Shape of the World – Review
Vancouver indie developer Hollow Tree Games’ first foray into the dog-eat-dog marketplace that is modern gaming began with a kickstarter, way back in 2015. Today, they release Shape of the World, a Flower and Abzu-influenced game of exploration. Read my thoughts, after the jump!
As with the aforementioned influences, the game features a silent protagonist, casting you as an outsider exploring a surreal world that reacts to your presence. As I meandered aimlessly through the first valley, vibrant ecosystems sprang to life with psychedelic colors, splashing waterfalls, luminous monoliths and graceful creatures. The world continuously changed as I walked through scaling mountains, flying with whales, and raising precipitous boardwalks leading to new and ever stranger environments.
The game itself isn’t inherently revolutionary as far as convention is concerned, nor is it much of a challenge; rather, this is a different type of game. It falls into a category I dubbed back when playing Flower: Zen games. Its purpose isn’t to challenge, or tell a winding narrative, but to help players leave our mundane, negative landscape for a fantastical one we can shape in more meaningful ways. It exists within serenity, for serenity’s sake.
What it does do, however, is quite intriguing. Procedural generation has been a bit of a mire in gaming, for nothing more than its nature. Minecraft possibly being the most successful procedural platform, we have seen other games come and go, like No Man’s Sky. It seems however, Shape of the World is trying something different with this kind of world-building by utilizing the nature of procedural generation as part of the narrative.
As players walk through the biome, trees grow, hills and mountains engorge from the earth, and rivers snake their way to the ocean. Whales fly and ghost-like creatures scuttle the ground. But there’s more to this; as exploration continues and the biome morphs, seeds litter the map. Players can collect these seeds and plant them. Different flora sprout depending on the biome and hungry creatures may partake of their fruit. In a very real sense, akin to Blue Isle Studios’ Valley (my review can be found here), what you do affects the world.
Apart from this, however, there isn’t much narrative. As silent protagonist stories go, Shape of the World has even less a narrative. I remained intrigued about what exactly was going on, but nothing was really explained. I felt quite underwhelmed, actually. As beautiful as the world was, as beguiling the setting, not knowing exactly what I was doing, why I was doing it just made the experience have less of an impact. I knew I was climbing and exploring through the valley and up to the summit of the looming mountain, but…why?
That said, it was still a great departure from the AAA formula, and had great bones and heart. My favorite part of the game though, has to be the soundtrack. Rivaling that of Journey, Shape of the World‘s audio completely soothed me; I spent more time just listening to each track and nuance in the environment, I think, than I did actually wandering through the world.
The world was certainly pulchritudinous, even if my time spent there lacked rhyme or reason, wandering the environment was a treat in and of itself. In each biome, I had favorite spots–mostly near water–that I sat and listened to the wonderful soundtrack, as flying whales and sprites minded me in their business.
All in all, Shape of the World is a fairly short jaunt in a wonderfully drawn procedural environment that intrigues; the accompanying score matches its world in all its serene splendor, and the experience is a good one to break up the more serious gaming session. The procedural nature of the environment, reacting to your movements, was quite interesting and lent itself to the mystery. Sadly however, it falls short of explaining exactly why it is intriguing and that leaves it almost a wasted effort. Maybe if I play it again, I’ll notice more of a narrative.