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The Joy of getting lost in Shape of the World

Off the beaten track

“I learned to love getting lost. You can get pleasantly lost when you don't know where you are but you know you'll find your way if you just keep going. That's the feeling I wanted to create in a game.” This is Stu Maxwell’s philosophy behind his debut game Shape of the World, a serene exploration game where the world’s lush, alien environment organically grows and evolves around you as you walk through it.

After a successful Kickstarter in 2015, Maxwell has been working on Shape of the World as a one person team under the name Hallow Tree Games. I asked him how he first came up with the idea of Shape of the World. “It's while exploring Vancouver's Stanley Park and the surrounding Pacific Northwest that I came up with the desire to create a relaxing game of exploration,” Maxwell explains in our email exchange. “Stanley park is a huge, old-growth forest right next to downtown, full of maze-like paths that I flew down on my bike with great music playing through my headphones. I loved the flow of sailing through the forest with electronic music driving the emotion.”

In Shape of the World the player is let loose in a procedurally generated landscape. As you walk through the empty space the environment blossoms around you. Trees shoot up, rock formations launch upwards and tower above you and flowers burst at your feet. It’s an ever-changing environment that reacts directly to your movement. “The idea was, as you walked through a minimalist and graphical world, trees and shrubs would unfurl into the world in front of you, brought to life by your movement. Creatures would spring up and run or fly around with you. Importantly, the scene would burst with colour. Not detail, or realism, but a graphical painting that appeals with great shapes and colour combinations.”

In Shape of the World there are a variety of majestic creatures and environments with all kinds of landscapes, from rocky mountain ranges to mystical caverns. Venturing further into the unknown, there are no tutorials and no instructions, it's up to the player to freely wander. As I played I felt moved to explore purely because of the world’s beauty and my own curiosity. Maxwell explains his thought process of this relationship between the player and the ever-evolving environment. “When I started creating objects that would grow from the ground and sky as you approached - and my motivation was to keep it entertaining to explore - I noticed that it created a very disorienting environment. You could look out and see a blank landscape, then walk into it and be lost in a forest.”

Capturing this feeling of aimlessness was vital to how Maxwell wanted the player to feel, he says. “Walking back to where you came, the forest would grow differently than it did the first time. So exploration became a bit dizzying, and it reminded me of the feeling I've always enjoyed - the feeling of being pleasantly lost.”

Loosing your sense of direction is a constant experience in Shape of the World, but not a frustrating one. I found that something would always grab my attention and I would get sidetracked. I was set on working my way up to the top of a hill when I spotted a trail of seeds leading off on a separate pathway. I couldn’t help but follow this invitation and, without hesitation, I abandoned my self-made quest and followed them. These seeds trails are sprinkled throughout the game and allow the player to grow trees and plants when dropped. I asked Maxwell his reasons for designing this mechanic. “One, they are something to collect which requires a few playthroughs to accomplish. Two, they provide little mini-goals that pop up by surprise and take you off your path. Remember, I want to disorient you to get you pleasantly lost. Three, they hint at paths you could take, like coins in Mario games. And, finally, they offer you a chance to plant trees. You can plant cosmetically or you can sacrifice your planted trees to boost quickly forward. I liked this mechanic much more than a run button, and I feel it has symbolic meaning: You make progress, but you destroy something in the process.”

This boosting mechanic is just one other way that the player can travel. There are some magical moments where the player can swim, bounce, drift and even fly. Maxwell says he tried to design a lot of contrast into the game, from landscapes to colours to creature scale. That meant he needed some contrasting types of transport to vary the pace, too. “It was also important to have some sense of progression beyond simply moving from area to area, so a change in movement model was the key variable for me.”

It’s not only the environment that responds to your movements in Shape of the World; the colour scheme changes frequently as you interact with the world around you. It was the game’s vibrant and colourful look that grabbed my attention when I first came across Shape of the World and it’s another aspect of the game that keeps you exploring. Maxwell explains the design behind the changing colour palette: “I didn't give any objects a specific colour. Instead, they got a code. When I wanted to colour the scene, I assigned a colour to each code and saved them in a colour palette file which could be swapped out for any other colour palette at any time.” This created the magic of instantly changing the entire palette of a scene whenever the player discovers something major. Maxwell also added to the recipe of trees and creatures that could spawn along with the new colours. “It really makes exploration fun, knowing that you're creating your own world.”

Coupled with Shape of the World’s visuals is its electronic soundtrack, which is also responsive to the player’s actions. The ambient music is a perfect match for the look and relaxed vibe of the alien ecosystem. The game’s tranquil OST was composed by Brent Silk. Maxwell gave him references of textural, electronic music that was “beautiful and relaxing but innovating and interesting, not at all like generic spa music”. When the game had progressed enough, Silk began turning his music into stages that could be sequenced and blended into the game based on what the player was doing. “Like I wanted from the beginning,” Maxwell says, “it felt like you were playing a music video, but for an entire album.”

Comparing Shape of the World to playing a relaxing music video perfectly captures the intention of the game. It’s an ambient and almost meditative experience. Shape of the Word is something you can play to unwind after a busy day, a game that places emphasis on player relaxation rather than goal oriented gameplay.

Shape of the World is available now for Windows via Steam, for £10.29/10.79€/$12.99.

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