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?