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[Minor early-game spoilers for Folklore]
I can count on no hands the number of games I’d played with Ireland in them, despite the disproportionate tendency for Irishness to pop up in various media as a sort of fascinated idiom. This I’ve always known but never realised – like, I think, many Irish people, as a child I grew up with a significant lack of genuinely Irish people in my cartoons, the closest being a talking French snowman named Bouli dubbed over with the Irish language.
Even now, Irish characters who show up in our imported entertainment exist mainly as a gag, and Irish identities more closely resemble by far a taxonomy of Americans who once, perhaps, knew someone from Kerry. On this, I am lead to believe you can populate an entire American town solely with detectives named O’Malley.
One consequence of this is that when the TV tells me someone, somewhere, or something is Irish, little internal fact-checking mechanisms whir to decide whether or not I can latch onto this and cherish it. For someone thinned to invisibility from being ignored, the faintest glimmer of authenticity becomes a token of pride, which makes for a rather weak standard when it means we’re letting our national identity be encapsulated, for instance, by a green M&M.
It’s not often that an outsider impression would offer anything beyond a jab and a self-centred wink, which makes it all the more special when something comes along that seems to show a genuine interest in this land and its people.
Although it’s made by a Japanese studio, Folklore is the first game I’ve played that’s set a real Irish location: the village of Doolin, County Clare. This fact alone sets it apart from most titles which vaguely allude to the Irish people, since they usually satisfy themselves by calling us all elves and saying we live in trees, when in reality only some of us do. With this prestigious feather in its cap, let’s take a look at how else Folklore handles its setting.
The story here is our protagonist, Ellen, has received a letter from her long-dead mother summoning her to Doolin to investigate her past. There is another playable character, Keats, with his own intertwined storyline, but Ellen is the more interesting character so let’s stick with her. Understandably, Ellen finds it a bit suss that her ma is sending her post and she 17 years in the grave, but her apparent longstanding loneliness overpowers any hint of sense in her trip to the village. This begins with her taking a boat.
I said Doolin is a real village in Ireland but Folklore takes some liberties. For one thing, Doolin is on the mainland, not an island off the Atlantic coast as the opening cutscene would have us believe. It is near the coast, I’ll grant that, but it is as accessible by land as every other any other mainland-based village in Ireland. We can see from the address on her mam’s envelope that Ellen lives in Dublin, so she could be there in time for lunch if she hopped on any number of buses. If ever this game catches enough late acclaim to warrant its own Bloomsday, this is the mode of transport I would recommend to any fans hoping to retrace Ellen’s journey.
In the manual we learn that Doolin is not actually an island village, but that all the roads leading in and out have fallen into disrepair. Every single one of them. Perhaps this dates Folklore in the not-too-distant future, so austere are we that we can’t even afford roads anymore.
The landlubber route makes for a less dramatic approach, however, and does not quite engender the village with an appropriately mysterious vibe. It also gives us a chance to meet Ireland’s worst boatman and voice actor.
A mile from the shore and with rather middling weather, he decides to turn the boat around and head back. I get the impression that Ellen, in her grief, went to the wrong village along the coast and approached this man, who was sitting on a wall overlooking the sea, to charter one of the boats moored below. He obliged (because the Irish are an entrepreneurial sort) even though he has never captained a boat in his life (because our entrepreneurs are only charlatans who’ve yet to be caught) and realised halfway through she’d find him out once he tried to dock the thing.
Ellen’s very polite, though, and to ensure everyone saves face she throws herself into the freezing Atlantic and swims the mile to shore.
This is not my experience of Irish women RE: the cold.
We cut to Keats, a reporter for an occult magazine, stating plainly the themes of mysticism versus scepticism that form his story’s spine. He gets an ominous phonecall from a woman calling him to Doolin to rescue her from the fairies, and I suppose business is slow enough for it to warrant his attention. As the phone goes dead, Keats hurries over to take his whistling kettle from the hob and in his urgency it clatters to the floor.
False—there is always time for tea. The Irish are number three worldwide for tea drank per head and we didn’t get there by letting mysterious phonecalls or fairy attacks get in our way. Of all the mistakes so far in Folklore this one takes the teabag, which is how we say ‘takes the cake’.
The magazine fades us in to Doolin, which gives me the opportunity to point out two inconsistencies. The first is that stone placemarker and the rusty signs above it are exactly the kind you might expect to find in an Irish town in the country, but, to my knowledge, do not appear anywhere along the streets of the actual town of Doolin in real life. This is a frivolous bit of artistic license but which shows enough affection to the Irish aesthetic to be given a pass. Let the record show, however, that I do not come from Doolin and as such hold no bearing towards the authenticity of representation of its signage, and should any person from the village voice their outrage at this matter they would find from me my heartfelt sympathy.
The second inconsistency is Doolin is not really the realm of the dead.
Meanwhile, Ellen washes up on the island and hastens to the Cliffs of Sidhe to find her mammy. She meets a woman sitting underneath this standing stone arch engraved with stylised Celtic artwork, but to my knowledge standing arches were not really a thing done by the old people of this land. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it was put there to attract tourists. Something must be said of its suggestive silhouette; you could sell little stone replicas of it that bestow the purchaser with advanced fertility.
For future Bloomsday-ers, when you end up in Doolin looking for the Cliffs of Sidhe, give up. They don’t exist. Doolin’s a long walk from the world-renowned Cliffs of Moher, which do exist, and could be counted as an adequate substitute. But even still you will be unlikely to find a standing Celtic arch on the brow of the cliff, so you may pop into a giftshop and bring your own.
Ellen pours her heart out to the back of the woman’s head before Keats arrives and discovers she’s a corpse. He says:
Ellen is wonderfully voiced by the Antrim-born Lisa Hogg, who you might recognise from Northern Irish crime drama The Fall. As you might have guessed from the name, Keats is a Brit, given voice by Richard Coyle—Moist von Lipwig in the telly version of Going Postal.
This preamble is to explain why Keats says ‘the police’ rather than using the correct vernacular. Over here police are called An Garda Síochána, literally ‘The Guardian of the Peace’, typically shortened to ‘guards. In the promotional material to Payday 2’s Irish character, Clover, who fights with a shillelagh, she’s shown in a mugshot with “Dublin Police Dept.” written on the board. So, we know when people haven’t done their homework. In Folklore’s case it’s grand, though, because Keats is English.
If we take the events shown as depicted in chronological order, it took Ellen as long to swim the mile to the shore as it took for Keats to travel all the way to the village from his office. Nevertheless she is both dry and unharmed so fair play at that.
Anyway, the woman falls of the edge of the cliff and Ellen, still believing it’s her mammy, runs off to the beach to recover the body. Keats peers down into the sea below and continues to set the tone.
So in real life, Doolin is not actually the village of the dead. It is a notable surfing destination and a pleasant place for a brief holiday, but it is otherwise just a normal village. No particular town in Ireland is purported to be the gateway to the Netherworld, to my knowledge, except maybe the Dáil, where known vampires encrypt themselves. Although some say the general west province of the country has mythological connections to the tech duinn, the realm of the dead. Probably a by-product of how the east side of the country was progressively tainted by proximity to the Pale and gradually anglicized by the evil British Empire.
Perhaps these few things were enough for Folklore’s developers to make the leap in establishing Doolin, Co. Clare, which is a place where real people actually live I’ll remind you, as the gateway into the Netherworld: 1) it’s a village on the coast, 2) near a famous cliff, 3) in a province with connections to mythology. It is not, as far as I’m aware, prone to spates of unexplained murders, nor is it an especially mysterious place as far as Irish villages go. But I suppose if you’re living in Japan, every Irish village could be a mysterious village, and by proxy, the gateway to another realm.
The main thing to take from this is that Folklore draws a ton from Irish mythology, far more than I would be able to account for with my tiny head, and allows itself to interpret things creatively. You can either get bogged down in the nitty gritty or you can let the story wash over you and take from it what you will. I’m neither a historian nor a pedant so I’ll opt for the latter.
With the stage now set, the opening cutscene gives way and the player takes control. Folklore is a JRPG and it follows a fairly normal village-dungeon-village structure for the bulk of its playtime. In this case, the dungeons are comprised of various realms of the Netherworld and the village is only ever Doolin, alternately during the night and day.
This Doolin does not resemble its real life counterpart in geography or layout, it’s more an abstract version of your typical Irish village as imagined for a demographic who might never have stepped foot in the country. Notably it doesn’t have roads, instead the streets are paved with loose gravel and delineated by the erratic whims of Mother Nature vis a vis grass. Since every small village I’ve been to has at least had a road, it’s an odd decision to obliterate that particular element of town planning from our idiom. Tourists can rest assured that we have discovered roads.
On that subject, virtual-Doolin falls victim to some unfortunate quaintness: between all the people living here there is one car. Just one. It never moves; it resembles more a tiny beached whale than a functioning part of someone’s daily commute. Most unusual is why anyone would even buy a car when Doolin is inaccessible by land and no ferry service operates to connect the village to the outside world, as Folklore is very clear about. Here’s a bit of intelligent storytelling since all this is given through positional storytelling and it seems a mistake on behalf of the developers, but later on the car is turned into a symbol of inert modernity.
If you were a guard in the countryside you might pronounce car as ‘veh-ick-el’.
Virtual-Doolin is comprised of six houses, one pub, a lighthouse, a church, a henge, and the nearby cliffs. There’s a small bit of truth in this as most if not every Irish town will have more pubs than any other single type of commercial building, and a church is a mainstay wherever enough people decide to settle. The pub becomes the centre of life in the village, as we’ll soon see. Appropriately it’s situated at the head of the village.
Seeing this telephone box was the moment I knew I loved this game. That is exactly what old fashioned Irish telephone boxes look like, right down to the correct font and spelling of ‘Telefon.’ It’s actually missing a fada, an acute accent, over the ‘O’, which is consistent with Folklore’s representation of our orthography. But even without a fada, this telephone box alone shows that some care was put into their research, their desire to situate the game here. It shouldn’t be the case that a telephone box or the bare presence of an Irish word in a game should sing to me so. It goes to show how rarely such a significant part of our cultural identity and, to varying degrees, a common sight in our day-to-day lives is reflected in how the outside world portrays us.
Most houses would be a bit more modern than that but in terms of size, stonework and greyness it’s a close enough rendition of the ‘old house in the country’ motif. Even our more recently built houses are still comparatively small—on average they’re less than half the size of houses in the US. This could partially be down to the financial impracticalities of heating a needlessly large home, but also simple distribution of space and the evolution of urban sprawl. Our towns grew naturally over hundreds and hundreds of years with new developments confined to whatever small space afforded them, so that from above our towns resemble veins and capillaries instead of shelves in a filing cabinets. Even our roads are dinky compared to US roads; ninety degree turns on a main street are a layover from slower times, and can’t be corrected without demolishing swaths of urban history.
Almost no house in Doolin has more than one room, invariably a living room. It took me a while to cop that this was a decision by the devs to not show us the rest of the house. I thought it was an extension of the ‘Irish houses are small’ idea, taken to the extreme where we don’t even have beds, that’s how little space we have. Eventually it dawned on me this wasn’t a Japanese eccentricity and was just, in fact, competent allocation of game resources. Videogame people never poop anyway so why bother showing you their toilet.
Otherwise, yeah, I suppose that’s what Irish living rooms look like. Furniture, dressers, decorative clutter, drab decor. I don’t know. I’ve never actually looked.
Whereas Ellen kips in a fishing shed, Keats has as his base what looks from the outside to be a cave and from the inside a converted round tower. These were conical stone structures nearly 40 feet tall, built near churches and monasteries roughly a thousand years ago, either as belfries or for refuge against raiding Vikings. We don’t really know. Many round towers still remain today but they’re all historic monuments. You’re not likely to see one converted into a gaff like Keats’ here.
It’s not an Irish beach unless you wreck yourself on the stones.
The pub is the social heart of Doolin, it’s your first destination after settling in and it’s where you kick off many of your quests. During the day it’s populated by the publican—everyone else hangs around their respective homes watching the weather—who pipes in the tune of Danny Boy despite the fact that no pub in Ireland has ever actually heard that song within their walls, it being another horrible little Americanism.
During the night, all the people lock themselves away, and the pub becomes populated by ‘halflifes’—spirits who roam the land of the living. One is a towering column of hair with a single arm to hold his pipe; another is a banshee who’s sensibly traded her typical comb for an umbrella. On the night you arrive it’s Samhain, the precursor to Halloween, which is the traditional time of year these lads are expected to pour out of the woodwork. They’re there on subsequent nights too, though, so it seems it’s kind of just a normal thing for ghoulies to pub out in the village of Doolin.
Even though the pub is situated as the centrepoint of the town, both geographically and socially, not one drop of alcohol is ever taken. There’s a side quest where the publican is thought to be a bit of a boozer, and it being our job to rescue him, we discover his shakes to instead be a symptom of existential dread. So we have here a rare thing: a foreign piece of entertainment about Ireland that refuses to depict us as a shower of drunkards. The association of drunkenness to Ireland is rather recent, all things considered, originating from stereotypes of Irish immigrants abroad who drank to console themselves from loneliness and local bigotry. Over time, the foreign notion was fed back to us so insistently that we took to believing it and made it a domestic reality. Admittedly nowadays we have over fifty colourful terms for getting shitfaced, and our binging behaviour is widely recognized as a national malady. Nevertheless, that Folklore abstains from taking potshots shows affection unusual for a medium typically more interested in appeasing yanks and gobshites.
While the Halflifes are the epitome of our reputation as a nation of characters, Folklore’s story gives us another turn: it focuses instead on the human inhabitants of the town, emphasising them as the more ambiguous and alluring folk in all of Doolin. Each character has their own backstory that plays into the mystery which drives the plot, so in a right Irish fashion to untangle the web we’ve to spend our time getting to know all the locals.
Now, there’s nothing exquisitely Irish about any of them really, they’re all a bunch of videogame characters caught in a murder-mystery when you get down to it. But you can see the touches of Irish culture that formed their inspiration, which tethers them to the land with a gentle, subtle thread. Ryan is common surname with a long and rich history; O’Connell the scholar likely gets his name from The Emancipator, Daniel O’Connell; the old, wheelchair-bound woman Harriet is a nod towards 19th century Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who suffered from paralysis in her wintering years. Little affectations, hanging like ghosts.
On the opposite end of the town to the pub is the Henge, the gateway to the Netherworld. Initially this is our point of entry to the other realms, with talk of how the Ancients built this structure to connect the lands of the living and the dead and to maintain spiritual balance. It is, you might think, the usual fantasy mumbo jumbo.
A little bit of real-world context here: although there are henges in Ireland, none are as extravagant or widely regarded as Stonehenge or as the one as depicted in Folklore. We do have prehistoric buildings in the same vein, plenty of dolmens and megalithic tombs. The most famous is Newgrange, a massive astrologically-aligned monument older than the pyramids of Egypt. This is important to bear in mind, since when this particular game talks about how the Ancients built these magnificent, impossible structures to link the realms, it’s not entirely talking through its arse. Ireland did have ancient civilizations who expressed themselves through such architecture and artistry, and they are presently believed to have been constructed for spiritual or superstitious reasons. Their origins are long since lost to the sands of time, so we may never know the intended purpose of many of these buildings. But still they blot the land as reminders of our ancient ancestors, as reminders of ourselves.
Here’s where things get heavy. There’s an enormous sanctuary underneath the Henge, accessible via mysticism, and through here we venture into the first realm of the Netherworlds: the Faery Realm.
There’s a fair amount of artistic licence from here on in, and since I can’t compare Folklore’s depiction of the Faery Realm to the actual Faery Realm, I’m going to speak broadly.
In Irish mythology, a sidhe is a sort of ancient mound under which live faeries (or fairies, whatever), hence the in-game connection between the Cliffs of Sidhe and the Henge’s basement as entrance to the Netherworld. The Faery Realm is a bright, beautifully lush land where the faeries, obviously, live, themselves being a race of weird looking short people. It’s here we’re introduced to the combat mechanics and the spiritual cosmology of the village of Doolin, the beauty of which lies in the chosen terminology.
In this depiction of Irish mythology, realms are populated by ethereal entities who basically live there in a perfectly normal way, and by rascally beings called Folks. Folks are the game’s random monsters; we fight them in combat, we get experience points from bating the life out of them. They take all sorts of forms, some being manifestations of Irish life present and past, some being figures or artefacts from mythology. Each one is a telephone box, a remnant of our culture in connotation or name as Gaeilge that summons an aspect of the real world into spiritual form. The first Folk you come across are Pouke, likely a variant on ‘pookie’, a term for some mischievous person, which itself was an Anglicization from the Irish pucá, meaning ghost. Not long ago on Halloween ‘penny for the pookie’ was how we’d have said ‘trick or treat’, so it’s particularly poignant for the timing of Samhain.
Folks are spirits of the dead which take a shape and a home realm particular to their character. Each realm resembles an abstracted part of Irish heritage, transformed into an environment and populace of both Folks and other spiritual entities. The Faery Realm is a figment of Irish romanticism which mimics expectations from our natural climate and mythology, making it a easy entry point for an international audience looking to see some fantasy they’re familiar with, but cements its identity by granting the Faeries their own agency outside of humanity’s wistfulness. The Faeries are happy to see a human visit their land, partially because they like the company, partially because they have plans to use Ellen for political gain.
As the game progresses you visit other realms, and through your transportation you open up paths that connect the Faery Realm to its neighbouring kingdoms. Warcadia is a city in the midst of a citizen uprising, a place manifested from the souls of those who lived and died in conflict. It’s a fantasy recreation of the Irish War for Independence and subsequent Civil War; we see humanoid Folks as guerrillas, numerous but underpowered, waging war against each other and the domineering Folk war machines which represent the Warcadia’s imperialistic ruling powers. It’s a surreal landscape, especially when we learn these Folk were the victims of violent, sudden deaths.
Later on we encounter The Endless Corridor, a realm of organic rot over stone architecture. The Endless Corridor is accessible via the vehickel in Doolin village, and appropriately it’s the spiritual manifestation of modern life as it affects the people of Ireland: the industrialized, sceptical soullessness, spurring disenfranchisement. The modern ideology that informs this realm denies spiritualism and superstition as viable belief systems, populated by spirits who died in the throes of existential agony, and so the Endless Corridor is a decaying, structureless world, a labyrinth of disconnected rooms and obscure artificial puzzles.
And this is the core cosmology of Folklore’s Ireland. In the warring, competing factioned realms we meander through facets of our world which signify legitimate strands in our communal narrative—the transition from a romanticized Faery Realm to a wartorn battlefield to an underwater Other shows a deeply conflicted nature, fraught by all these different self-impressions of Irish identity. Just as the Endless Corridor symbolizes a recent Ireland devastated by betrayal of the Catholic Church, as we move away from the stranglehold of the institution we simultaneously distance ourselves from our own prior heritage. Painful as it may be, the Church long ago instituted itself into our society by assimilating prominent traditions and lore and ironically became the primary mode of their preservation into the 21st century. In its amputation we make a great sacrifice.
In a sense this flows throughout Folklore in its many niggling mistakes, the tune of Danny Boy over a tinny radio, the misspelling of a terribly common Irish word, the absence of fadas, the overwhelming quaintness, that marks Doolin as a foreign creation inspired by outside stereotypes and branding. It is a village divorced from Gaeilge in its routine, present only in pangs of heritage and a spiritual desire on the verge of oblivion.
And so it goes. Realm by realm Ellen discovers the Netherworld is decaying from the core outwards, the people of Ireland abandon their lore to the quick onslaught of modern progress. We’re losing our connection with our history, letting other people take it away from us, just for some cold hard dollars. Half a world away Doolin was so imagined, and it is Ireland.
There is, however, hope in Ellen’s procession. In battling Folks she absorbs into her cloak the Ids of the deceased, the lost souls of the land, and incorporates them into her journey. We combat Folks by collecting and using Folks in their many shapes and forms, by taking them inside us and knowing them, learning them and wielding them against the world’s hostilities. We salvage them and remember them. Each victory sees the realms becoming more peaceful and solid. To each realm there is a Folklore, a boss, who drives its strife and traps the Ids of Folks within their violent cycles, who we also absorb in our quest for the truth. And with each absorbed Folklore, we come one step closer to connecting with the lost humanity of Doolin, to mending the rifts between the realms that barriers spirituality. And slowly, we regain our heritage.
 No it isn’t.