A rickety old bus winds its way up a mountainside. Your grandfather has died in a tragic accident, but according to the local village priest there’s no need for you to make the long journey up. The bus pierces the cloud sea that was obscuring your view up until now. Mundaun reveals itself — a rugged, idyllic pocket tucked away somewhere in the Swiss Alps.
It feels like a classic folk horror opening — a city dweller travelling out into the remote wilderness. Think The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw. More directly, Mundaun pulls from the tale of The Black Spider, a 19th century Swiss horror tale centered around a satanic pact. The story is very much seen as a precursor to the crop of weird fiction which appeared at the turn of the 20th century.
From the get-go there’s this uneasy feeling in the air — a warning of things to come. As the bus skirts a cliff’s edge, you can look out onto the ocean of mist and listen to the howling wind. The music begins to screech. Or is it the breaks on the old bus as it rounds another rocky bend? Much of Mundaun’s story is told via your character Curdin’s uncanny ability to recall memories, often those that aren’t his own. Look at the photographs and paintings hanging on the wall of your grandfather’s cabin, for example. You’ll begin to hear ghosts of the past as the first-person camera slowly zooms inwards. Other times, you’ll be pulled into a fully realized flashback.
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As a location Mundaun is an island of isolation. The vastness of the landscapes there instantly beat at your psyche, and the white-glow of the sun weighs on you as heavily as the idea, already growing in the recesses of your mind, that your grandfather’s death was no “accident.”
The game possesses a remarkable sense of place. Everything in its monochrome world — hill, house, person, object — has been hand pencilled by its creator, Michel Ziegler. The game’s shadowy grayscale palette and vignette effects are inspired by old, historic photos and postcards of the Swiss Alps — the kind with smudged, spectral patches and dark corners that inadvertently conjure up ghostly figures or silhouettes. It’s an aesthetic that’s wholly unique, but also perfectly complementary to the eerie horror Mundaun invokes. The shadowy black and white landscapes and shifting pencilled faces of the characters are also hauntingly reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema: films like Dr Caligari, The Golem, and Nosferatu, to say nothing of Robert Eggers’ recent reformulation with 2019’s The Lighthouse.
Your first day in the meadows of Mundaun feels like a lazy summer afternoon: all faint breezes, birds and grasshoppers chirping, black goats bleating, and bell-collars jingling. Of course it doesn’t take long for the rot beneath this pastoral utopia to surface. Mundaun is a masterful example of the eerie, in opposition to the kind of full-frontal, jump scare horror we so often get in games today.
One of the most impressive aspects of Mundaun is its physicality. I was continually impressed by the little details and interactions built into the game’s world. After finding your grandfather’s old binoculars, you can see them on your body while looking down, just there hanging from Curdin’s neck. There are also things like the simple ritual of starting the engine of your grandfather’s transport vehicle, tuning the radio, and making a cup of coffee. You need to take the pan down to the nearest water pump, fill it up before returning home, use a log to light the stove, and finally find a china cup to pour it into and drink from. The long, meditative process aptly rewards you by increasing your resilience to fearful events. It’s a calming moment among the building storm.
There’s combat in Mundaun, too. You’ll be assaulted by wickerish looking hay-men, apiarists that assault you from range with bees, and worse. You’re often able to fight back — with pitchforks, lit matches, lanterns, tobacco pipes, and even a bolt-action rifle which you’ll spend most of the game collecting bullets for. It’s by no means a sophisticated system, but that it’s there at all when this could so easily have been an experiential “walking sim” is itself impressive.
Mundaun is at its best, however, when you’re exploring and solving its strange, ritualistic puzzles. As you climb up higher towards the mountain, you’ll delve deeper into its dark heart. There are plenty of hidden recesses, like caves filled with haunted silhouettes and an old war bunker that has somehow transformed into a full-blown labyrinth. There are twisted puzzles involving strange clockwork toys, the head of a goat, a mumbling entity trapped in your grandfather’s bathroom. There’s even a musical interlude where you have to tease a rusty key from a corpse’s mouth.
As previously mentioned, one of Mundaun’s key inspirations is The Black Spider. But developer Michel Ziegler has also talked about the influence of the “Devil’s Bridge.” This is a story of a struggling, isolated community that bargained with the Devil in order to construct the titular bridge. The price was of course paid in human souls. At one point I thought the folk horror genre was an exceptionally British thing, but like the Devil’s Bridge, it’s something more universal that reoccurs in multiple places all around the world.
When thinking about the relevance of the folk horror genre, with its resurgence in films like The Witch and Midsommar, it’s hard not to see the many contemporary parallels. I don’t think Mundaun is some conscious allegory. I do think it says something about the times we live in. An era of rising nationalism, populism, rampant racism, xenophobia, and even superstition in the modern form of conspiracy theories.
We constantly hear false promises of “draining the swamp” or returning to the “good old days.” In an essay for The Quietus, Adam Scovell compared 1973’s The Wicker Man to Brexit. In it, he concluded that “we have burnt our Sgt. Howie in the wicker man, and now wait naively for our apples to grow once more, confident that we have ‘taken back control.’”
In Mundaun, there’s this playing out of a generational conflict. Like The Black Spider and the Devil’s Bridge, a deal has been struck — and it’s not a good one. Here it’s Curdin and a young girl, Flurina, who’s your companion for part of the game, that ends up paying for their grandfathers’ mistakes. We have and are continuing to sign these same kinds of pacts with right-wing populists who promise to turn back the clock and deliver us back to tradition. This is the Devil’s deal, and what folk horror tales like Mundaun make abundantly clear is that we should always resist them, as once you’ve sold your soul there’s no easy way back.