Shape of the World
In recent years the games industry has seen a steady rise of exploration games. These types of games are often referred to as “walking simulators” due to a focus on moving through and exploring the world rather than an emphasis on player interaction. This genre saw a commercial and critical boon with the release of Firewatch in 2016 which, to date, has sold over a million copies. Two years on sees the release of Shape of the World, an exploration game that has a different take on the genre, promoting the minimalist beauty of the natural world.
From the moment I pressed ‘Start Game’ I am dropped into a blank white space that reminds me of the plain white loading areas from The Matrix franchise (guns, lots of guns?). Around me are white floating petals that breathe life into the empty space; already the beauty of this game is clear to see. I wait for a moment expecting some sort of introduction, but it never comes. The game has already begun, and I am already in control. I move towards the only focal point in sight, the baseless triangle from the cover of the game, and once there the real game begins.
Passing through the triangle launches me into an organic world bursting with colour. I’m not ashamed to admit that this brought a giddy smile to my face, the burst of colours, shapes and sounds are a delight. This grin on my face is accompanied by a sense of awe and wonder at the world laid out in front of me, so I start walking.
The world is brimming with trees and adorable little creatures some of which, when you get too close to them, shoot off like a rocket into the sky. The environments are brimming with colour and they look incredible from any angle. The world procedurally builds itself around you. Where you look and where you move will suddenly sprout flora from out of nowhere, and the effect is surprisingly good. There are almost no hardlines in this game at all, everything is smooth and clean, with the world being built up almost entirely of geometric shapes. The title Shape of the World is beginning to have meaning.
The stunning world is only matched by the music that accompanies it. The soundtrack is serene and tranquil, it’s a calming tune that is given life by its supporting electronic beat. It’s also a dynamic melody that evolves as you journey through the world, becoming fuller as you move through dense forests and beginning to crescendo as you get nearer to main objectives. Interacting with trees triggers a little tune that can be expanded if you continue to interact with trees in rhythm. The way music is used in this game is stunning and its whimsical nature only adds to the magical feeling of the environments.
After a short time wandering through this gorgeous world I’m left with the thought “what do I do?”. I soon discovered that the right trigger is the interact button and X is jump. Interaction with the environment is extremely limited. While you can click on the quirky creatures inhabiting the world with varied effects, most just disappear after a few clicks but some are a little more interesting. My favourite creatures were easily the little purple guys who would divide into smaller and smaller pieces as you interacted with them. Outside of looking cool, making contact with the wildlife of the world had no tangible impact on gameplay whatsoever. Interacting with the trees, however, had a little more meaning. Clicking on a tree would simultaneously destroy the tree and pull you towards it with a slingshot effect. This meant that if you had some momentum while clicking on the tree you would be flung up and past it. The discovery of this mechanic peaked my imagination, I saw myself flying through the forest like Tarzan being hurled from tree to tree, making beautiful music as I went, but it doesn’t work quite like that. Getting a consistent rhythm going from tree to tree was near impossible from experience. Using a tree to pull me along occasionally served me well in speeding up the exploration but sadly never resulted in me living my Tarzan-style dream.
If you spend enough time exploring the world you will find seeds and monoliths scattered around to be collected. The seeds are always found as a small group and once you collect them all you can plant them using the left trigger. Planting seeds results in a tree immediately growing and these trees will be different depending on which area of the world you are in. The effect of a seed growing is a rather beautiful display of a plant bursting into life, and watching as a forest grows in front of your eyes as you rapidly fire seeds across the world comes with a nice sense of satisfaction. Having said that, growing trees serves no mechanical purpose at all. There are no areas that need reforestation and no platforming sections that require you to plant trees in a specific way to be able to make a certain jump. The only reason I kept popping off seeds was to get the trophies for growing X number of trees, but I could’ve completed the whole game without planting a single tree, which leaves me questioning what the point of the game is.
The monoliths can be found throughout the world and can be activated by simply interacting with each one within a group. Upon activating each one, a stairway will begin to appear at its base and extend up and out into the world accompanied by one of the most satisfying sounds I’ve heard in gaming. This is one of the most consistently magical moments Shape of the World has to offer. Gliding along these staircases as they stretch across the environment is invigorating; it feels like you’re going on a rollercoaster tour of the world, sometimes zooming over areas you’ve already been to or speeding towards entirely new areas.
Another core feature of the game is colour shifts. You see, when you pass through a triangle or you collect a new set of seeds, the world around you changes colour scheme. It is quite stunning to witness the whole world change colour and the style of trees along with it, but it can also feel a little confusing. The world you are in is exactly the same but because the colour scheme has changed so drastically it can feel like an entirely new place. While this adds variety to the world,it is also difficult to orientate yourself because the colour scheme is so different that it can be hard to recognise the areas you’ve already been to. Luckily, no matter which area you are in you will always be able to see a large triangle in the distance, which essentially acts are your own personal North Star guiding you home.
The charm of each area stems almost entirely from the flora and fauna. The first two-thirds of the game seem to take place in a forest area, with the latter part of the game exploring more interesting locales under water and on a mountain top. But the art style always remains the star of the show.
Sadly, the feeling that sticks with me the most during and after I finished playing Shape of the World mirrors the feeling I had about the seeds is: what was the point? Trees pull you along, but it’s not required; you can grow trees, but it changes nothing; activating monoliths requires zero thinking and even my favourite part (the awesome staircase) doesn’t amount to anything but a short tour of an area. They are not required to progress through the game. It all feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. The tree mechanic could’ve been evolved to enable some fantastic platforming sections -- hell, just giving the monoliths an order of activation would’ve given them some sense of being a puzzle.
Shape of the World is undoubtedly a beautiful game with a soundtrack that only serves to enhance that beauty. The problem is that the first thrill you get from bursting into a world full of colour quickly makes way to a sense of emptiness. Shape of the World is encased in a gorgeous shell but if you start to scratch away at the surface, there’s not much going on underneath.
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