Vane’s developers have been quiet about the game for its entire production, sharing only snippets of information and short gameplay trailers up until its release. Having played Vane, I now understand why. Everything from its setting and mechanics to the basic ways you interact with the world change over and over throughout its runtime, and any description that doesn’t totally spoil the adventure will be incomplete. Even discussing the distinct stages that make up the game won’t convey vital details about how it feels to play and how its disparate parts fit together. Vane is a game that has to be played to be understood, but even deciding if it ought to be played is difficult.
Let’s take it from the top. You start Vane playing as a bird. Well, actually, you start as a child running toward a tower as a lightning storm destroys the platform you’re running across. You’re carrying some kind of golden relic, and when you reach the tower, you’re rebuffed by a tall creature in a sort of plague doctor’s mask and sucked up into the storm. But that segment only lasts about a minute and won’t make any sense until later, if it ever does.
So, back to the bird. While the child was running across a metal floor in an area full of towers and whirling weather vanes, the bird is perched in a tree in the desert. You take off, and you’re free to explore. The feeling is liberating. You can fly anywhere you want across the vast desert landscape, though it’s bounded on every side by impassable sandstorms. Most likely, you’ll be drawn to follow a shallow canyon that stretches out directly in front of where you start. At the end of the canyon, the ground dips into a small oasis, where you might catch a light glinting off of something. If you check it out, you’ll find that the light was reflecting off of a rickety pole that you can perch on and call out to other birds in the area. Their weight will tip over your perch, unveiling a wind sock that points into the distance, and all the birds start flying in that direction. You’re free to follow them or take your own path, but eventually, they’ll lead you where you need to go to progress.
For the first stretch of Vane, this is how you navigate. You check out interesting environmental features, investigate lights in the distance, and follow flocking birds. You could spend hours flying around this desert and exploring the ruins that dot it, or you could rush through to the game’s next section. I took a moderate pace, but got caught up trying to play Vane like I would any other game. While it never tells you what your objectives are or spells out explicitly what to do, Vane does have some ways of signposting your goals. Sometimes the camera will pan to show you which direction you should go, or music will swell to build momentum into the next plot point. The trouble is, it was never clear what these signals were trying to tell me. At one point, every sign I could find was pointing toward one location in the world, so I spent a long time poking around there, trying to figure out what I was meant to do. What I didn’t realize, and had no way of knowing, is that I needed to visit a few more points on the map before this landmark would spill its secrets. It’s great that Vane lets you figure out the way forward on your own, but the fact that it still points toward some objectives and not others confused me more than it helped. Sometimes you’re given no direction, sometimes you’re given misleading directions, and sometimes the path forward is literally built around you as you move. The problem is, it’s never clear whether you’re supposed to be following along or exploring, and later on in the game, you’re heavily disincentivized from finding your own way.
The most common way Vane called attention to objectives was by simply pointing the camera at them, which caused problems of its own. Since the game also changes the camera angle (often quite effectively) to frame scenes in an interesting way or establish a new area, it was hard to tell which camera moves were supposed to convey information and which were just for effect. The camera can also cause problems with navigation, especially when you’re flying in tight quarters. It has a tendency to get caught on walls, giving you awkward angles of your character that make it difficult to maneuver, or sometimes cutting you out of the frame altogether.
Camera wonkiness aside, Vane also has its share of more severe bugs. At times, I got caught in floors or passed entirely through them, and at some points they just disappeared from under my feet. There were a few areas where I clipped through the level’s geometry and ended up in a parallel world within the walls. There was one instance where my character got stuck in a running animation and my only solution was to reset the game, just to find that Vane only sets up checkpoints at the beginning of a few different sections, this one being about 45 minutes ago.
After some time in the desert, you’ll eventually find a way to change from a bird into a child, which brings with it a whole new set of problems. There are actually two spots where you might first make this transformation, one in a completely optional cavern. That’s where I first changed, after discovering a pile of mysterious gold dust, and it left me with a lot of doubts about where the game was going. Where soaring through the air as a bird is fun and freeing, clambering around as a child feels like trudging through ankle-deep mud. First of all, the child moves incredibly slowly, especially considering the vast distances you’ll often have to cover. Their jump is also slow to execute, and it’s not always clear which ledges you can grab until you fling yourself toward them to find out. If you fall more than a couple feet at any time, you’ll transform back into a bird, and have to make your way back to the magical gold dust to become a child again. All this made the short platforming sequence that follows the transformation into a laborious affair that took me probably 10 times longer than it should have as I slipped and skidded my way around the cave.
Whether you take this detour or not, you’ll soon enough have to take the child’s form to progress. After this point, as you enter a giant door carved into the side of a cliff, you’ll spend most of your time as a child, using your bird form only when necessary to cross gaps or scout areas from above. This is also the point at which the game started to go downhill for me. Not only does playing the child just feel frustrating, their slow, awkward movement made me not want to explore. At the same time, your path narrows considerably from here on. When you leave the desert, you’re also leaving behind its wide-open skies and expansive vistas to instead be shuttled from chamber to chamber, and later, through nothing more than hallways and catwalks. Rather than following your curiosity and discovering the way forward, you’re led into rooms with only one way out and essentially one path to get there.
Vane may not have objective markers telling you where to go, but you can spend the rest of the game basically just following the path you’re presented and occasionally stopping to interact with whatever object is placed in front of you. I almost never knew what my goals were, either in the short or the long term, but by just wandering around a bit, I was always able to progress. It’s not entirely fair, but I kept thinking of Ico, probably because some of the team who worked on Vane used to work with Fumito Ueda and those influences remain clear. In Ico, if you need to get past a gate, you find a lever or a way around and work out how to reach it. In Vane, you’re expected free a bird from a cage to work a conveyor belt, or to use a power you barely understand on objects you didn’t know were in the environment to trigger an event you couldn’t have known was going to happen. I admire Vane’s commitment to creating a world that’s so bizarre and alien, but the rules that govern it are often abstract to the point of incomprehensibility. There are some interesting puzzle mechanics built in, mostly based around pushing a giant orb that alters the environment around it, but I stumbled upon unpredictable solutions by accident more often than I actually worked out what I was supposed to do ahead of time.
This all led to a strange sense of disorientation after I’d been playing for while. At no point did I really understand what I was doing, why I was doing it, or if my character even understood what was happening, but I knew that if I kept bumping into walls enough, I would get through. As the game progresses, it makes less and less sense, but also tends to funnel you more toward inevitable progress. It feels in a way like that’s what the game is about — constricting you and stripping you of your agency little by little while forcing you to carry out indecipherable tasks with unknowable outcomes — but it’s hard to say whether that’s anything more than my own caffeine-poisoned reading after powering through it in one afternoon. Any coherent interpretation I can come up with seems to be contradicted by some element of the game.
It should be clear that I didn’t walk away with a very positive impression of Vane. It underuses its most interesting ideas and manages to feel both meandering and restrictive. But on the other hand, I’ve played through it twice in two days, and spent the rest of my time thinking about it. There is a lot to like about Vane, or at least a lot that’s so strange that it deserves to be seen. The score, for one, is phenomenal. Pulsing, unnerving synth tracks kick in from time to time to underscore big events, though the music is used far too sparingly. Visually, it’s borderline indescribable. Whatever you think of screenshots of this game, it’s a whole different thing to see in motion. Even as I was disappointed with the game in its later stages, its art style kept evolving, getting better with each passing moment. While I was frustrated by the game as a whole, it’s flecked with tiny moments of nearly transcendental joy and wonder. Soaring as the bird through open desert in the first part of Vane is a thrill that I could see myself booting the game up just to experience for a few minutes at a time for years.
More than I enjoyed any one element of Vane, though, I admired its ambition. Vane makes a lot of risky, unintuitive choices, and whether they all pay off or not, they’re certainly interesting. It’s idiosyncratic and bold, its gameplay is utterly unique, and it prizes atmosphere and emotion over all else. In both its mechanics and story (as much as it has one), it completely eschews common tropes, and never takes the easy route. Even when I found the game boring or directionless, it was consistently experimenting with things that I’ve never seen a game do before. And to me, that makes it worth more than 100 of the best tower-climbing collect-a-thons or immersive depictions of real wars. I wouldn’t call Vane a success, but I want more games like it to be made.
Vane lets players shift from the form of a bird to a child as they explore a strange, hallucinatory world set to a fantastic synth soundtrack. But what starts as a liberating flight through a vast desert eventually devolves into a linear trek through cramped corridors. Vane is a strange, haunting game that deserves attention, but it abandons its most interesting ideas too early on.