Friday, July 28, 2017

Busy Doing Nothing: Yonder

About a mile from where I grew up there was a hill fort. For some reason it was always known as "Up Yonder". I spent countless hours playing there, unsupervised, back in those Just William days, when parents pushed children and dogs out the door at 9 am and didn't expect to see them home again before teatime.

When I first heard of Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, my thoughts drifted back to those happy times, not least because the game is supposedly both an "explorer's dream" and "very relaxing", two phrases that recur frequently in the very positive (Official Steam Rating) reviews I read. I imagined wandering aimlessly with no agenda across the sunlit greensward, idly lopping the heads off daisies and humming to myself.

Did I miss an Apocalypse?

I wish! After around six hours play according to Steam (really, it seems a lot more, which is revealing in itself) I would sum Yonder up very differently: a directed, intense, Achiever's agenda.

Just read the headline pitch on Steam:

"Gemea maintains the appearance of a paradise, yet an evil murk has enshrouded the land and its people in despair... As the hero of Yonder you will explore Gemea and uncover the islands secrets and mysteries within yourself".

Does that sound laid-back? Relaxing? I don't think so! It sounds like an emergency, a crisis, a problem that has to be solved. And since this isn't an MMO or even a Co-Op, there's really no-one to solve it but me.

The Moth Sanctuary. Took me two days to fix this. Moths. I ask you.

It's all very well for reviewers like the writer for Rock, Paper, Shotgun to dismiss the set-up as "Blah blah shipwreck blah blah magic compass blah blah find something" and advise you to treat it as "... a giant space in which you can do the bits that interest you, when you want to do them" but the game doesn't want you to do that. Instead, it constantly encourages - you might say nags -  you to follow the storyline, do the quests, be useful.

The UI is inflexible. You can only have one quest highlighted. You must have one quest highlighted. Whichever quest you've chosen (and if you don't pick one the game will pick one for you), try to forget it as you may, you can't help but see it out of the corner of your eye. It broods there, in the upper right corner of the screen, while down in the lower left, the mini-map pings exclamation marks, points the arrow of your character in the direction the game wants you to go.

I have been attempting to ignore all this. I've been trying to skip around the gorgeous landscape, trilling "Hullo Flowers, Hullo Sky" in my best Fotherington-Thomas but it's not working.

Hello, Flowers!

There's my farm for one thing. My two farms. If I get too far away I worry I'll get lost and my Grassfox will wander off. Grassfoxes get anxious. An NPC told me they have been known to hold hands in the dark to stave off loneliness. Grassfoxes don't even have hands.

And there's the Murk. I don't know what it is but it's bad. I need sprites to clear it but I can't find any more sprites and I don't have enough. The big patch down by the water is a sixteen sprite job. I only have eight.

I haven't seen a sprite for a while but I've seen a lot of cats. There was a patch yesterday and more cats came. The patch notes said "Added surplus cats to the world". Surplus cats! Now I hear them mewing everywhere.

I could jump off cliffs all day!

Trees. There's another thing that's changed. Before yesterday's patch I was blithely chopping down trees, stump and all, then planting the seeds I found in the circles that crop up occasionally in the grass. That gave me a nice, satisfying increment to a counter for Trees Planted in the region. It felt like I was making progress. Making a difference. Doing Something Good.

Post-patch, I discover via a pop-up that each tree I cut down decrements a counter for Trees Growing in the region. It's a zero sum game! So much for progress. Now I just chop the trees and leave the stump, which apparently still counts as a Tree, but I don't get any Seeds so my planting has come to a dead stop.

Worst of all, I have no home. Oh, I have a Farm. I have two Farms. They come complete with cosy farmhouses whose windows glow cheerily through the dark nights but I can't go inside. There are no opening doors in Gemea.

I can't lie down. I can't even sit on the soft, lush grass. That's to say, it looks soft and lush but how would I know? I can't touch it. I can only reap it for Fodder.

Last night I slept in the archway outside my own home. Standing up. My animals can lie down but I can't. They have pens. They can go inside. They can lie down. Meanwhile, I can't even get into my own house. Is that fair? Is that right?

At least it's safe to sleep out. There's no Combat in Yonder. None at all. Don't take that to mean there isn't Adventure or Action, though. In my opinion there's almost too much. I've been running from place to place clearing Murk, talking to Wizards, fixing ferries and generally adventuring away like there's no tomorrow.

Excuse me? Miss! Could you stop slacking and Solve My Problem? Please?

Only there's always a tomorrow. Days flick by like minutes. Years flick past like days. I'm always On The Clock and there's no time to relax and no place to relax in. It's busy busy busy all the way.

Something about Yonder reminds me of Landmark but Landmark was zen meditation compared to this. If Landmark had had this focus perhaps we'd all still be playing it.

Inventory space: that's a major issue. There's a storage chest at each farm but I have to go to the farm to get anything out of it and there is no means of travel other than jogging everywhere at a fixed speed. There's extensive crafting but every recipe requires a range of things that have to be bought from vendors in specific villages or stations, which means a lot of jogging.

Or you can forage the raw materials and make them yourself, which takes up more inventory space and requires even more jogging. Oh, and did I mention there's no money? All trade happens by barter, which eats up still more inventory space.

Oh, I' to see the wizard... Like it or not. Just look at those lighting effects though.

If it sounds as though I don't like Yonder, well that's wrong. Very wrong. I like it a lot.

It's genuinely lovely to look at. The weather and lighting effects are some of the best I've ever seen - so good you can't wait for a thunderstorm so you can watch the rain sweep in or for night to fall so you can get your lantern out and play with shadows.

The characters are delightful. I connected with mine immediately. I love the way she runs, the way she looks, the way she dresses. The animations are solid and satisfying. Chopping trees is a never-ending pleasure.

Follow me, fox. No need for us both to sleep out in the rain tonight. Sniff...

The animals are cute and cuddly but of course they are. Everything is cute and/or cuddly in Yonder. There's a great deal to love about the game. I expect to keep playing it for a good, long time. Just not for relaxation. When I step into Gemea I know there'll be work to be done and I'll be the one doing it.

Better get on with it, then, hadn't I?


  1. Completely ignoring what a game WANTS you to do is a fine art.

    1. I never have any problem doing it in an MMO but somehow I find it a lot harder in a single-player game. If I don't do it, who will?


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