Some people manage their stress by meditating, others by doing yoga. Some people use shooting games as a coping mechanism, venting their frustrations in a spray of bullets. I’ve found something of a middle ground, where I use video games to mitigate my stress, but I tend to go the Animal Crossing or Zen Koi route, losing myself in soothing, pretty, mindless games until I start to feel better. While I expected Shape of the World, a serene, highly stylized first-person exploration game to fall neatly into this category, I was unprepared for how beautiful and just how addicting it can be.
It’s difficult to explain Shape of the World in words, because it’s such an experiential game. There’s really not much more to it than exploring, poking things, collecting some natural trinkets, and randomly tossing seeds, and the controls are limited to the thumbsticks, the A button, and a combination of shoulder buttons. That said, exploring and poking things has never been so breathtaking, nor so engrossing.
The world really feels alive around you: shifting, changing, and growing as you navigate. Trees grow as you toss seeds, waterfalls catch the light as they cascade down cliffs, and color palettes change inside this surreal landscape. Strange creatures, from land octopuses, to sky eels, to what seem to be oversized seahorses wander around. There’s little to guide you on your journey, and yet developer Hollow Tree Games has created a setting where you instinctively know what to do. You’re forever wandering toward a distant triangles towering high over the world, each one representing a portal to take you to a slightly different setting, complete with its own atmosphere, color palette, weather, and sounds.
While there is a loose objective, to find and pass through the triangle portal located inside each area, you’re not required to chase down the triangles immediately. I spent a good bit of time just wandering inside one area, seeing how far I could go. While there are barriers to this world, they aren’t truly invisible walls; obstacles such as unscalable rocks block your path, and the further you wander the more difficult the terrain becomes, slowing your movement and making the trek a bit of a slog. That said, the game doesn’t actually force you to course correct, and you can find all manner of creatures lingering at the outer borders of the world.
As the game progresses, new concepts and ways of navigating emerge. While you’re usually going to be walking, poking magical stones will activate glowing pathways which allow you to quickly travel to other areas. Trees can sometimes get in your way, but tapping them will actually propel you upwards and forward, allowing you to scale some rocky areas. After a certain point in the game, (see the video above) you begin to encounter resonating rocks, which, if tapped from a distance will pull you quickly towards them. In some areas I found myself so excited by new features that I rushed through the area as quickly as I could, while I naturally adopted a more leisurely pace through others, poking animals as they wandered about, drinking in the scenery, and gasping at whatever new, strange, or wonderful thing came my way.
At one point I passed through a triangle gate to find myself floating in the air, free from the restraints of gravity. I actually gasped as I hovered, unsure if I was falling, floating, or flying, soaring high above the rocky landscape below. It’s so difficult to explain these kinds of sensations in words, and leaves me yearning for a fully immersive VR experience based off this game.
While it’s easy to get lost in Shape of the World, it’s surprisingly difficult to get into. Most people I handed my Switch to played for a minute or two and were ready to hand it back. With just a little coaxing they kept playing, and after fifteen minutes, found themselves reluctant to put it down. That said, it’s not a game for everyone. The aforementioned shooter fans will probably find themselves impatiently firing nuts into the distance, eager for some action. While the game is about exploration, there are a few tricky parts that I would dare refer to as puzzles, and I could easily see others giving up pretty quickly if they end up stumped by one of these puzzles.
That said, Shape of the World is one of the most beautiful and engrossing games I’ve had the pleasure to get lost in. Free from dialogue and text alike, it really is a joy to wander through this world where leaves glow blue, waterfalls run red, and the sky shifts from yellow to green to pink in the blink of an eye. It’s a world I look forward to returning to again and again.
Shape of the World
Shape of the World is a feast of color, sound, and design. It manages to be both serene and occasionally challenging, wondrous and abstract, and has surprising depth, considering that your only goals are to wander around and collect natural trinkets as you go. It's a perfect game for those who want to get lost in a minimalist wonderland of imagination.