that much in common any more. There’s this really beautiful progression where you start off surrounded by chips and beer and posters of bands, and it’s a little juvenile, and then over the course of the game it becomes embarrassing. It’s a game that feels like coming out of a drunken stupor, like returning to sobriety and just being fucking mortified by the way that you’ve behaved.

And let’s be really explicit here about what’s going on. At the start of the game, the characters in the van are excited to go out on this trip. They’ve surrounded themselves with the paraphernalia of their glorious student days, and everything is grand. Over time, we learn that the characters just aren’t those people any more. They aren’t eighteen. They’ve outgrown that juvenile stage, but they’re still stuck in the same van. The environment doesn’t match their growing comprehension of their own mental state, and it’s excruciating. It makes you itchy, it makes you want to crawl out of your own skin – because you see these people just becoming increasingly aware of how inappropriate their surroundings are. In Northbound, the meaning of the environment changes as the player becomes more aware of what’s going on. The markers of joy – the stars on the ceiling, the sports team flag, the little string of LED lights – become bitter, taunting reminders of a state that no longer exists. And there’s no privacy, either. It’s just three friends (and one semi-unwelcome girlfriend) stuck in a cramped, tiny little van, surrounded by the detritus of their previous lives and lapsed relationships. It’s beautiful.

Separate to the environmental storytelling, or what we might describe as the set dressing, the trip itself also represents a failing attempt to relive the glory days. These friends are all out on this road trip because it’s something they used to do as kids. They used to go to the lake together. They’re out on this journey to relive their favourite childhood memories, but they slowly realise that those days are gone, and that they’re all now at a different stage. In that sense, as the story unfolds, there’s an outstanding question about what will happen when they arrive at the lake. The arc of the story so far has been about how childhood or youth can’t be recaptured, how things change and people move on. The arc bends towards loss, towards the painful realisations that hit us as we mature. So what happens when they arrive at the lake? It’s the climax, the height of their journey, the highest point in the story and the culmination of their whole adventure: it’s the moment of truth, the moment where the story gives us The Point. And you already know what happens. The friends can’t achieve their goal, because it’s an unrealistic plan based on the false assumption that they can maintain their childlike wonder and shared joy forever. You don’t know specifically what happens, but you almost don’t need to, because you understand the arc of the story, the thing that is being said. You know that, in one form or another, they’ll realise that they were trying to do something impossible. And that’s what happens. When they arrive at the lake, it’s gone. It’s been drained and replaced by a supermarket.

And a supermarket is such a perfect choice here. It sits at a very specific intersection between some relevant symbolic meanings. It’s a symbol of the corporate franchise and globalisation, with undertones of economic exploitation and disadvantage in the surly, low-paid staff. It’s a symbol of the banal, of soulless fluorescents and choice without value. And it’s a symbol of the vaguely frustrating yet unavoidable busywork that makes up adult life – got to pick up some groceries on the way home! For all of those reasons, it’s a startling inclusion in the game. It lances the summer idealism and nostalgic hues with banal financial exchange and household chores. This is life now, it says. Your childhood dreams have been replaced by trips to the grocery store.

And I’m sure some of you don’t need this sort of symbolic resonance explained, but multi-million dollar game companies keep failing to hit these basic points of storytelling, so I have to be out here explaining this shit. Characters in stories have goals, and how they go about achieving those goals and the changes they experience along the way make the story meaningful. In Northbound, a bunch of graduates want to rehash a fun childhood experience. That’s the goal. Over the course of the story, they come to realise that they’re not children any more, that things change and that they can’t recapture those moments. They fail to reach their goal, and they do it in a way that reminds us of our own similar experiences. It’s not complicated or arguably even particularly innovative, but it hits those foundational story beats in such a regular, steady way that you can’t help but love it. If it’s basic, it’s basic in a way that shows a competent understanding of story, and that’s something a bunch of other, more expensive games just straight-up lack.

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