The ornate pipe in question, with its long plunging stem and generous bowl, once belonged to the grandfather of Curdin, the protagonist of “Mundaun.” Curdin finds the pipe while combing through the charred structure of what remains of his grandfather’s barn, which was badly damaged in a fire that claimed the life of its owner. Curdin takes it on himself to investigate the peculiar circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s death after receiving a suspicious letter from the village priest informing him of his relative’s passing while imploring him not to waste his time traveling up to Mundaun because all of the funeral arrangements had already been handled.
Sensing something is amiss, Curdin travels to the remote mountain village nestled in the Swiss Alps. After getting off the bus and walking up a short path to the barn he notices a painting resting on an easel situated on a small nearby hill. Drawing closer, Curdin’s breath begins racing as the dimensions of the canvas warp outward and flames dance across its surface. Stepping into the painting as if through a portal he emerges back onto the same the hill, at night, where he sees a man painting a picture of the burning barn in the near distance. As Curdin moves nearer to the inferno he hears a cry for help coming from inside the building. However, he soon discovers the plea was a ruse. When he approaches the barn he is pulled inside by an old man, nattily dressed. Radiating bad intentions, the old man tells him that he was a friend of his grandpa. Curdin begs the old man to let go of him, which he does, but not before gripping Curdin’s hand firmly in his, causing it to burn.
The screen then fades to black and Curdin finds himself in the burned-out barn next to the charred corpse of his grandfather. This is when he finds the pipe and begins his investigation. Eventually he confronts the village’s priest who had written to him about his grandfather’s funeral. The priest confesses that no one dared to go near the barn to claim the body because the place is cursed. In his effort to unravel what happened, Curdin meets a silent girl who guides him to clues he needs to figure out the village’s secret. Along the way he confronts hostile beekeepers and monsters who, when in proximity to Curdin, cause his hand to burn as if it were roasting over a fire.
“Mundaun” is largely the creation of Michel Ziegler who acted as the main programmer and was responsible for its story, art and game design. The game’s sketchbook aesthetic works favorably to conjure the impression of a Northern European folk tale and offset its rough-around-the-edges character. (Object detection leaves something to be desired; e.g., at one point, I was searching through file cabinets trying to guess where to place the cursor to open the individual cabinet of my choice.) There is something in the limited animations of the characters that recalls puppet shows and illustrations in old children’s books. Subtle mechanics reinforce the idea that “Mundaun” is an art game that hopes its audience will look closely at its details. Gaze upon any number of the pictures on the walls of the residential houses in the village and the camera will zoom in and trigger small audio cues — thus, a portrait of nighttime sledding will ring with bells or a picture of wartime prisoners will sound with the clanking of chains.
“Mundaun” has a few creepy moments including one jump scare that made my back stiffen in my chair. Spaces dissolve and connect in mildly startling ways — something I’ve always thought more developers should make more use of since games are a wonderful medium for inducing disorientation.
Depending on your choices, “Mundaun” will grant you one of five different endings. The ending I received was paradoxically sunny and bleak. Yet, it fit so well with the mordant tenor of the game that I felt no compulsion to try to better Curdin’s fate.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.