Tag Archives: Exploration

Future Unfolding Review

This was the last review I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

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When I play a new game, I typically craft an opinion that doesn’t waiver more than a little bit over the course of my play through. Though not always true, my first impression is usually a decent predictor of my final thoughts. Future Unfolding is a bizarre instance where this is nowhere close to true. When I first started playing it, I thought it was a wonderfully different sort of puzzle experience. Two hours in, and I was bored out of my mind. Another two hours in and I was scratching my head, itching at some idea that I thought must be lurking under the symbols and bits of poetic language the game was throwing at me. Another two hours, and I was again rolling my eyes, frustrated with the repetitive nature of the thing. But now that I’ve spent all the time I need to finish it, I find myself confused, lacking a really good way of summarizing my thoughts and feelings about the experience of playing this strange game.

Play begins with the press a button. Out of thin air you poof into existence, as if this most basic moment of interaction creates the character you play as, with all potential futures at your fingertips. I began in a forest, though given the procedural nature of the game, starting locations are bound to vary. Instantly, the visuals impress. Future Unfolding is a gorgeous take on top-down games. Everything has a mystical, painterly look with plants, animals, rocks, and ponds drenched in vivid watercolor. To match the beauty of the wildlife, the sound effects and music are ambient and natural and give off a mysterious, thoughtful vibe. There is a constant, pretty hum to the world and just about everything you interact with produces a pleasant and fitting musical tone, reminding me of the sound design of other symphonic gardens (see Starseed Pilgrim) that have heavily influenced the indie game world.

As you venture out into dense wooded areas, flowery fields, and rocky bluffs, it’s not immediately apparent what you’re supposed to be doing. Of course, it’s hard to begin a game without the assumption that there is an objective. Exploration (something you’ll do a lot of in Future Unfolding,) even though massively rewarding in its own right, is typically done in the hopes of completing or finding a goal. Indeed, there are some definitive targets at the core of this game, but they’re hidden behind vague puzzles and strange enemies which impede your progress. There is a map for keeping track of your wanderings, and little moments of discovery, in which you are rewarded with some contemplative words or a new, alternatively-colored locale. But for the most part, you’ll be feeling your way through these areas without much of a concrete direction. No one holds your hand, there are no arrows pointing you in the correct direction, just an occasional map marker.

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“Wander” is a good word to summarize most of that you do in Future Unfolding. The better you are at roaming about with an indistinct notion of purpose, the more you will probably get from playing this game all the way through to the end. This sentiment comes through in the odd little pieces of poetry you’ll find as you zigzag through the world. One little quote that stuck with me: “A guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation. A dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” The connection between little ideas like this and the way the mechanics direct you to strange, convoluted conclusions is the most impressive thing I took from the game. The seemingly wishy-washy solutions to puzzles bloom into perfectly sensible answers when you simply let your skeptical mind take a break. There is a very natural feeling to solving these odd little riddles. The indiscrete “interact” button organically does anything you need it to in a way that makes perfect sense for a game that is all about human interaction with wilderness.

Nature is your every enemy and ally in this game. You wreak havoc on this world in search of answers. A theme appears: Human exploration necessitates destruction. If you wish to make your way beyond natural barriers of rocks or trees, you must utilize one of the awesome powers of man. As quick as lightning, blotches of something fierce and inky annihilate the original features of the landscape, paving the way for you to continue your journey. But the world is not devoid of dangers. Nature has more than one way of keeping your destruction at bay. And there are snakes, whirlwinds of deadly leaves, and lion-like creatures awaiting your misstep in many locations around the map. A simple balance emerges between your capacity for destruction and your need to stay hidden from these aggressive forces. Trees and rock features that provide a safe hiding place are knocked over in your quest for more exploration, more discovery, more game. But there are curious and helpful creatures as well. You can befriend sheep and rabbits, sitting down for a moment to get to know them and earn their trust. Fish spread out and collect items you need to carry on with your explorations. Deer allow you to hitch a ride and leap across gaps you would be restricted by alone. Another relevant quote: “The inhabitants of this world have taken note… You are a stranger whom they admire and fear. Explain yourself.”

Future Unfolding has a pervasive atmosphere of contemplation. You character sits in meditation upon discovering new curiosities, provides you a moment to dwell on what you’ve just discovered, and what it may mean. There is a generally mysterious and eerie tone, though as you discover more of what there is to be discovered, an over-arching theme regarding impermanence, death and rebirth can be gleaned. The game’s mechanics revolve around fluidity and uncertainty rather than perfection and hard-stops. Unfortunately, this hazy nature has a few downsides. There is an overwhelming amount of things to do, and for each of these things there is typically one nebulous way to do it. Most of your actions revolve around walking around and getting near objects that then in turn clear a path or otherwise allow you to progress, and this can get a little tedious, or at the very least a bit repetitive. And while I have no complaints about the gorgeous scenery you get to take in while traversing the humongous world, the world is truly humongous. It takes a long time to get from place to place and at times it was difficult to find the drive to carry on.

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Eventually, I realized that these little annoyances either didn’t matter or may have even been somewhat intentional. The game doesn’t worry about you getting stuck in any one spot, because it’s always pretty easy to just move on. If I had not played this game through to the end, I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as I did. But sticking with it, I found myself far more appreciative of what it had to offer. And that’s because it really doesn’t offer the same kind of thing as many other games. The puzzles don’t ramp up the longer you play, there isn’t really much of a change of pace in terms of your abilities and skills. You pretty much do the same thing from beginning to end. But as I played it, I stopped trying to figure it out. I just kind of accepted what I was doing and played along. This brought me closer to the place that I now think the game was operating on. A place not too heady and not too base. Something very clean but not grossly polished. Something very thoughtful but not convoluted.

Future Unfolding captures the essence of flow masterfully. You learn things through trial and error, exploration, and guesswork for the most part. Eventually, all these little imperfect ways of learning about the world culminate to a complex understanding of the mechanics of each animal and object. But it is kind of a pain to get to that point. There’s a lot to do, and much of it isn’t very engaging. There’s a lot of wandering, a lot of hypothesis – this is true while searching for entertainment and while searching for a serious, discernible interpretation. And I respect the integrity of the game’s message in how it corresponds to this wandering and searching, but I didn’t have all that much fun as I was doing it. And that’s OK in my mind, because Future Unfolding seems to me to be less about having a good ol’ silly time and more about slow contemplation and gradual comprehension.

N8

R8

7/8

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Lovely, Ordinary Rituals

If you scroll through my post history here on N8R8, it ought to be pretty obvious why Rituals first caught my eye. Low-poly, exploration-based, minimalist, slightly abstract, 3D first-person adventure/puzzler. Not to mention its dreary themes relating to nature and humanity. I mean, it literally feels like Tymon Zgainski knew exactly what to include in a trailer to get someone like me to buy his game. So I did, of course, and after a brief stint in this lovely, snow-globe-like world, I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment… But perhaps that’s too pessimistic a sentiment to begin this review, so instead of whining straight from the get-go, perhaps I should just begin with what Rituals is.

Rituals is a point-and-click. It’s a short, thoughtful(ish), well-directed adventure into an immersive bridge-world between natural environments and industrial/corporate spaces. The player takes the classic role of the highly-relateable desk jockey with a penchant for poking around places lower-level employees don’t belong. The controls are simple and self-explanatory, with on-screen directional arrows and a click-and-drag style of looking around. Using these simple tools to peruse my place of work, I was clued into the statutory mystery of the game. Security cameras, that ever-present feeling of abandonment, and an eerie audio track which could easily have been titled “Something Amiss” all suggest that something is, indeed, amiss. Is this a dream? Am I dead? In a coma? In purgatory? I fear this game will be boring enough to answer “yes” to any one of these questions.

And quickly, at the end of a disastrous elevator ride, my fear that Rituals will be riding the same tedious rails as a hundred point-and-click adventures before is alleviated. I enter a new place – a forest temple – decorated with light and greenery and sacred symbols. A note on the pedestal at the end of the enclosure asks us specific questions, but their gist is the same. They are the formal questions of the adventure game genre. What is the meaning of this place? Who are its creators? Who am I, and how am I related to it all? I could call these questions tropes, and indeed they are. But these archetypal riddles give the first-person adventure game its glow. Without these recycled fundamentals, adventure games would not do what they do so well – and that is ask us meaningful questions.

Temple

Other adventure game conventions are maintained. Instinctually, I collect a lantern, a bucket, and a shovel. I know they’ll be useful at some point. Reflexively, I explore all directions and click on all things clickable. Several paths lead to dead-ends. These dead-ends are off-putting in a modern adventure game like Rituals, where the protocol is that all impasses offer some sort of eventual purpose. It took me a while to trust them as true dead-ends and to understand that Rituals is not a complicated game. The lantern is used for light. The bucket is used for water. The shovel is used to dig. The initial excitement of this place wears off and I go about using these items in a chore-like manner. Many games offer something pretty to look at during these moments of tedium. Rituals gives you the same forest-y labyrinth, with its actual dead-ends and its low-poly dirt. Fairly humdrum.

These moments are abound in the exploration process. In each new area, I am required to engage in mechanical, unchallenging, and relatively uninteresting stints of investigation. Having been so enthusiastic to play the game, I wanted to get something good out of my experience. So I tried to stop thinking of Rituals as a game. I quit focusing on the simplicity of the puzzles and focused more on the exploratory process. But there was nothing supplementary to the primary goal of moving forward. Excluding the occasional magazine or note with some detail into the ‘story’ behind the game, there is nothing to gain from deeper inspection.

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And this ‘hidden’ story, which the player is almost guaranteed to discover, revolves around some unfortunately well-worn practices of science fiction. Humans have pissed off Mother Nature. The player is the agent that will balance the scales. But since this is a video game, the almighty art form of the modern generation – destined to overturn the staleness of linear narrative, the player has Choice(tm). So instead of saving the world, the player – groundbreakingly – may choose to end it! Heavy stuff, I know… There’s no nuance to any of it. Each little piece of the story is, without any convincing veil, placed directly on the player’s path. This, to me, is analogous to disobeying the old English teacher adage of “Show, Don’t Tell.” Rituals got right in my face and told me the answers to those questions it had me asking early in the game. Answers I didn’t want, answers I honestly didn’t need. This problem carries over into the actual gameplay. A linear trail of crumbs leads the player to the only possible conclusion there is to each and every ‘puzzle.’

All of this is not to say that the game does not have its merits. The game is at peak shininess during those in-between scenes where the player has just completed the tasks required to move on. The wonderful direction of Rituals peaks out from the shroud of monotony to give us a glimpse of what magic may have been. There is a legitimate sense of urgency and seriousness when you’re being brought to and from different places. Volcanos explode, elevators crash, and lights dim, giving off the real impression that something meaningful and exciting is happening. The conclusion of the game is one of the best parts. Suddenly, all of the little boring bits come together with a bang, and it’s almost hard to remember why they were so lame in the first place.

Jungle

Rituals does a good job of scaling up the story to fit my understanding of the world as I explored further. I never felt overwhelmed or confused, which is a typical problem I have with first person adventure games. The story was dull, though not vapid, and the gameplay was slow-paced and obvious, though not entirely pointless. I feel like there’s a spectrum that exists with games like Rituals. At one end is total convolution and at the other is flaccidity.  And while Rituals is pretty far to the flaccid side of that spectrum, it isn’t a total bust. It is thoughtful and has a lot of heart. It’s a well-polished, solid, short-form interactive experience with some real problems with its essential game-ness and narrative direction. Undoubtedly, though, I am glad I took the time to play.

N8

R8

4/8

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N8 AW8S – Shape of the World

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Currently vying for your support, Shape of the World is an atmospheric first-person exploration game that boasts a procedurally generated environment and gameplay similar to Flower and Proteus.  One might be tempted to compare it to walking-sims like Dear Esther, but that would be entirely ignoring the main attraction…  In Shape of the World, Progression is marked with the world shooting up around you. Luminescent trees, neon foliage, and ghost-like creatures come into existence as you cover the ground with your footsteps. These are markers of the player’s own growth in relation to the game.  Triangular arches and glowing orbs beckon in the distance and give the player a sense of direction and purpose.  There is no concrete reward system.  No points, no leaderboard, no end-of-level sugar-rush.  Shape of the World isn’t so forceful as all of that.  A softer sort of progress is awarded as the player delves deeper into this world.  The world grows with the player’s movement, and the player cannot grow further without the gentle nudging from the world.

From Stu Maxwell and Co. at Hollow Tree Studios, Shape of the World is available for pre-order on Kickstarter, and offers the ability to get access to the game for $20(CAD).  Upon it’s release, it’s certain to increase in price, so make sure to snag your right to a digital copy now!

I’ll leave you with a lovely preview:

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