Shape of the World fulfills a lot of the promises that games have been making over the past half decade or so. After all, it’s a first-person exploration game without a narrative that uses environmental and interaction design to push a player through a lush world dense with squeaking creatures, spiraling plants and minimally interactive objects. It is a game about walking and feeling, and while these kinds of games have existed in some capacity since the dawn of videogames, there is something notable about Shape of the World appearing on major platforms and simply existing as this experimental, exploration-heavy thing that people can easily access and play. So why, I wonder, don’t I enjoy it?
I’ve been a fan of the first-person exploration game since I saw the trailer for the first commercial release of Dear Esther at the very beginning of 2012. I have the time period on-hand so readily because I remember watching that trailer, being profoundly affected, and then immediately digging to see if there were other games of that type. Before Dear Esther, I didn’t have a sense of what people were doing on the artsy side of first-person games; I was mostly an isometric RPG and real-time strategy game player who had very little involvement in first-person games on PC.
This matters because it impacts how I understand Shape of the World six years later. The distance between that year and this one feels immense, and maybe that’s because I’ve seen so many proponents, adherents and movements dedicated to these kinds of games come and go. And, you know, I can’t fault any of that. Not long ago, hell, maybe even less than a year ago, the first-person exploration game was a genre that could constantly be depended on to serve as a site for a proxy war between lots of different interests. Hardcore games vs. casuals; alternative artists vs. commercial indie developers; game critics searching for an outside to all this vs. ones who simply want to fix new work into pre-existing categories. The transit of the term “walking simulator,” first as a minimizing term, then as a critiqued one, then as a valorized one, and now simply a tag that people use without question, says something about the stakes of who won and lost those debates.
Shape of the World holds onto some of the basic tenets of games like the big splashes of Dear Esther or The Stanley Parable, which is to say that it’s in first-person, it doesn’t have much interest in traditional gameplay, and it makes its own rules when it comes to directing players into certain interactions. Fundamentally, the entire game is about 45 minutes of walking around big, colorful environments, interacting with rocks and (optionally) planting seeds, and navigating your way into portals that take you to newer, more colorful places. The entire time you do this, a truly powerful, majestic soundtrack plays. In many ways, that soundtrack is so good that it turns the game into little more than an interactive music video.
What separates Shape of the World from those games is, of course, the lack of a story or any traditional narrative design. If you can pull some kind of narrative out of the game, good on you, but there is a strong divide between games like Dear Esther, The Beginner’s Guide, Firewatch or Tacoma and this game, and it’s not just about production value. Those games all put players in the shoes of specific characters, and they push worldviews and perspectives.
Not all first-person exploration games are doing this, of course, but if there is aesthetic power in the first-person format then it is dependent on reversing the way that standard first-person shooters work. Call of Duty or Battlefield games are not introspective. They are about putting you in the body of an invisible figure who can witness the spectacle of death that floats around them constantly. Sometimes bad things happen, but the badness of those things is experienced in the generic: an army was massacred; the United States was invaded; an important character was gunned down. Who is feeling these traumas? Not the main characters, because they’re ciphers for the player’s feelings and capability to point, click, shoot and repeat.
There’s no potential for reversal in Shape of the World. It is a beautiful, pleasant game that I enjoyed my time with, but there’s nothing there to put hooks in me or make it memorable. Much like Flower, another game I never quite “got,” Shape of the World doesn’t float any ideas or make any claims. It’s not in conversation with any other games in its genre. It does not have any of the aspects that I, personally, find meaningful within first-person exploration games.
Which is weird, to some degree, because I find value in abstraction. I occasionally do collaborations with the game developer Connor Sherlock, and his work is almost entirely abstract. He makes worlds, and you interact with those worlds. There’s very little anything else to them. The difference I see between his work and The Shape of the World, though, is that Sherlock uses environmental design to create these expansive worlds that make players feel so small, so historically meaningless that it generates its own argument.
I don’t even see that in Shape of the World. This is a world made for players, that reacts only to player interactions, a kind of first-person dinner plate that’s constantly refreshed with new weird little creatures and small environmental puzzles. It is doing things, but they’re not the things I go to the first-person exploration genre for. It lacks even the experimental chops that Virginia, a game I had very mixed feelings about, at least goes for all the way.
Despite the shockingly good soundtrack, the only thing is does for me is make me yearn for the other games of its type that pushed boundaries, challenged players, and moved the chains when it comes to thinking about the videogame form.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.