Shape of the World (2018) [PS4]

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People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.
-Neil Gaiman

 

 

How much gaminess does a video game need if a video game needs to be gamey? A better question yet: how many different experiences can video games as an interactive medium create? That I think is the positive phrasing of the original question, the question of a game needing to be a certain way. See, rather than confine games within a sense of “what they must be”, we can try to think of games as “what they can be”. I think if we stick with “must” then that’s how we get clones and cut-and-paste titles, but if we ask what they “can” be… well, then their potential is confined only by imagination.

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Shape of the World is a game which doesn’t feel like a game. Is it a walking simulator? Is it an exploration adventure? There are no timers, no points, no lives, no game overs, no pits, no spikes, no reticles, no menu sifting, no stat balancing, no experience points, no bosses or mini-bosses, no upgrades, no weapons, no armor, no shops, no money, no health bars, no mana bars, no coins, no super mushrooms, no classes, no high scores, no multiplayer, no co-op, and no battle royale. There is trophy support on the PS4 version I played, which seemed a little counter-productive.

This is an anti-anxiety game. I think that hits on one of the chief reasons why people play video games: they find the act relaxing.

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Which games create relaxation will vary depending on the person. I’ve had chats with people who are able to zone out and forget about life for a bit under the heaviest stress of a digital battlefield. There are yet others who find themselves most at ease under the ticking timer of a frenetic puzzle game. Still others, like myself, can lose themselves in an engrossing storyline, identifying with characters and embracing themes. With Shape of the World, the intention as described by the marketing and the developers themselves was to craft a game which encouraged the player to unwind. It is the digital equivalent of taking a leisurely stroll through nature.

It feels like a laidback, lackadaisical dream, not the sort where you’re constantly anxious, chased by monsters, or falling off a cliff only to wake up before the bottom. None of that here, thank you. In a world where people seem more stressed out than ever, a game like this could be a very positive thing, indeed.

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Shape of the World is a first-person perspective game about exploring and enriching a world of light and color. The surreal, psychedelic environs shift in constant flux around you, causing distances to seem near and opened paths to suddenly close. The palette of the world is always shifting from one beautiful set of hues to another, from a tranquil land of greens to a harsher world of red and black to even a bleaker, colder realm of icy blues and grays.

Otherworldly flora and fauna abound, some of them curious about your presence, others blissfully unaware. You the dreamer have a direct impact upon this realm, though. You can (but are not required to) collect seeds which you can then use to sow new trees, bushes, copses, thickets, entire forests of alien trees with chromatic leaves. Contrariwise, you can choose to be a force of elimination and destroy trees in your path, clearing the land and shaping it as you see fit.

There isn’t total control but what abilities are available to you are enough to cause you to feel tangible in the world.

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Occasionally, older members of my family will see me playing a video game and ask me “What’s the objective?” Typically, they are thinking in terms of achieving a high score or fighting a bad guy, so I like to play with their minds and tell them there is no objective. “Why play it, then?” Then I tell them the utility is in the act of playing, itself. It is its own end.

Shape of the World is just such a game. There however are monuments scattered throughout the realm in the form of upside-down V’s. These can be seen like looming apparitions from a distance until you come to their base as if following a rainbow. You’ll discover smaller V’s like portals which you can pass through. When you do, the world around you immediately responds with a burst of new colors. To my knowledge, you don’t need to find every monument in the game but they are at least indirect markers of your progress.

They are more than just optional gates to pass through though. I really think they tie the game together by providing focal points for your curiosity. What game about exploration could function without making the player curious? What’s over that hill? What’s under that lake? What’s behind those woods? Or in Shape of the World’s case, can I make it to that slope before it becomes a spire?

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The 8-bit Review
Visuals icon Visuals: 6/10
I thought back to reading Out of the Silent Planet and was reminded of how early science fiction and science fantasy writers depicted other planets as teeming with alien life. C.S. Lewis’ first entry in his space trilogy envisioned the planet Mars as a place where everything was immensely tall due to less gravity. The waves, the mountains, the creatures, the forests were all spindly and long-necked. The colors were foreign, too.

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Shape of the World is like those alien planets imagined in the early 20th century, an impossible world. It is tough to think about grading its visuals, though. I encountered a few graphical errors (floating trees, flickering polygons, etc.) which could take down its score, objectively, but the question remains as to how much Shape of the World’s imagery fits any theory of beauty. The color palettes certainly craft varying emotional responses and the V-shaped monuments are appropriately intriguing, but I think that this game will be a case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

Personally, I think that Shape of the World isn’t one of the more visually interesting games I’ve played, though enough beauty is here to craft the relaxation it aspires to. It’s also a good length for a game with visuals as minimal as this.

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Audio icon Audio: 7/10
Shape of the World possesses a soundtrack which has been called an “aural experience”. It is as if you’re listening to light. I think this was a wise design choice to move away from the melodic and embrace the atmospheric. It allowed for immersion which I believe more distracting music would have actively prevented.

The music subtly evolves over time, existing in flux just like the ethereal realm to which it’s tied. I couldn’t pick up on any motifs of any kind, likely because the music inhabited almost a subconscious territory rather than being something I could note while playing the game. When it changed, I couldn’t tell the moment of its metamorphosis. It’s music that’s felt more than heard, elegant and ambient.

Music is such an important part of this game because it’s directly tied to how you interact with it.

Gameplay icon Gameplay: 5/10
Shape of the World doesn’t have much gameplay to it beyond walking and exploring. Early on, icons for your controller will appear on objects, prompting you to interact with either of the back shoulder buttons for seeding or destroying. Beyond that, you’ve got a simple jump at your disposal. These basic tools are enough to carry you anywhere on this journey that you’d like to go, though I at times found myself only slightly perturbed by the pace of the walking or even more so when a bit of stair wouldn’t catch and I couldn’t seem to get on the steps, or yet again when I couldn’t seem to activate a stone even when I got right up next to it (in the caverns).

Ultimately, you don’t come to Shape of the World for gameplay. I wouldn’t expect this aspect of the game to be its strength. Its gameplay should be minimal because it doesn’t want you to be conscious of button inputs or combos or menus. It’s solely concerned with easing the player into serenity.

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themes Themes: 8/10
I had a few moments where I was unsure what to include for the 8 graded elements in this 8-bit Review. I didn’t want to go with Challenge because that concept is so utterly foreign to Shape of the World. I instead homed in on Themes because there’s a question I wanted to ask that’s fundamental to this game: How capable is it in creating a relaxing experience?

That’s what it’s all about so does Shape of the World set out to do what it means to? I’ve mentioned already that Shape of the World has its monuments to generate curiosity. These vague quasi-goalposts grant some necessary direction to your wandering. The procedurally generated forests which reappear in different placements each time you run across them provide some interest.

These things, as well as the strange animals, prod you to keep playing and invest your time into this jaunt through the surreal, helping to ensure that you don’t become frustrated by aimless meandering or too bored (a risk that I think will be greater depending on the player). I’ll be honest about that: I have a lot games to play especially now that TWRM has begun receiving press copies of games for review. More often than not, this subconsciously causes me to rush through games and feel like I need to get them over with. I didn’t feel that here. I felt that the world was welcoming and that it was indeed relaxing, a welcome reprieve from the stress of life.

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Replayability icon Replayability: 6/10
There are different kinds of seeds to discover while wandering through the game. Each of these will plant different trees or affect the environment in different ways. I’ll mention that I didn’t find all the seeds in my first run through the game. That’s not a huge deal, unless you’re a trophy hunter, in which case you’ve got some speedrunning to do (which also seems counter-productive), but it’s enough to cause me to want to play the game again and explore it a little deeper, maybe find all of those little things.

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Accessibility icon Accessibility: 9/10
My two-year-old was able to play it with just a little guidance. I doubt he’d be able to get anywhere on his own but the control scheme was simple enough that he could get excited about planting trees or going down in the ocean. It is highly accessible with only the slightest confusing on how to progress in some of the larger, densely-packed areas (such as near the head of the waterfall) to get in the way of accessibility. This is as it should be. The last thing you’d want is having to worry about how to do what in a game that’s supposed to be about immersion and tranquility.

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Uniqueness icon Uniqueness: 8/10
Part of what drew me to Shape of the World in the first place was its level of uniqueness. Everything about it from its visuals to its music to its gameplay stood out to me. I see so many games in so many emails and press lists that a lot of them seem to blend together. I find myself yearning for unique experiences. Shape of the World was that for me. Though it was short and not tremendously moving on the emotions or anything, I don’t think I’ll forget it any time soon. The hipster in me loved it.

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my personal grade My Personal Grade: 6/10
I’ve got my stresses but I like to think that I lead a pretty enjoyable life. I made a career change some years ago to limit my stress (and my heart palpitations and coffee intake!), but I did find Shape of the World to be what I expected it to be. It is simple recreation, accessible entertainment, picturesque at best, and easy going.

Why do you play video games? If it’s for relaxation and you find that you could use a de-stresser in your life, I’d recommend Shape of the World to you, heartily. It’s not perfect but neither is going out for a pleasurable walk. They’re enjoyable.

I’m happy that Shape of the World succeeded on Kickstarter. I’m even happier to thank Plug In Digital, Seaven Studio, and Hollow Tree Games for giving us the opportunity to play this game with a press copy for review!

Aggregated Score: 6.9

 

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