I went into Ashen with certain expectations. Not of quality, but of mood. It sets out its Dark Soulsbut stall right away, with talk of disasters and darkness and god-level menaces, and so I shifted my brain into the familiar gears of isolation and doomy solitude. These, experience has taught, are lonely adventures in hostile places – only the broken corpses will ever witness my successes and failures, and the world will not care if I live, die or die and die and die again.
A night drive on a lost highway, no other car but mine. Except... That didn’t happen. The expected coldness – welcome as it is, for it means I am in a place where my triumphs and failures are mine and mine alone, serving no other agenda – did not envelop me. Instead, Ashen makes me feel warm - and makes me feel that I have friends.
Not because of what can be a more autumnal colour palette in its outdoor spaces than we are accustomed to from From’s dead worlds. Because of the people. Its faceless people, their personalities built from facial hair, clothing or posture, but most of all from their deeds. There are only a few of them, but they work. They build and restore basic structures, returning life to their shattered world, a note of hope, a people active and aspirational. Even if only watched from after, it’s so strikingly different from the purgatorial futility of Souls’ just-a-heartbeat-from-psychosis stander-arounders.
Perhaps, yes, it keeps Ashen from enjoying the auterish feel of Souls game – these proactive people incline a little closer to the ambient, looped life of a more traditional RPG – but they give me purpose. I feel there is worth beyond my own sense of satisfaction in slaying the evils of this land, in keeping these proud resettlers safe, in risking my skin to find their lost trinkets and lost loves.
But more than that, they see worth in me too. Either they believe in me, enough to think I might save them all, or they are simply kind, and understand that anyone heading out into the wilds needs and deserves help.
One or another of them, to start with Jokell or Amara, will follow me when I leave our tiny town in search of adventure and conflict, they will aid me in battle, restore my life to me when some skittering bandit or snickering ghoul takes it from me.
Unusually, they come and go erratically, sometimes there and sometimes not. This is a symptom both of their being an outwardly singleplayer interpretation of an ambient multiplayer system whereby other, random players can temporarily inhabit this companion role (or so they appear to me - and I to them), and of raggedy pathfinding that, if no human hand is at their invisible till, can see them caught upon a rock or unable to calculate the reckless jump I just took.
On paper, this reads like an irritation. In practice, it is precisely why I am so cheered by their presence. A friend is someone who shows up when you need them most, rather than someone glued to your elbow at all times. A friend does not live in your house, but a friend has to sprint, drive, tube or fly to wherever you are when the time comes to support you. There must be a lag for their arrival to feel its most meaningful.
You’re at your lowest, feeling so alone, so alone, when suddenly there’s the knock on the door, and there they are, apologising for the snare up on the M25 or that they left their Oyster card in their other trousers. And then the time that they weren’t there for doesn’t matter – it only matters that they’re here now.
The number of times, in Ashen, that I have felt desperate and doomed, caught up in some terrible struggle alone, when suddenly something bursts into my peripheral vision and there stands Jokell or Amara. They’ve found me at last. They always find me, eventually. It is their very unreliability that makes me trust them, makes their presence so cheering. They will get lost, they will get confused, hell, they might even be off on some errand of their own, but they will find me. And they will help me.
Not only in combat - they're there to provide the occasional leg-up, or to open an enormous door. It's this stuff that makes me most certain their companionship is not a happy accident in Ashen. At heart, it wants to be a game of friendship as much as it does a game of weathering the storm.
But, of course, no friend can solve every problem. They can ease, but they cannot solve. These friends cannot keep me safe from my many mistakes, or dispatch some monstrous boss for me. What they can do is give me the support I need to, sometimes, work things out. Keep one threat at bay for a while as I deal with another. Kick the giant spider away when it pins me to the ground, before it saps the last life out of me. Pull me back to my feet once, just once.
Helping to cement my feeling that these are my friends, not some character a videogame is trying to make me love, is that they are faceless and, while adventuring, voiceless. No personality is pushed upon me, they are mine to envisage as I see fit. Their very presence, at the hardest of times, or their very absence, at the hardest of times, makes them flesh in a way a thousand witty lines or a thousand motion-capped facial animations never could. They are there, they are there for me.
I shouldn’t have a favourite already, but of course I do. It’s Jokell, elegantly coiffed and impressively moustachioed, name, garb and posture alike suggesting an avuncular spirit. Amara seems somehow spikier, more serious, even suspicious – though she is no less reliable. This is borne out by their scant (though still somewhat overwritten) dialogue back at our rudimentary town, where she speaks of solemn, mystical things, where he is more casual, curious, even gossipy. He feels, to me, like a cheerful explorer, and she more like a wary watcher of the shadows.
Ashen will dictate, at points, which companion I have, and I confess to some disappointment every time I turn to see Amara’s black mane and not Jokell’s white quiff. Others arrive later, but it's Jokell, always Jokell, who best sets the spirit of things. But I am grateful for any accomplice, nonetheless.
I think of Ashen, a place of doom, despair and great difficulty, and I think of companionship.