Courtesy Inkle

Into the Mountain with A Highland Song

Lewis Gordon

A Highland Song is unique, as far as I can tell, in that it’s perhaps the first 2D game to have taken inspiration from 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There have been 3D riffs on Nintendo’s modern, open-world classic — Sable, Tchia, A Short Hike, arguably Death Stranding and Elden Ring – but no game, up until now, has reoriented Breath of the Wild’s open, adventurous spirit along the X and Y axes. 

It’s surprising that Inkle was the team to make such a game, The U.K. studio, best known for narrative adventures like 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault, makes decidedly verbose games, with words and systems constructed around said words. A Highland Song is comparatively quiet, filled with long stretches where you hear little more than our main character, Moira McKinnon, muttering to herself as she shimmies, vaults, runs, and, should the stones be aligned, hops across the game’s Scottish wilds. Here, the environments and actions of Moira herself do the vast majority of the talking.  

At the game’s start, Moira slips out of her bedroom window in the cottage she lives in alone with her mother. There’s a brother, we learn, who became ill and was sent to live in Edinburgh. It’s not clear where the father is but there are letters from an Uncle Hamish who has invited Moira to his lighthouse to celebrate Beltane, a pagan holiday celebrating the beginning of summer. So off Moira goes, with seven days to get there. She’s not quite running away but she’s certainly testing the limits of the fractious relationship with her mum. Above all, Moira wants to see Uncle Hamish, who seems to understand her better than anyone else and whose invitation will let her lay eyes on the ocean for the first time. 

The first thing the game asks you to do is scale the summit behind Moira and her mum’s house – little more than a crag. Despite its modest stature, the camera dramatically pulls back, the horizon opens up, and the scale of the journey becomes apparent: some 40 miles of beautiful and treacherous terrain. What’s striking about this landscape, beyond the sheer scale, is the way it’s constructed from layers, ridges set atop ridges, which, taken together, create a striking sense of collective depth. Like Breath of the Wild, your perspective is guided across the topography, not necessarily to the biggest, furthest away peak, but deeper into the mountain itself. This is a world of glens, gullies, corries, and the secrets hidden behind each protruding piece of turf and rock. 

A screenshot from A HIghland Song of showing a map fragment with a prompt that asks "Here, instead?"
Courtesy Inkle

Looking out across the vista, you’re tasked with finding a path by pulling out a map fragment, reading the landscape it corresponds to, and setting a waypoint. Once you locate it, follow the wooden posts deep into the wilderness, and A Highland Song opens up. You’re then free to point Moira in whichever direction you wish. 

Within 15 minutes of zig-zagging back and forth across the hills, I felt thoroughly lost, which is precisely the feeling I think A Highland Song seeks to cultivate. Slowly, you learn to read the landscape in front of you, a more important skill here than in any game since Death Stranding. The various hills and ridges that constitute it are made up of further hills and ridges, all of which snake, twist, and interlock with one another. Sometimes, you have to peer closely at the screen to make them out and ascertain what’s in the foreground and what’s further away. (I recommend playing the game on the Switch in handheld mode to ease this process.) 

The camera is dynamic, occasionally zooming in for a close-up of Moira when she’s in a tight space, but mostly it sits zoomed out, showing the adolescent as little more than a red-haired speck against the granite, slate, and cascading waterfalls. This is another of A Highland Song’s strengths: It makes you feel small, as if you’re being subsumed by the space. If the weather is particularly ferocious — rain beating down, mist obscuring the foreground — it can sometimes appear as though Moira is disintegrating into the mountainside itself, losing her definition and perhaps even her sense of self. 

We tend to think of 3D spaces as the only truly “immersive” ones in video games, but A Highland Song has put this idea to rest.

Part of what makes A Highland Song so captivating is the way it evokes the cadence and emotions of real-world hiking. I live in Glasgow, a few hours’ drive from the kinds of places depicted in the game. I’ve done the kind of multi-day trek that Moira is on; taken journeys where you spend cumulative hours squinting at the terrain, looking down at a map, looking back up again, and still feeling like you’re not where you should be. I’ve experienced the sensation of time turning into a psychedelic mush – days merging into one another before crystallizing in a single moment, perhaps during a particularly dicey scramble. A Highland Song summons these feelings through a suite of robust, interlocking systems: a dynamic day-and-night cycle, a fully functioning weather system (how many 2D platformers can boast having these two elements?!), and surprisingly flexible traversal mechanics. It’s never less than a joy to see Moira crouch on all fours to ascend a particularly steep portion of turf or slide down a sharp piece of rock, one leg dangling as it searches for firm ground to plant itself on.

The story is delivered in Inkle’s trademark procedural style. Uncle Hamish speaks to you in Moira’s dreams, the content of which is determined by what you’ve experienced. One of the smartest narrative moments comes as the opportunity to witness Beltane passes. In the few days leading up to it, you’ll likely feel the anxiety of the clock running down. Then, as the seventh day passes without note, perhaps as Moira is huddling in a dark cave, it’s as if a weight is lifted. You realize that this arbitrary time frame is just that: a self-imposed deadline. Without it, you’re free to putter about the hills as you please. The journey lasts precisely as long as you want it to, or perhaps, is necessary.

A photo of a hike in Knoydart, Scotland. Two people are in the distance hiking up a munro on the coast near a body of water.
Photo by Ross Little

One notable absence in A Highland Song, which you’ll likely notice should you walk the actual Highlands, is a so-called “Munro bagger.” In Scotland, a “Munro” is any mountain over the height of 3,000 feet (914 meters), and there are people who “bag” them by scaling their summits. Particularly ambitious ones will try to bag as many as they can in a single day, scrambling from rock to ridge at the crack of dawn and squelching in the mud by the day’s end. For such people, these mountains are something to acquire and perhaps even assert their dominance over.

But not for Moira who, upon reaching a summit, is given a chance to name it (in either Scottish Gaelic or English depending on the information available to her). There’s no pressure to get this right, no penalty for getting it wrong, and certainly no ego involved. In this way, A Highland Song’s hiking is the antithesis of the macho take on the pastime that’s pervasive in Scotland and elsewhere. Moira is a slight, underequipped hill-walker for whom the act of climbing peaks isn’t an end in itself but a means of getting a better view and getting to know the land that’s always laid on her doorstep better. 

She feels in conversation with the Scottish writer, Nan Shepherd whose most famous line, “To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain,” seems to echo throughout A Highland Song. Shepherd, who wrote a book called The Living Mountain in the 1940s, took an atypical approach to walking and nature writing for the time, incorporating Zen Buddhist meditations into her reflections on a Scottish range of mountains called the Cairngorms. She wrote of venturing into the range aimlessly, "merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend,” and the way walking is a “journey into being.” This is especially true for Moira who essentially comes of age on this hike, using the space of the hills to work through her anxieties and hang-ups. What’s seemingly important to this youngster is saying them out loud, a necessity not afforded by the stifling cottage walls that she shares with her mother. 

A painted landscape of the red-brown trees and hills of the highlands abutting a clear lake bounded by gray hills and a mountain range of white clouds.
Horatio McCulloch's My Heart's in the Highlands, 1860

Where Shepherd was surgically precise about what she loved about the Cairngorms, resistant to cliché, A Highland Song occasionally slips into sentimentality. At times, the writing is a touch too wistfully on the nose, a smidgen too "tartan and shortbread" as it seeks to impress on you the rugged romance of its setting. There are rhythm-action sequences, moments where you’re tasked with hitting buttons in time to the traditional Scottish folk music played by bands such as Talisk and Fourth Moon, that soundtrack Moira whooshing exuberantly across flatter parts of the landscape. But slip up on your timing and Moira will literally slip, crashing down to earth with an ungainly thud. Compared to the otherwise beautifully freeform exploration, the musical interludes are a little rigid.

But despite being called A Highland Song, music is only a small part of it. History is a crucial part of this composition, particularly that of the Clearances, the brutal forced evictions that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries as landowners sought to turn the Highlands over to sheep farming in pursuit of greater profits. Moira’s personal history is surfaced through details about her tricky family life, and there’s even magic, conjured through the region’s rich myths and folklore. All of this — the social, personal, and folkloric — exists in relation to the land. It’s drawn, painted, and stitched together to deftly capture its blustery, dangerous, and capricious essence. 

We tend to think of 3D spaces as the only truly “immersive” ones in video games, but A Highland Song has put this idea to rest. It might be rendered in 2D but make no mistake, there is an entire world for you to step into. 

Lewis Gordon (he/him) is a UK-based video game and culture journalist. His work appears in outlets such as The Ringer, Vulture, and the New York Times.

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