Nothing really matters in Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles [official site]. Shipwrecked on an island that has been infested with some sort of sinister cloudy muck, known as the Murk, you might think it's imperative that you clear up the unpleasantness so that people can return to the homes they once inhabited. Everywhere you look there are ruined homes but the islanders don't fuss about them; they've got villages and farms and guilds, and they seem perfectly happy.
In fact, everyone in Yonder seems happy and the more I play, the more radical that design choice seems.
I've been playing the game most of the weekend, having been convinced to check it out by John's review. The truth is, I expected to bounce off it, but I wanted to give it a shot so I could have a better understanding of how it worked. Spending time with games that don't instantly appeal, or fit into my assumed tastes, is often useful; it helps me to figure out what I do and don't enjoy in genres I don't touch very often.
Yonder is part open world exploration and part farm management. It's a third-person game with a visual design I thought would be nauseatingly cute – the first time I saw one of the collectible sprite characters, chirping, spinning and swooping in the air around my head, I almost tapped out. Not for me, I thought. And I also thought, that's fine. Not everything has to be for me.
But for one reason or another, I pushed on and the next thing I knew four hours had passed, mostly because there was something about the look of the world that had grabbed my interest. It's the perfect use of lighting and depth of field, making settlements seem wonderfully warm and inviting, particularly at night when they shimmer in the distance, and the whole world feels simultaneously large yet accessible.
It's one of those games where you see something interesting off in the distance and can not only go and take a closer look, but will reach it far more quickly than expected. Open world games rarely make a virtue of their size in this way; usually they're so busy bragging about how vast they are, they fail to provide enough points of interest in between the things you'll inevitably end up fast travelling to and from. Yonder manages to fit all kinds of environments into an area that feels enormous, but rarely wastes space, simply by throwing in lots of distractions in every direction you care to look.
But the most notable thing about it is that air of contentment around the whole island. People complain about the Murk and talk about a lost Kingdom, destroyed by the titular Cloud Catcher, which is a piece of tech rather than a meteorological twist on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Child Catcher. They're aware of the bad things that have happened, and that may still be happening, but they're mostly concerned about swapping items with you so you can make a new pair of trousers.
There's no violence, at least not in the hours that I've seen so far. I'm all for a bit of in-game violence, but it's fascinating to see an open world design that removes it entirely. Some people will find the lack of conflict dull, and so far it's true to say that no other conflict has been introduced in the gap left by the lack of combat and killing, but for now, I'm still finding the entire game satisfying and relaxing in a way that makes it a fine alternative to just about everything else on my hard drive.
I'll probably get bored of ticking off items on all of my checklists before I've done everything there is to do, and the game is very much about working through lists, whether they're tasks scattered around the world, collections of materials for crafting, or new bits and pieces to expand your farms. For now, I'm happy just to spend time in the world though, so the checklists are a convenient excuse to do that.
Last night I caught a fish that's only available around midnight (in-game time). I was fishing in a mountain lake and when I had the little wriggler secure in my pack, I stood on the mountain, in a storm, and watched the sun rise over the world below. It was stunning, the light fracturing through storm-bruised sky, and layers of colour seeming to spill across the valleys.
And then I trotted off to deliver the fish, help someone to grow a beard, and to figure out whether I should build some fireworks to impress the brewer's guild or go and help a scarecrow to dress for the winter.
Yonder feels like I'm working my way through a shopping list, but its world is just about the prettiest shop I've ever seen. “Clean-up on Isle Murk”, a new task might say, and I'll jog toward the horizon, happy to be at work in a place so peaceful.
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