I’m standing in a pond. The sky is a deep shade of purple, black trees with orange leaves sprouting up around me, framing the glowing monuments before me. Above, a whale gently soars through the air as long, fish-like creatures float by. The music, once pronounced and energetic, is now almost silent as if it too is watching the scene unfold in quiet reverence. I’d just loaded the game back up and all I wanted to do was sit and watch. I was eager to jump back in and continue exploring, but to be greeted by such a striking scene — how could I do anything but sit still and watch?
That’s the opening scene of the third area of Shape of the World, a wander game from Hollow Tree Games. When I first played the game back at E3 2015, I was immediately entranced by its beauty. Wander games still felt somewhat novel at the time, and its hook of the world growing around you was inspired. It’s a game that’s regularly stood out in my mind ever since then, and I’ve been eager to play more. And now having finished it, I still want to keep playing it.
Shape of the World begins in an empty gray space. The place is so bright it’s almost blinding. In the distance stands a triangular specter. As you approach, it comes into view as a small portal. Once you step through, the grayscale surroundings fade, a coastline scene appearing in its place. Upon arrival, the world is bare — the space free of any plants or trees. As you walk forward, however, that changes. Trees sprout, plants flourish, and flowers grow all in rapid succession. What was once an empty scene quickly becomes full and vibrant, serene music underscoring the beauty on display.
In Shape of the World, the lay of the land is static, but everything else is procedurally generated. What kinds of trees and plants sprout with each step, their density, where they grow, and more constantly change as you explore. By collecting seeds, you can also plant trees yourself, allowing you to add your own touch to the canvas. Watching the world constantly build then rebuild itself, seeing it react to your own additions, is a wonder to behold.
While there are no explicit goals or objectives, the game does lead you toward triangular gates. Passing through these gates allows you unlock the way to the next area, but more importantly, they transform the world around you. Every time you pass through one, the color palette changes, different trees and plants grow, and new wildlife appears. They feel like minor set-pieces in how they drastically alter the world. Each new color palette makes the space feel fresh and new all over again, the plant life changing slightly in accordance to the current palette. Every time it changed, I made another circuit of the area, marveling at how beautiful the scenery was all over again. Even though I’d more or less seen everything, I never stopped being awestruck at how different it felt with each new color set. But whether bathed in bight, soft colors or deep, dramatic hues, the world never lost its sense of warmth and wonder.
It’s a game that’s best enjoyed slowly. It wants you to take in the sights and luxuriate in its splendor. In my initial playthrough, I spent an entire hour in one area just walking around planting trees, watching the subtle ways the world would populate itself. As pervasive as proc gen is nowadays, Shape of the World still manages to impress. With so many games that use it in so many ways, from level creation to narrative, it’s easy to look at it and feel like there’s nothing left to mine from it. But watching the systems at work — seeing the world populate before your eyes in such a dazzling display — makes it feel fresh and exciting.
When I wrote about A Bright Light in the Middle of the Ocean last year, I said games like it were like vacations. A chance to slip away from the doldrums and stresses of life to somewhere new and exciting, calm and comforting. Shape of the World is a stellar example, the game feeling designed with this in mind.
As of this writing, it’s the last week before E3. It’s an especially stressful time for me as schedules start getting locked down and I chase down last minute appointments. A week full of sleepless nights, a lack of focus, and a constant worry that everything is going to fall apart as the show inches closer and closer. This week is always one where I need an escape to relax and decompress. Shape of the World served that role for me this year, the time I spent playing it being exactly what I needed to ease my pre-E3 stress and worries.
Wandering around its tranquil world, letting its serene music wash over me, watching the space grow around me: it’s all so very lovely. I can’t wait to return to it.