Shape of the World by Hollow Tree Games is exactly what it’s made out to be, a calm exploration through an everchanging landscape filled with exotic creatures who might not always be where you expect them. To progress you make bridges appear by interacting with parts of the landscape around you. You’ll be visiting deserts, forests, swamps, caves, and mountains. You are also a bit of a gardener and can plant seeds, which turn into trees, which you can then prune. There is no story other than the one you tell yourself. Ascension is a prevalent theme, though, and could probably be applied to many stages in someone’s life.
The game starts out great, a meditation through empty whiteout, greatly matched by the musical ambience accompanying you as you set out on your thousand step journey. Here and there, small signs of life, motion, thickets of bamboo. Pillars rice as you put your hand on their marble surface, cool to the touch, step by step a walkway sounds into existence, a quick rhythm predating your ascent. At the end, a portal, a triangular invitation to another world. You step through and everything changes: the music, the landscape, the life around you. Not only an explorer, a gardener you are: seeds in your pockets, hands in the flora. Your role keeps changing: now an explorer, now a gardener, now a mountaineer, the summit calling you in the distance. Part of it makes me think of a short story, never finished, by René Daumal about the surprisingly physical symbolism of a mountain higher than any other mountain, higher than ever imagined, with foot and head as disparate as men and gods.
After passing through the first portal, that’s where I think the music peaks: fresh, inspired, soulful, with one of the instruments most closely reminiscient of the Chinese erhu (二胡), which — just like the cello — has a very human quality to its voice. Then, as I move on and leave to other areas, the music sadly turns generic and feels artifical, uninspired¹, as if played by automatons in perfectly inhumane tune, and I find myself getting a bit tired of it all and some autopilot or other replaces me as I drift off, thinking about something else. The music picks up a little again towards the end.
Despite drifting off a little (or maybe thanks to it), I have played through the game three times: the first time I explored every inch of it, but still managed to miss three of the seeds, and have a couple of achievements left, so there is a lot to do, even if it might not look like that when you start out.
The art assets are mostly flat-shaded and quite colourful. Every creature in the game’s ecology can be interacted with in a unique way, but I won’t say more than that; you just have to try it out and you might find that some of them can help you. As perhaps expected in a game about calm exploration, meditation or perhaps even contemplation, there is no sprinting, but you can jump and later on there is a certain degree of vertical freedom. Some fast travel is also offered.
There are a few places where proper collision models are missing and I fell through, landing on the ground inside a large rock, but could easily continue by just taking a few steps forward and sometimes jumping a bit. At one time I managed to explore too much and ended up on the other side of a barrier, couldn’t find a way back, so I had to exit and resume. There is no manual saving, but fortunately one can choose to start from any chapter already started, so I didn’t lose any of my progress — although it is a little wrong to talk about progress, because that isn’t the main aim of the game. If you just play the game to finish it, then you will miss out.
All in all, Shape of the World is a good representative of its genre, maybe not the most inspired at times and also sometimes a little too aesthetically busy for my tastes while at the same time a little too quiet in its narration (I could have wished for some more insights into the world and the creatures I meet), but with lots to explore and great for winding down with after a demanding day.
¹As uninspired as this review, I imagine… I liked the game, but I was in no mood to write about it for a long time — or about anything else either, for that matter.