A Journey for the Senses
Adventure games are hardly a new thing. For decades, series like Myst, Monkey Island, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have provided alluring and enrapturing settings for us to explore. Whether it be navigating a mysterious island, traversing a cove full of eccentric pirates, or deciding who to trust during a merciless apocalypse, these games place just as much of an emphasis on the world itself as they do its inhabitants.
Recently, however, a new subgenre of the adventure game has erupted in popularity. Pioneered by games like Flower and Journey, these newfound adventure/exploration games hone in on the emotional state of the player as he/she travels through the game world. Through a marriage of visual design, audio effects, and music, these modern adventure games aim to be as mesmerizing, as immersive, and as evocative as possible. In these games, the world isn’t merely an important character; it is the main character.
Shape of the World, developed by Hollow Tree Games and published by Plug In Digital, is the latest addition to the exploration genre. Kickstarted in 2015, Shape of the World offers a game world that procedurally generates around the player. With unique flora and fauna that build around the player as he/she ascends to the peak of a mountain, Shape of the World provides a unique and introspective experience for the mind and self.
Thanks to its gorgeous visual and audio presentation, Shape of the World is an impressive journey for those looking to lose themselves for an afternoon or evening. Though the game’s short length and lack of real gameplay may make it a hard sell for certain audiences at its $15 price tag, Shape of the World is an experience worth having.
At its heart, Shape of the World isn’t so much of a “game” as it is an “interactive experience.” There are no enemies to defeat, no lives to save, and certainly no levels to be gained. Instead, Shape of the World puts players at the center of a constantly shifting world.
From a first-person perspective, players walk through forests, swim through underground caverns, and scale hills, all while heading towards the top of a mountain. Unlike Journey—a comparison that’s bound to come up, given the aforementioned description—the player doesn’t see this mountain looming in the distance. Reaching this zenith is far less of an objective as it is a guiding principle.
Whereas Journey and even the recent Celeste constantly made us question whether or not their protagonists would complete their ascents, as I played through Shape of the World, there was little doubt that the game would end atop this mountain. The level select screen not-so-subtly takes the form of a pyramid, and, to be fair, Shape of the World doesn’t exactly seem interested in telling a cohesive story like its fellow mountaineering games. Rather, it aims to evoke feeling—something it happens to do quite well.
A Shapeless World
As players navigate the game’s various environments, trees, rocks, and pillars grow around them in breathtaking fits of color and shapes. Controls are extremely simple; one button interacts with the objects in the world, and another throws seeds that plant new trees and breathe new life into the environment. By interacting with these trees, players can propel themselves forward by way of a Flower-like gust of air.
Levels themselves aren’t open in the traditional sense of the word. The game is constantly guiding the player from one predetermined environment to the next. At the same time, however, there’s a surprising feeling of freedom to be had exploring Shape of the World’s nooks and crannies. Large, upside-down Vs (lambdas for the mathematically savvy) dot the landscape, marking important locations that shift the world both visually and sonally. After finding all the Vs in the current area, the game whisks you away to the next environment, and the cycle repeats.
While progression revolves around walking through these various mountain-shaped figures, the player has autonomy about how they go about traveling through them. The game world itself isn’t massive, nor is the game particularly long; when all was said and done, I’d invested somewhere to the tune of 2 hours making my way through the game’s levels. There’s also very little real “gameplay” to be found here, as planting trees and interacting with them feel more like afterthoughts to the audiovisual journey at hand than fleshed out mechanics. However, there’s something oddly liberating about going about the landscape at my leisure, taking in the weird creatures that crawl, swim, float, and generally exist in this world.
As cheesy as it might sound, exploration is what truly brings the world to life—in Shape of the World’s case, quite literally.
A huge part of Shape of the World’s appeal comes from its striking visual style. The game makes great use of cel-shading to provide a vivid and often explosive palette of colors, shapes, and forms.
While any particular part of the game is a looker, crossing through these lambda doorways causes the colors to shift in beautiful ways. One second, you could be looking at a frosty white field of snow; the next, you’re floating through a sea of purple, red, and black.
It makes sense that the visuals of Shape of the World are so strong. After all, in the absence of a real story, and given how simplistic the gameplay is, the brunt of the game’s appeal comes from its entrancing presentation. And boy, does it deliver on that front.
While Shape of the World releases on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch, I have to give special mention to the Switch version (the version I reviewed the game on). The game runs extremely well on the portable screen, and the Switch provides the added benefit of being able to soak in the game’s rich color scheme from the comfort of a couch or bed. Despite the occasional slowdown here or there, this is one game you’ll appreciate having up close and personal.
Music to my Ears
Another reason to invest in the Switch version? The beautiful music and excellent sound design on display here.
Just as the visuals of Shape of the World shift and pop from moment to moment, the music in the game is constantly changing and evolving. The soundtrack starts off with the kinds of calming melodies expected of a slow-paced exploration game. However, the longer you play, the more upbeat the game’s audio becomes, soon incorporating thumping percussive rock and head-bumping synthetic beats.
Shape of the World perfectly matches this music with some truly superb sound design. Tree trunks bellow as they erupt from the ground. Critters and small animals squeak and squeal as they skitter away in fright. Leaves crinkle as bushes and branches take shape. Rain patters as it strikes against the ground.
There’s also this phenomenal sound trick the developers employ, involving flights of floating stairs that rattle as they extend out for the player. As soothing as this sounds by itself, this effect often pairs with the coursing pulse of the music, leading to an absolute symphony of hi-hats and bass beats. It really is a feast for the ears.
As good as the visuals are in this game, the sound is just as good, if not better. Again, this is an experience meant for introspection and meditation. Headphones are a must.
Shape of the World does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s gorgeous to look at, it’s addicting to listen to, and its open-ended structure provides a wonderful way to unwind after a long day at work or school. It doesn’t have a whole lot to say compared to many of its contemporaries, but then again, perhaps that’s the point.
The lack of gameplay is sure to be a turnoff for many, even for those who are typically fans of the so-called “walking simulator” genre. The length is undoubtedly another, especially for those seeking value or replayability with their purchase. More than anything else, Shape of the World is for people content with casting away story, gameplay, and length in favor of immersion, emotion, and state of mind.
If that strikes your fancy, buckle in, for Shape of the World is truly something that needs to be experienced to appreciate.