“Come to the lighthouse, Moira,” says a voice in a gravelly brogue, susurrated across the Highlands of Scotland – a voice only you can hear. “Come as fast as you can.” This is the call that motivates young Moira McKinnon to run, run, run through the hills, climbing, jumping and scooching to reach the lighthouse and the voice. The voice of her Uncle Hamish, from a recent, mysterious letter. Run to meet him.
And what a run it is.
“I must’ve climbed the hill behind the house a hundred times,” says Moira, indefatigable with breathless excitement. “I know every stone. But after that hill? There’s another, and then another again. And after all that, then that’s the sea, and I’ve never been there.”
It’s excitement you’ll come to share as you explore “all that” in A Highland Song. Like so many of Inkle Studios’ games, this platformer is an exemplar of its genre but with a creative twist. Imagine a narrative game set in the Highlands, with thumping Celtic music, that you play like a kind of sidescrolling, platforming Dance Dance Revolution. The music – truly exquisite and soulful compositions by Laurence Chapman and performed by the groups Talisk and Fourth Moon – picks up during “rhythm runs” where Moira charges up hills and through valleys, timing her jumps to the golden music notes that appear throughout the landscape.
This experience has a fluidity that feels something like a full-bodied musicality, a unity of song, mechanics and visuals that is as satisfying as the turning of a key in a freshly lubricated lock.
Inkle’s flair for visuals endures gloriously in this game, thanks to Anastasia Wyatt’s stunning art, and this feels like a new summit for a theme the studio has been exploring in one form or another throughout its entire game catalogue: the transformative power of a journey. In 80 Days, as the redoubtable Passepartout, you turn some of the wheels in the changing of a clockwork, anti-colonial Victoriana. In Heaven’s Vault, you ride the waves of a dying ocean of a universe to unlock its secrets – and its Möbius strip narrative bears some resemblance to a critical feature of Highland Song’s that I shan’t spoil. Suffice it to say, it’s a game that demands more than one playthrough.
These earlier journeys have rarely been quite so much about self-discovery. There have always been flashes, but A Highland Song feels more explicitly a metaphor for its protagonist’s diamond-hard knowledge of self. It’s just a pity Moira doesn’t reveal more of herself in the narrative, which is itself rather linear.
One of the few choices you get to make – aside from choosing to explore the odd side-trail or cave – is that you reconstruct your letters to your uncle during some of your rest periods. And you’ll need to rest: though they’re fairly rudimentary, there are survival mechanics in A Highland Song. Darkness and rain are your enemies and you’ll have to find shelter if you want to endure in this fairytale wilderness of giants, queens and ancient battles.
This is, if nothing else, a game about what we might call the “Scottish imaginary”, right down to lovingly rendered subtitles in the dialect. But it sometimes holds you at a remove from the deepest mysteries and magics of its worlds, and Moira’s inner life remains only a foggy lens through which one can see these pop-up book highlands. I’m less disappointed by this than I expected, largely because Moira is such a flavourful, likeable character that spending time with her doesn’t grow old.
In choosing how to advance, you look at the vista from various points throughout the map as if through a spyglass and try to spot trails and paths that will let you advance further towards the sea. It is possible to waste time on dead ends here, and there is a distantly ticking clock throughout the narrative: you need to get to the lighthouse before Beltane (May Day) in order to unlock the optimal ending. That proves difficult indeed and different players may come to different conclusions about whether it’s worth starting again to master the terrain.
A second playthrough is all but mandatory to see all the game has to offer, to unravel a bit more of Hamish’s rede and to find all the shortcuts – some map fragments you pick up in your first playthrough can’t be used until the second. For some, this will be a seduction; for others, a repulsion. A Highland Song straddles a dangerous line between earning that investment and asking too much of its players but, for all that risk, it remains a welcoming experience. An incantation for novices and skilled sorceresses alike. The accessibility settings allow you to tweak the game and sand off some of its challenges and frustrations.
For those who enjoy hiking, there’ll be a pleasant familiarity to the way one navigates here, by comparing maps – or photographs or Moira’s ubiquitous drawings – to the landscape and finding your way forward. It’s one more place the game shows off its seemingly effortless beauty. It’s literally the path to A Highland Song’s sundry hidden gems that, especially on repeat playthroughs, gleam with the game’s brilliant writing and world-building.
It feels like there’s always more to learn, and yet Moira herself seems to be a cipher; the outline of a character – albeit one beautifully voiced by M. J. Deans – who is simply the plucky girl who climbs trees she’s not supposed to. Yet, in the end, I had wondered why I felt so entitled to Moira’s inner life. The elisions of her secrets are, in their own way, artful in the negative space they create. The ending can leave you with more questions than answers – but with all the certainty Moira will one day find them. If you get there before Beltane, you’ll even get a clue about the next phase of her adventure, sprinkled with the dust of those empty hills that, in Hamish’s words, still sing the old stories.
That ending may prove fascinating or controversial to some: Moira keeps her secrets. But then you can start again, sure in the knowledge that every minute on the journey is precious and that, in each moment of sublimity, you’re just a girl running under a waning moon.
A Highland Song is available for Nintendo Switch and PC.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "To the lighthouse".
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