Electron Dance
20Jun/2017

Not So Far

There was a lady in the village of Lyndow. Tifa her name was and she offered me a ride on the back of her cart to the city of Nava. But when I tried to take her up on her kind offer, she admonished me. I asked why.

“You’re a newcomer and you’ve never been to Nava! It’s not so far and the walk is lovely. Everyone going to Nava for their first time should approach by foot. I won’t be the one to cheat you out of an enriching experience.”

Eastshade, you know me very well. More than you think.

Despite being in development for many years, launch day was the first I’d heard of Eastshade (Eastshade Studios, 2019). An indie videogame apparently about wandering and painting which looked gorgeous. I had to have it.

I was wary of a hint of new-age schmaltz to the trailer: “You say you’ve searched far and wide, but you haven’t found it. Is it possible perhaps... you are looking for the wrong thing?” But I was well past the line of “curious” and deep into “crack open thy wallet” territory. In 2018, I played little else but puzzles and so, in 2019, it was time to return to my first love of exploring.

Still: trailers, wittingly or unwittingly, promote your imagined fantasy videogame rather than the actual product on the digital shelves. They encourage you to embellish between the lines.

The first thing I saw in Eastshade was a yucky beige interior that screamed indie budget. It began in a prison-like cabin on a ship bound for the island of Eastshade - prison-like for this was a tutorial. Shortly after completing the tutorial, the sea vessel ran aground on some rocks, sunk and then… I woke up in an equally unattractive cave. Where had all that graphical promise fled?

I’ll tell you where - just up the path away from the shore. It took me past an enticing and locked wooden tower that compelled me to create a to-do list headlined with BREAK INTO TOWER. And then I passed into a meadow and wow, wow, wow. This is what I came for. And thus began a long torrent of screenshots with my finger burrowed into F12, Steam’s customary screenshot key.

As I pranced through this postcard picture, here and there I spotted the white outlines of shapes hovering. It seems I could pluck all sorts of objects from the ground - twigs, bloomsacs, feathers and more. This drove me towards a hitherto unknown inventory screen and into a moment of dissonance. I had imagined Eastshade as an exploring-painting game with some dialogue, but here I was, looking at a dense inventory screen sliced into tabs and diced into lists. That imagined fantasy videogame was sailing away towards the horizon.

A path beckoned through the meadow towards the village of Lyndow. The inventory filofax convinced me to follow the developer’s environmental prompts into Lyndow instead of fighting them. Indeed, the village was pretty - although it became clear that Eastshade’s graphics tech was good at the mid-range while close-ups looked a little rough, and anything in the distance had a tendency to pop-out into glorified smudges. I noticed that more often than not.

The question I have avoided so far is what do you do in Eastshade?

It’s a question I find AAA marketing is good at avoiding, preferring implication unless there’s a clever mechanic or two that will win the hearts of wallet-owners. The GTA franchise is considered to be an open-world masterpiece but, let’s be honest, many of the GTA mini-games are exquisitely-skinned fetch quests. And most of the discourse focuses on the skin than the fetch.

Eastshade has a lot of fetch quests. But Eastshade, like all those AAA games I seemed to callously malign a paragraph ago, is all about the skin. I’m hearing that The Last of Us: Part II is really, absolutely, astoundingly, amazingly the true heir of Citizen Kane which conveniently sidesteps the truth of its constrained player agency. So who am I to roast Eastshade over its own, fairly rudimentary implementation of player agency? Games thrive on what their players bring to the table: digital realities are just as much make-believe as the average movie.

So, sure, a lot of Eastshade is fetch quests. But are these just filler, like the now-tired cliché collectibles of the Very Slow Walking Simulator, or do they mean more?

Who are you? You’re a tourist on Eastshade, a painter, in fact. There is a single goal that defines the arc of the game: to paint four of your late mother’s favourite places on the island. But, in typical game design fashion, these locations are impossible to reach without serious exploration and conversation with the right people. There are other subtle ways exploration is gated: you’ll need to have enough currency (glowstones) to make progress and painting requires “inspiration”, another resource that is easy to squander.

Now the modern big box RPG is full of rubbish sidequests that feel like a rude interruption to your path to herohood. They merely serve to kill time or keep you engaged - depending on your half-empty/half-full perspective on these matters. You know the sidequests I’m ranting about: collect a dozen yellow flowers, kill the rats troubling Mrs. Curmudgeon the Baker or maybe just find out if there’s any good sushi on the space station. Eastshade is 100% these sidequests. There’s practically nothing heroic here. It’s all about getting to know people, seeing the sights and helping out folk.

Yet there’s a sad, grubby side that’s unnecessarily baked into many of these sidequests. For example, I wanted to solve the mystery of Ranya hearing eerie drumming in the dead of night as much as she did. If you follow this sidequest to its conclusion, Eastshade offers a surprising revelation about the island’s history which no one else talks about. Cool. But I was also rewarded with 70 glowstones. And I couldn’t help thinking coins for good deeds was antithetical to Eastshade’s “altruist visitor” narrative.

I would have preferred Eastshade to trust its players more because it’s so full of those “bullshit” sidequests that other RPGs use to dilute their core narrative that only those invested in Eastshade will go the distance anyway. The gating of money and resources to achieve this is often overwrought. To get a boat I had to: paint a picture of a sandy beach, collect a bunch of bloomsacs and some twine, solve a puzzle involving mirrors, paint the solution of a riddle, find a necklace lost in the sea and then offer a secret society password to a back alley merchant. I mean, I was happy to do all this anyway but… but...

But I never found the people of Eastshade particularly interesting. Eastshade is Children’s Fiction: Open World Edition and it’s the all-encompassing amiability that renders them less than memorable. When the credits rolled, I wasn’t thinking about all the friends we’d made along the way - I was pining for the sights. I’m not completely at odds with these sorts of settings; the Lands of Dream games such as The Sea Will Claim Everything (Jonas & Verena Kyratzes, 2012) also evoke the same children’s book atmosphere, but I find the characters more engaging.

Having said that, do not assume that Eastshade is without conflict. I agitated one of the Lyndow folk so much he punched me in the face and I was never able to talk to him again. His storyline seemed to have a particularly downbeat ending. I’ve no idea what happens if no punch is thrown.

On the subject of pissing off the locals, Eastshade likes to offer you a lot of asshole options in your dialogue. Young Sanja shows you her painting and you can either tell her “Wow, you worked really hard on this!” or “Hm. What is it supposed to be?” Evelina asks if you can help her romance Leilani and you can respond, “No. Love is disgusting.” When Tam tells you about accidentally selling toxic tubers instead of zucchinis to his customers, you can tell him: “I can’t associate myself with you.”

I don’t really know why these options are there as players generally choose positive options especially as those are the options that lead to rewards. And we know Eastshade is not shy about paying you hard cash for being a nice boy. But not everybody is well meaning. Not all incidents turn out to be just a “terrible misunderstanding”. There are two sidequests that are particularly strong in this regard and I’ll relegate those to the spoiler appendix for further discussion.

I did not play Eastshade for the dialogue trees. I played for its rich, delectable visuals. Seeing the city of Nava from afar for the first time is one of the strongest moments of the game. There’s no cutscene or orchestral swell - it’s just there. And as you prepare yourself to cross the crazy bridge to the city, you’re told you don’t have the paperwork to enter.

And, as much as it pains me to write this, I have to give Eastshade some credit for trying to make it hard to see all the nice things. The beautiful view from the summit is beautiful not just because of nature but also due to the effort required to get there. It isn’t simply some random snapshot, it’s a paragraph of your life. The purpose of the journey is the journey. With a few obstacles, Eastshade’s sights gain more power. And if you don’t keep an eye out, you might easily miss The Howling Caverns which is a gorgeous treat.

Certain locations were not as mindblowing as expected. The extreme Disneyland microclimate has fostered arctic wastes on the north of the island and while the journey there is fascinating, I found too much of it looked like bland, white rock. And the view from the highest peak just demonstrates the weakness of the engine when it comes to grand panorama. But these are quibbles because my Eastshade screenshots folder is bigger than most other games. Eastshade is F12: The Game.

I had also expected to paint more but each painting needs you to chase down boards and fabric to make canvas. As with a lot of resources in this game, the design encourages you to rob everybody blind - one character even suggests you do this! On needing resources to paint, Rebekah Valentine writes for GI.biz:

At any given point as you traverse Eastshade you are either looking directly at a desirable landscape painting, or you're about five steps to the left of one. Weinbaum was wise to limit the act of painting a picture to having enough of a resource (possibly the only truly "video gamey" part of the whole thing). If he had not, I would just be tiptoeing around the island for hours on end, stopping and painting every few steps -- effectively what I did with the screenshot button anyway. You can't not pause and gawk at everything.

Indeed, instead of taking time to paint every scene that caught my eye, I just hit F12, reserving painting resources for when I had a painting-related objective. That is, for when the game paid me. Once again, mechanics meddle with theme. Not only did Mr. Helpful Visitor turn burglar, but he downed tools. He never painted for the sheer joy of painting.

Eastshade was constantly in conflict with itself and I never quite felt at home there. And yet, this was to ignore perhaps the most important aspect of Eastshade which is why, despite all these misgivings, I have nothing but the greatest respect for it.

Several years ago, I wrote about Mercenary: Escape From Targ (Novagen, 1985) which I dubbed “the first open world”. In Mercenary, you were free to explore an entire planet at whim although most of the important activity occured in a handful of underground complexes. This game was not about shooting but exploring and trying to find your way off planet - with a little negotiation with two warring parties sprinkled in. It’s a peaceful open-world game which no-one emulated in the decades that followed. What we recognise as open-world today tends to revolve around violence.

But where are the modern descendents of Mercenary? Why has GTA III become the de facto model for the open world, where killing is the player verb we cannot live without? …it feels like we lost something important, an entire game genus snuffed out through industrial evolution.

Until recently, if I had been asked whether anyone had built an open-world following Mercenary’s design philosophy, my answer would have been “Not so far.” But last year Eastshade changed that. It rejected the status quo and rekindled an open-world dream from over thirty years ago that didn’t involve gunshots to the head or blades to the throat.

Baby, I’m so glad you’re back.

The Spoiler Appendix

  • I didn’t want to touch the K&K Apothecary story with a barge pole because it had “Kai is a conman” written all over it. But Eastshade occasionally doesn’t make it clear you’re agreeing to something when you’re just curious - I hate having a quest against me that I don’t want to carry out. However, this was one of those tales which was “just a terrible misunderstanding” and I was happy to seeing this one through to the end.
  • Lady Samira asked me to go looking for a box in the Howling Caverns and some time later - a lot of some time later - I found it. While I was handing in some commissioned paintings to the Nava art dealer, I indulged in chit-chat about people and places. I didn’t do this often because the chit-chat was, more than not, a repetition of what you already heard from someone else. I had an option to ask the art dealer about Lady Samira - and he told me whoa she might not be a wholly honest person. Holy SHIT. I thought everybody was supposed to be LOVELY. She was not the right person to give the box to... This twist was a genuine surprise and it made me question how much of Eastshade was set in stone. (Other people can also warn you about Samira.)
  • In Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) there is just one moment of potential violence and it is powerful. In Eastshade, Samiya, a Shez religious zealot, asked me to kill the Dream Tea vine that the underground Roots group was using for drug-induced visions. This, I thought, was out of order. Even if I sympathised that Dream Tea abuse was a bad thing, becoming a secret Shez agent and taking the law into my own hands seemed wholly un-Eastshade. In a game with no violence, the smallest transgression will feel violent. Samiya’s quest remained incomplete at the end of the game. (Apparently, you can also close the quest by spilling the beans to Roots.)
  • The Thief of Sinkwood Inn quest. I had all the evidence about who the thief was but found it confusing. I spent a long time here; you can’t leave until you’ve solved the mystery and earned the reed boat. I really had no idea who the thief was. One interesting consequence, however, was that I felt uncomfortable when I explored the Tiffmoor Ruins and expected something bad to happen. (It did not.)
  • One of my favourite moments was painting during a tea vision. It looked good at the time but when I returned to the real world, it looked like this. Brilliant.
  • I didn’t realise that you could experiment with ingredients for your tea until Nick Bell mentioned it. I didn’t find any genuinely amazing combination, although I was able to make the Howling Caverns look amazing by drinking everyday mead.
  • It’s difficult to see during the day, but if you look at the planet in the sky at night… is that Earth?

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  1. I’ve said this before I think, but I had a total love/hate relationship with Eastshade.

    I loved the peace and calm of the island, how beautiful it was, and that it let me paint whatever I wanted. Puttering around the island doing lots of lovely side quests was a very soothing experience. There aren’t that many games which are this soothing just in terms of the sort of baseline activity you’re doing, while also being this beautiful and engaging.

    But I felt like the resource requirements for painting were far too strict, which meant I had to limit myself to painting far less than I’d have liked. And although the game introduced a whole host of interesting mechanics around painting (needing inspiration, needing resources, different lighting conditions during different parts of the day), I felt the game never fully explored any of them with its mechanics. Inspiration could have been more interesting than just “a number that goes up when you enter a new area or chug some tea”. The resources required could have been more plentiful but you could have eg. mixed paints, or spent different resources to do just a sketch of a subject rather than a full painting. I found it interesting that you’d only get blue light at night (when it’s cold), so you had to protect against the cold to get a blue painting – and then that never got used.

    I also felt that the side quests often focused around you just… sort of… being there? As in, most side quests had nothing to do with painting and could have been completed by anyone. Where were the side quests about putting together an art exhibit? Studying different styles? Learning how to mix paints? The art commissions were good but to my mind they could have been a foundation of the game, not its highlight.

    And at the same time I honestly am blown away that such a small team were able to craft such a beautiful world! Props for that.

  2. Hi James!

    It’s partly why writing this has taken so long. I never fell in love with it, but I loved much of my time with it – and left me in a very awkward position. I wasn’t excited to write about Eastshade but it seemed important to put something down.

    I can often forgive tried-and-tested game mechanics in other videogames. The GTA with its collectibles, RPGs with their fetch quests and so on. But I know I’m a damn more critical when it comes to something more… pastoral? You’re trying to do something unique and special but then fluff it with all these shoehorned mechanics that manage player behaviour but stick out like a sore thumb.

    The canvas resource mechanic around painting seem quite hostile to the game’s theme especially as you spend most of the game stealing them. I, too, thought the game’s focus would have been the painting: it seemed more of the focus of the trailers rather than looking for necklaces or rescuing a water fox. I don’t know what that game would have been like and, who knows, maybe the Eastshade team did try it but it turned out to be a bit vapid. (You could also “pick up” inspiration from sitting through one of the bard’s routines, but some of those stories were quite long…)

    I was also a little glum that the paintings looked really good on the easel but once you committed them to the painting browser, they just looked like my F12 screenshots. There was some kind of post-processing done of the easel version which made look much cooler.

    But at the same time, God: this game is gorgeous. How did they pull this off?

  3. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem as though I can play Eastshade because Macintosh, but it does sound in many ways like… Knytt Underground! (Seriously the very first comment I left about Knytt Underground here was back when you were asking where the non-violent open world games were.)

    So Knytt Underground is all about fetch quests and side quests but it is really up front about their pointlessness, or rather that the point is to do them and enjoy doing them. For instance, in the first chapter there’s a woman who asks you for help finding her daughter, who likes to climb up to a certain hard-to-reach spot. When you reach the spot, the daughter isn’t there, and when you return, the daughter has come back and says she didn’t see you, and the mother yells at you for not looking for her. In so many ways it tells you that the real Knytt Underground is the friends you made along the way. (I apparently have never posted that anywhere on the internet yet? Oh wait you said basically the same thing about Eastshade.)

    Also the fetch quests sound not quite so punishing, in that the game contains way more resources than you need for the open-ended fetch quests (as opposed to several quests that involve gathering a few things in tightly circumscribed spaces).

    The mood sounds different too… I can’t say it’s not Children’s Fiction when the word “Knytt” comes from Moomin (it get translated as “Toffle” or “little creep”), but it reminds me of the later Moomin books when they get super existential. Much of it is extraordinarily melancholy in ways large and small. There are many human artifacts with unreliable descriptions; one of them is “Clicky Tube: Human miners used this to measure the distance to the surface. The device would click more rapidly the closer to the surface the miner was.” And there’s more incentive to choose asshole dialogue options because the character who delivers them is hilarious, and a fair number of characters you meet obviously deserve them.

    OTOH since it’s 2-D there’s absolutely none of finding your own angle on things, and you can’t change the look the way you seem to in Eastshade. So in that way it wouldn’t scratch the same itch.

  4. Oh also A Short Hike for the non-violent open world thing! It’s in The Bundle!

  5. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a non-violent open world, albeit one no larger than a village. You play cards with the other children and confer over the existence of monsters, space aliens and other supernatural phenonema. It’s not unlike being on summer holiday when you were six, except here the Back to the Future cartoon you got out of bed at 5am to watch is replaced by a Super Sentai-style show. Great soundtrack too.

    I liked that you took some time out of your assessment of a violence-free game about painting to Justify Dark Souls’ Difficulty! Doubtless sloughing armfuls of people forever from the hobby as you did, you monster. In all seriousness, I did find it a fascinating read and it’s always interesting to think about the directions in which games design seems to default, consciously or unconsciously, even when certain themes and conventions are actively eschewed.

    This is a bit tangential but Jimmy Maher wrote recently about the crossroads the games industry found itself in during the mid ’90s, with multimedia on the one hand gesturing towards a putative ‘mainstream’ audience and the Interactive Movie dream, and Doom cleaving to the gaming ‘base’ and exulting in – well, in everything that the likes of Myst (and Eastshade) isn’t.

    Except one thing – 3D, the technology that allowed Doom to render a world that offered the player immediacy and presence and habitability. In one sense Eastshade represents the final, decades-late convergence of those two visions – a game qua game, in the Doom sense, that wears the aesthetics and realises the sensibilities of those blue-sky dreamers. From this angle, the game is finally the answer to Maher’s charge that developers with an alternative vision for games ‘never devised new modes of gameplay to complement their new modes of presentation … they seemed to believe that the latter alone ought to be enough.’ From another, er, maybe not? This article doesn’t give an exactly rousing endorsement of Eastshade’s do-ey bits.

    (For what it’s worth I find Maher’s dichotomy a little too neatly-drawn; from my perspective games have always been surprisingly diverse if you’re prepared to look outside the best-selling charts, and there were no shortage of developers making games that appealed beyond the ‘base’ (such that it’s ever existed) before or after the FMV craze.)

  6. Matt

    I wish I could remember all the comments everyone writes here, but I think I reached my brain limit around 2014 and ever since then they’ve just been pooling on the floor instead of going in.

    Yeah, it’s my built-in assumption when I’m talking about open world I mean these 3D environments that you can wander around. The badly-named walking simulator helps but it basically dumps all the mechanics instead of opting for an alternate set. Also those games are usually directed at a linear throughline, rather than a general exploration (there are exceptions like TIMEframe).

    Knytt Underground: one of these days, Matt. I swear. Knytt Underground sounds different as it has a bit of flavour to it and that’s what Eastshade’s people are missing. There are a few exceptions – like the “one glowstone guy” who made us laugh out loud.

    I’m not sure A Short Hike really works for me either as that’s closer to (having not played it) walking simulator…?

    CA

    Ah, some of those Japanese soundtracks seem to emerge from another era, you know? I’ve never heard of Attack of the Friday Monsters – not a surprise considering its a Nintendo game which is just like a void to me. Again, for the same reason as I gave Matt, I don’t know if I would give AotFM the open world seal of approval as it looks more like an arrangement of rooms with defined interactivity than true open world freedom.

    I don’t know if I would say I was really justifying Dark Souls difficulty because Eastshade’s obstacles are not difficult in the same sense, however I do agree that the difficulty is what makes Dark Souls, well, Dark Souls. The real argument is that difficulty is relative; I am absolutely shit with multiple buttons. Extreme case: if you’ve got arthritic hands, it wouldn’t take much to confer “Dark Souls difficulty” – you could probably throw away 90% of what people consider fundamental Dark Souls.

    Maher: There was this horrible part of the 90s when it seemed everything was going 3D whether it needed to or not. FROGGER, BUT NOW 3D! SPACE INVADERS, BUT NOW 3D! I hated living through it but we’re on the other side of it now with some developers doing quite well on old-skool aesthetics (Downwell, Minit) or finding 2D is just fine thank you very much (numerous examples). The AAA wing, of course, is forever doomed to follow 3D. I expect VR will take the same route, if it ever finds a way of working for many people. I tell ye, it’s not the lack of Half-Life Alyx that was the problem, it’s just that it’s not quite the future we were promised.

    Christ, talk about tangents.

  7. “Christ, talk about tangents.”

    OK!

    Yeah I see what you mean about Knytt Underground not fitting. And it’s in a genre of… you know what, I don’t need to call it a Metroidvania, open-world platformer will do fine. I should stop hocking you about it, but it seems like Eastshade doesn’t have a level select, so what else could I talk about?

    A Short Hike isn’t really a walking sim in this sense I don’t think! There are collectibles you need to collect, collectibles you don’t need to collect, fetch quests, lots of NPCs… also there’s some climbing bits that have nonzero challenge, with the degree of challenge depending partly on how many collectibles you have. (There’s a Dank Mountainesque climbing mechanic, and how long you can climb depends on how many collectibles you have. It’s nice to be able to explain this to one of the two people I know will understand what “Dank Mountainesque” means!)

    I have the multiple-buttons thing too, also from never doing Nintendo. Or, I can do some things with multiple buttons but there’s this combo aesthetic that feels derived from controllers that I can’t do at all (got completely brickwalled by Lugaru and They Bleed Pixels and I think Zineth might have had a similar issue, speaking of nonviolent open world games). To bring the threads together, I got Nifflas’s Ynglet demo and it seems to require a gamepad so I can’t play it at all. Sad!

    It feels like VVVVVV was a watershed in old-skool graphics? BUT NOW 3D always reminds me of this.

  8. “difficulty is relative” – oh yes, I agree entirely. The player is a moving target! Which I guess means that designing game difficulty is, well, difficult. I was just having a little joke. Oh and I’ll grant that AOTFM isn’t truly a duck p- I mean, open world. However the related and more expansive Boku no Natsuyasumi series (which I’ve never played) might qualify..?

    The BUT NOW 3D era was easier for me because I existed in the Nintendo Void and Shiggsy et al nailed like 85% of the transitions they attempted to make. Imagine being 12, and the Super Mario and Zelda games you’d spent 8 years besotted with suddenly becoming inhabitable worlds. Imagine!!

    Even then there were a few awkward steps. Did you know in that in 64, Mario has a button for punching and kicking? Mario! But his flips and jumps and woohoos and waahaas are SO GOOD that it barely jars. And you beat Bowser by grabbing him by the tail and tossing him like a hammer! Into bombs lining the arena! Why would he put bombs there? Who knows! But it’s perfect because you spin the N64’s weird singular analogue stick around and it absolutely feels like you’re giving the big bastard a proper heave-ho.

    Did you know that I would go into NPCs houses and shield block in the corner of rooms because it was the closest thing to a ‘sitting’ action and even as a kiddo I craved more nonviolent ways to interact with and inhabit Hyrule’s world? Did you want to? Too late!!!

    I know not everything got better with 3D, and I remember being bemused by a few magazine reviews dismissing or even slating otherwise great games for not getting with the 3D times (Mischief Makers, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon 2), but I also remember it as a tremendously exciting time where (on console at least) games felt like a new frontier steadily being explored. Every six months brought some new ground-breaking title; often the gap was much shorter than even that. Interesting to learn that this might have been a perspective defined by my age and/or choice of platform, although I remember the through-line of Duke Nukem 3D, Half Life and then Deus Ex feeling similarly revelatory. Maybe you’re thinking earlier than that though?

    Reading the Maher stuff has been interesting because I was alive and playing games through this period, but not paying attention to current developments. We had a NES (antiquated by the early/mid ’90s) and got our first 75mhz Pentium I in ’96, on which I played shareware discs that presented the prior 10 years of DOS games all in a jumble, so my formative gaming experiences were highly anachronistic. Which makes reading a serious attempt at chronologising the period like Maher’s feel like reading some weird alt-history fanfiction. But I started reading PC Gamer and Nintendo mags in ’98 which gave me a much more defined sense of the industry’s progression. Even now, watching LGR videos about ’80s hardware, I still get a distinct ‘oh, they had computers in those days?’ vibe.

    Cyberpunk is threatening to make me buy a new PC, which means my specs will be in VR territory..

  9. CA: I find Maher’s analysis interesting. Obviously it ain’t as simple as all that, but I do see in it the same critique that I had with games until a few years ago: that there aren’t enough nonviolent games, and that the ones that are nonviolent might as well be movies. Since most standard game mechanics have pertained either to violence (shooting, reloading, blocking) or making yourself better at dishing out violence (stat trees, equipment, weapon select), this sounds a lot like Maher’s claim.

    In the last few years I think we’ve come up with some mechanics that show us an alternative. Sorcery and 80 Days are largely narrative games, but when they do have mechanics (repacking suitcases, memorising and applying spell knowledge) they work to deepen our understanding of the world. It also helps that Sorcery’s most interesting spell solutions are the nonviolent ones. Heaven’s Vault also has the wonderful language-decoding mechanic: a mechanic 100% built around attaining knowledge.

    Crafting mechanics, although often used toward violent ends (making swords) fits just as well if not better into nonviolent situations (cooking food), although it does come with a propensity to view all resources as exploitable which does trouble me a bit. And even if Neo Cab’s conversations are not particularly unique in terms of game design, adding an emotional resource system which constrains your dialog choices does add something interesting to the mix.

    I think that’s why I’m so ticked off about Eastshade. The stuff we already know how to do? The fetch quests and crafting and 3D rendering of nice environments? Those things are somewhere on a spectrum from “okay” to “really truly excellent”. But the stuff we don’t know how to do? The mechanics around painting and creativity, which I assumed this game would be about? They’re just not there. I thought this game would bring something to the table mechanically and expand our mechanical lexicon. Frankly, just me playing it – a game about creativity – gave me ideas about mechanics I’d never even considered before, and how they might work. It’s a bit of a shame the game didn’t implement any.

  10. Ok, but.. hm. I think we’re all in broad agreement. But whenever I see this talking point mooted, I think back to my childhood and all the management games. all the racing games, all the sim games, all the tycoon and management games, the city builders, the life sim games, all the virtual pet games, (almost) all the sports games, a majority of the adventure games which had either no or else extremely cartoony violence, all the puzzle games, all the abstract action games (Tetris and its descendants), games in which violence is there but highly abstracted like Pacman or Civ… I don’t buy that ‘doing non violence’ is a recent development in gaming at all.

    Maybe if you were to do a quantitative analysis you’d find – I’m sure you would actually – an overwhelming proportion of games were violent to some degree. But I think that misses the point, as to my mind at least non-violent games have had a hugely outsized influence on gaming culture for this assumed minority status. From the outside looking in the stereotype may still be spotty disaffected teenagers and their murder sims, but as gamers or players or whatever we call ourselves, the readiness with which we can find counterexamples should speak to our better understanding.

    Sorry, I can’t help myself on this topic for some reason. I probably ranted straight past the point you were making This is the hill I will di- I mean, I will calmly and peacefully exchange ideas upon!

  11. (Still working on the ‘calmy’)

  12. Ok, first off, A Short Hike has a delightful gliding / flying mechanic that would have been worth all sorts of other shortcomings the game might have had. I would not have ever believed 3D flight with a fixed camera would be anything but an awkward disaster, but the implementation here is wonderful.

    But more relevant to this discussion is the almost perfect synthesis of main quest, side quests, and theme. You are a teen at summer camp. Your aunt says, Why don’t go play with the other kids? But you’re all: This place sucks; there’s no wifi or cell service. I’m gonna hike up to where I can get a signal.

    And so the game’s question to the player is exactly the same as what the NPCs ask the character: “Play with me?” Do you want to be a sourpuss and head straight up the mountain, or can you be convinced to stop and have some fun? Reader, I was convinced. Like a teen realizing maybe this camp isn’t just something dumb for kids, I found the characters more charming, the dialog and activities more amusing, and the island more interesting than I expected.

    (I thought the artwork was beautiful even though I wasn’t quite seeing it as the artist intended. The game’s maker reluctantly added and sorta-documented the option to increase the resolution to match your monitor, saying the game was designed to be and looks better at the default low-res. But since most of my retro-gaming nostalgia is for emulating old games with low-res textures on high-res polygons, I liked the high-res option much better. If you grew up playing an SNES or PS1 on a TV, you might prefer the default.)

  13. Some kind of technical snafu: the screenshots are linked to images with slightly different names but are actually the exact same size.

  14. CA My daughter does similar stuff in Minecraft and other games like your shield/sitdown move in Zelda – she’ll imagine more than is there on the screen.

    On the 3D thing, once we’re through to Half-Life, things are looking up. But there was a dodgy period where it seemed people were just hurling 3D into any old crap. It felt like the end of 2D and only 3D was going to matter. I wasn’t ready to let go of 2D games yet. I had been Mega Driving until 1997 when I got a PC. Frogger in 3D was when I threw the toys out of the pram; in some sense, it was an over-reaction because it was just using a different visual representation of the same 2D game. But at the same time, this game doesn’t do anything different to the original: it’s just the same damn game with polygons. Compare with Crossy Road which feels like it at least does something with the formula, although I pretty much hate that game too.

    On the subject of our violence in games: I think it might be fair to say the games industry became fronted by violence. That while there was plenty of good non-violent meat if you went looking for it – everything from racing games to sims – it seems like the big money has been consolidating around violent games since the Doom times. Thief, a game that is not supposed to be about killing (I can’t quite claim it’s not about violence) ended up being sold showing Garrett sticking an arrow in people. And AAA has been getting darker and grimmer with each passing year and visual upgrade. (This is pretty much I will start laughing when a AAA game promises to show how bad violence is. That didn’t work for Bioshock Infinite and TLOU2 is no Spec Ops, the only game that got close to fulfilling on that promise.)

    Urthman

    It’s decided, I’m playing A Short Hike in The Near Future.

    Sean

    That’s not a snafu – I usually uploaded 500px screenshots as I’ve always been mindful of the space on the server. I’m planning on moving host at some point in the next year, though, and try to get a more space. There’s ten years of posts and pcitures on here to shift!

  15. I remember reading about this game some months back and thinking that the developer would have to balance a lot of things to maximize the potential of the idea. Certainly the decision to focus on luscious visuals was a wise one–visuals are something prospective buyers will almost always see before purchase, so it makes sense they’d have an important job to do here–and the makers of Eastshade try to balance the “walking simulator” element with the “light RPG” element, at least in the materials I’ve read.

    Your comments about open worlds are well taken, and in my the concept of “open world” has gone in a less-than-ideal direction in AAA. Open worlds are sold on size (“A game world bigger than the planet Neptune!”), but that very environmental scale makes it impossible to create much of a world. The result being most open worlds have 5-8 boilerplate experiences, usually QTEs, minigames, or highly contained encounters, that are pasted throughout the Neptune world and then (sometimes) mildly tweaked to create a tiny sense of variance.

    It works better in action games, particularly multiplayer action games like The Division, because even if the basic experience is the same, the elements might differ. As an example, in Division 2 you activate A LOT of mobile radio towers, and it’s always the same mechanic: shoot some guys, push a button on the tower, wait a minute while shooting more guys and when you kill the right guy grab his keycard, insert said card into the tower’s control box, wait another minute while fending off another wave, gain XP. The sameness is offset only by the fact that each tower has slightly different surroundings, allowing for slightly different approaches to the challenge… though the broad-strokes approach is always “go in, blast those guys, and hit the button on the tower.”

    Gentler, more pastoral games like Eastshade could step in and correct this course, though it sounds to me like Eastshade doesn’t quite manage. I like the idea of a smaller but more dynamic open world, one in which your decisions and experiences impact what happens and doesn’t happen, and the place seems seems “alive” AROUND you, not BECAUSE OF you.

    I’ve only put about three hours into TLoU2 as of this typing, so I’ll withhold judgment on the Citizen Kane/Violence Allegory discussion for now. Time will tell.

    Great article HM!

  16. Hey Steerpike, always nice to you around these parts. I know you’ve been socially distancing from Electron Dance – although over 3,000 miles seems a bit excessive.

    Yes, I think we see eye to eye on these things, our mutual love for Miasmata, for instance. Miasmata is a pretty cool open world but that does rely on threat and danger, once again, to propel things. That said, Miasmata is still up there as one of my favourite open worlds of all time – there’s nothing literally stopping you going anywhere, I don’t think there’s any gating aside from exhaustion.

    It gives me hope, though, that we’re seeing these alternate open-world visions appear. We might see some striking projects in the next decade.

  17. I’m not sure if this is a potatoes/potahtohs thing. I can buy that quantitatively some form of violence exists in a majority of games. I wonder, though, whether you all would agree there’s a qualitative difference in the kinds of violence games employ.

    What are the meaningful ways in which Mario jumping on a Goomba is different from a Tiger destroying a T34 in Panzer General, or the Space Marine shotgunning a Cacodemon in Doom? The first is abstract and cartoony, almost sanitised, the second is also abstract but politically resonant and the third is gory, visceral and exciting. For the purposes of the violent/nonviolent category distinction, presumably they’re all violent. But are they really all the same?

    If that’s casting the net too wide, what about just action adventures. Are the high bodycounts famously castigated as dissonant in Drake’s Fortune different from those in Saint’s Row 3? Both are light hearted games but the latter is snarky and self-aware. People generally seem to be more accepting of the latter. I’ve read glowing praise of SR3 from people with an aversion to violent games. Does that mean SR3 somehow escapes the category of violent game, or that it couches its violence in a way that transcends it? Is that overthinking it?

    Again, I’m not even really sure of the argument I’m trying to make. This may just be goal-post relocation on my part. I’m sorry if it is! I do feel like it’s one thing to say Doom started a trend of games in which violent power fantasies became a USP, and another to say that its release represented Team Violence seizing the steering wheel of the industry forever as a result. Because I’m not convinced you can use the presence of any kind of violence in games as evidence of that. Tom and Jerry isn’t Friday the 13th, and I’m not sure a Jackie Chan movie is either.


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