Eastshade: Fantasy Without Crisis

Eastshade is a game somewhere between a traditional CRPG and a walking simulator. You’re a painter, exploring an unfamiliar island in a game without combat or skill-based challenge. It is, very approximately, Skyrim without swords and monsters, a CRPG led by environmental design.

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It goes a lot further than this, though. A lot of videogames struggle to do storytelling in a nonviolent or lower-violence way, because story is about conflict and violent conflict is relatively easy to simulate and show. (How much of that is the result of design history and how much comes with the territory, I’m not going to get into here.) Often they backslide somewhat – you just clubbed the guard from behind, it’s not like you shot him, there wasn’t a struggle. Some end up bringing along awkward assumptions from violence-driven mechanics – like in Renowned Explorers, where the consequences for failing a Friendly contest are the same as losing a Violent one.

Eastshade sets out to avoid this by largely eschewing high-stakes storytelling.

Its central plot is very slender: the player’s central motivation is to paint four scenes in particular places for their mother, and this requires getting through a series of gated obstacles. Most of the obstacles are opened up by simple, familiar forms of NPC quest: make the right painting to sell to someone, take this message to this person, find this, craft that. So, in the first town, you have to pay a toll to cross the bridge and leave, which means that you have to learn the basic skills – crafting, painting, taking commissions – before you get to explore further. Then when you reach the city you need to get letters of recommendation before you’re allowed in, which means you have to go back and make sure you’ve earned the friendship of at least three characters, and so on.

The usual approach would be to link key plot points to these gates to mechanical progression. But there isn’t really a big story here. Eastshade doesn’t have a grand narrative, and neither does the player character. There are small mysteries and discrete incidents. The dramatic beats of the story are primarily environmental: discovering new places and opening up new vistas. Narratively, it’s a traveller’s-account piece, without the action-adventure.

A problem with walking simulators being driven by plot is that it the impetus of plot can be at odds with the player’s peregrinations. Either the player’s shepherded to the plot, and feels chivvied along – this was a bit of an issue with Firewatch – or they’re aware that there’s plot they ought to be finding, and are worried that they’re missing things, or that they’ll have to do laborious traversals to fix it. If you ignore the plot for hours and go off to chase butterflies and side-quests, the narrative pacing suffers; if you focus in hard on the plot, you miss out on a lot of the Experience. Eastshade has a similar rhythm to the typical open-world CRPG in its accumulation of numerous small quests, but because it doesn’t have a Big Story, you’re encouraged to doof around on side-treks until you open up the next gateway.

Because story is generally driven by conflict, this means that Eastshade’s setting can be a lot more chill. There are precipitous heights, but you cannot fall from them. Political leaders or warriors are not prominent, because you’re not dealing with stories about politics and war. There are laws and law enforcement, but they tread very gently. There are farmers, fishermen, botanists, innkeepers, academics, tourists, traders. There is some history, but not very much. There is work, and some people have money troubles, but it’s very clearly a world with abundant time for leisure.

Sometimes the softness of the world makes some subplots feel weird, or as though there’s something nastier that you’re not being told. Why are the First Folk so wary of outsiders? Why is Nava, the main city, closed to anyone without letters of recommendations? The in-game reasons don’t feel sufficient; they make most sense as softened-down echoes of the real world, and that softening doesn’t always sit well.

There’s one sequence, a whodunit mystery in an island inn, where this really stands out. It rotates around the question of a stolen book, but more crucially over who should have rights to ancient ruins in Tiffmoor – which involves a hazily-defined indigenous people who view the ruins as sacred and want to keep them off-limits to business, archaeology and sightseers. This clearly references a real-world issue – but it’s impossible to really get a grasp on because there’s so little context for the indigenous people. (They’re not the same as the First Folk, the other first inhabitants of Eastshade.) There’s no historical information about them being colonised or oppressed, and without that context the whole issue of native rights over sacred sites becomes well-nigh unintelligible, and it feels like ganking a sensitive real-world issue as a plot convenience rather than an attempt to engage with that issue. And in terms of the Eastshade setting, it feels like a shift of narrative focus onto politics and history without the worldbuilding focus necessary to support it.

A lot of the subplots are about people being suspicious of their neighbours, or of outsiders, usually without good reason. I’m not sure if this is an intentional theme or if it’s just the natural consequence of needing some kind of plot stakes without sex or violence getting involved; but it does, occasionally, make the rural idyll feel like a lace-curtain-twitching hanging-baskets kind of thing.

In general, it’s conspicuously more of a scenic diorama than an attempt to simulate a working world, and its problems show up when it forgets that. It’s not really accurate to talk about it as a utopia, because utopias are generally concerned with how a society works, about the functioning of law, institutional practice, social custom, economics. For the most part Eastshade isn’t interested in function, it’s interested in result: what, not how. It’s not a utopia: it’s an idyll. It’s pastoral art, not agronomics. Usually in a fantasy world, your main modes of interaction are lenses through which to understand things: the dungeoneering digs up history, battles connect you to politics, arcane power introduces cosmology, crafting links you to material culture and labour. It’s not just that these are gone: it’s that they’re not replaced with anything that digs you into the world. Eastshade your main activity is looking at stuff: you’re a tourist, and you have a tourist’s surface understanding. And that, in principle, is fine; it just has trouble sticking to it.

It particularly odd that it front-loads its small stock of Drama: in the opening sequence you’re below decks on a ship headed to Eastshade. Game-wise, I can see the purpose of this sequence: you hear about Eastshade before reaching it, and it provides a closed environment in which to teach players the most basic interaction. And I understand why the ship sinks: to make the player start from nothing, an inveterate device in CRPGs. But taken together, it means that you have a high-stress introduction to your chill-out game. The hold floods, and – for no very clear in-fiction reason – you can’t get out. I don’t have a particular fear of water or confined spaces, personally, but a lot of people do. It makes for a huge caveat to the game – ‘hey, you should play this, it’s really pretty and chill. OK, for the first five minutes you’re going to be in a boat hold with no scenery, and then you’re going to panic as water rapidly floods in and you can’t get out, but it’s cool once you get past that.” There’s no good reason why the story couldn’t have begun with the player washed up on the beach, with the basic-level tutorial delivered by the guy who rescues you; with the storm elided as part of the pre-game sequence. The on-ship sequence feels like the sort of thing that happens because the designers are so focused on fixing a specific issue that they lose sight of the overall effect.

(I’ve had similar experiences introducing Subnautica to people: some folks who might enjoy swimming around the scenic ocean are going to be put off right away by the AAAAA EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE opening sequence. The difference is that in Subnautica, getting freaked out by claustrophobic panicky crises is a regular part of the game, and if that’s a deal-breaker for you then it’s worth knowing that up-front. In Eastshade it doesn’t reflect the rest of the game at all.)

There is a degree of challenge, and it’s possible to get kind of stuck. Mid-game you can take commissions through an art vendor; it’s your most straightforward way to grind money, which is important for unlocking certain things. I picked up every commission I could find – but there’s a limit to how many you can have open, and my slots filled up with commissions of subjects I couldn’t access yet. And I couldn’t find a way to abandon commissions.  (I needed to find a ‘cob house in the countryside’. At first I guessed that ‘cob’ was a shape thing, like a cob loaf, round and somewhat flattened: a lot of the houses have roofs that shape. Then I googled it and found out that ‘cob’ is just what adobe used to be called in Britain.)

This coincided with a general stuckness in a number of quests, around a mid-game area where the quest progression gets a bit more complicated. Things that were apparently independent side-quests turn out to be designed a bit more like a chain of puzzles in an adventure game: to make the boat you have to get sealant, and for that you need to know the password to the Roots, and for that you need the amulet which you find by using the special treasure-finding tea which you can’t get until you’ve bought the thing that lets you do ziplines. Meanwhile, you’re accumulating quests which require you to do stuff in the area that you need the boat to access. This would be a normal way of designing things in a graphic adventure or trad IF game, puzzle-games where the sequence is part of the puzzle and where being kind of stuck sometimes is an expected, regular part of the experience. But Eastshade isn’t framed as one of those: it’s framed as a modern CRPG, which typically have a clearly-marked central quest and a bunch of independent side-quests.

*

Eastshade is a game driven by environment design, but it isn’t big. There are only two settlements – a not-all-that-big Grand Architectural City and a humble trading-port – and walking between the two takes a few minutes. It does a great deal, however, to create the illusion of there being a lot of space. Many open-world games accomplish that with the feeling of, well, openness – spreading valleys between distant peaks. There’s some of that long-vista approach here, but it relies more on obstruction, on filling the space with hills and trees and undergrowth. The texture of the ground is rolling and broken-up, the ground-cover dense. The trees screen the view, but even on the largely-unwooded Tiffmoor Bluffs the land is broken up so that you encounter it a little at a time. Some of this, I think, is because none of this ground will ever have to work as a field of combat; you don’t have to worry about finding bodies to loot among the undergrowth, or having your line of sight confused by branches. And with a smaller map, it’s less critical that the player can orient themselves constantly. If you get turned around in the woods a bit – which I definitely did a few times – it’s OK, because you’ll get out very quickly, and as soon as you hit a trail you’ll be able to find a sign directing you to one of the towns.

This is a game that trains the eye. There’s a theory of aesthetic history that says, essentially: our cultural understanding of landscape, of hills and mountains and fields and forests as a subject of aesthetic pleasure, is reliant on art: we learned to appreciate these things as beautiful because we learned to think about them as though they were paintings or photographs. I’m not sure how widely that argument works, but it’s more narrowly true that if your eye is trained on landscape art, it becomes more accustomed to viewing real-world landscapes aesthetically.

When you set up a painting in Eastshade, not a whole lot matters in absolute gameplay terms. Paintings don’t have quality scores: they are either of a subject – a particular person, a tower, a landscape under an eclipse – or they’re not, and that’s all the mechanics really care about. But you have tools to tweak aesthetics – you can alter the dimensions of your canvas to frame a scene, and move about to get a good angle – and this invites you to consider the scene aesthetically. The world undergoes a regular solar eclipse at midday, and the weather changes, so your attention is drawn to shifts in the light. The thick forest alternates with scenic overlooks that you can’t miss.

Paintings aren’t free to make. In most respects Eastshade’s art-making is more like photography than painting, but it’s not like digital photography where you can bracket every shot with dozens of near-repeats. You have relatively few blank canvases, and (especially in the early game) you might not know where the next one’s coming from. In theory, you can repaint canvases until you get something you like – but every painting you make also consumes Inspiration. As a mechanic, Inspiration exists to prevent you repainting too much. If you play without much repainting you never really run short of it: but you only get it when you find new locations, read new books, or hear new stories, so it’s a slow-drip resource.

So the number of paintings you can have, and the number of attempts you can make at them, feel constrained. And this encourages you to consider them more carefully, which gets you in the habit of considering the world more carefully. Eastshade is pretty, but it’s not outstandingly pretty. It does not have the vast resources of an AAA open-world game or the strongly-articulated style of a Firewatch. Its general look – lush temperate forests, snowy mountains, vaguely-Renaissance architecture, fantasy sensibility – is one that’s very heavily represented in game art. It’s not showing you anything that Skyrim didn’t, and there’s a lot less of it.

But it does an unusually good job of getting you to regard it aesthetically. A great deal of whether a game works comes down to getting the player into the right frame of mind to appreciate it. This is obviously much trickier, and more important, in games which are not furnishing conventional and expected experiences in conventional and expected ways.

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And in general, Eastshade is good at getting you to accept its vibe. With a lot of low-conflict, slow-paced games, I find half the struggle is getting my brain into a place where I can accept them. At this point in gaming history, almost everybody is trained, to some degree, to expect rapid feedback from games, if not precisely gratification. I often went into the game not really wanting to deal with it, but generally after ten minutes or so I’d feel myself easing up and falling into its rhythm.

Take the music. It’s the same style of new-agey instrumental that you’d expect in any not-the-evil-area of a high-fantasy game: it is not memorable or distinctive in ways that will make me go on about it years later. It is there as an inobtrusive part of the game’s texture. But I don’t recommend playing without it, and I say this as someone who turns off the music in games the great majority of the time. Music’s a big part of setting mood and energy levels, and you really need to get those right for Eastshade to work.

*

Eastshade has a number of recurring elements which act as signifiers for a certain style of introvert relaxation. Tea crops up a lot. There are many cats. A fishing minigame. Books. There is occasional romance between NPCs, but nothing is horny.

(The NPCs are anthropomorphic animals, but they feel distinct from furries, at least as that usually manifests in the standard idiom. The more common anthros of Popular Furry Art – cats, foxes, wolves – are absent, and instead you get deer, apes, owls, the occasional bear. Although they have quite a lot of voice-acting, they have been mostly been designed to not have expressive, heavily anthropomorphic faces: that route would have needed a lot of resources to reach the level of polished aesthetic that Eastshade is after. They’re there because animal faces can be made minimally-animated with less creepy results than human faces. But it’s also because you’re not meant to be horny about them. Everyone wears fully-covering clothes of bulky fabric.

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Eastshade is a pastoral idyll, and as such its antitheses are outside the work. It’s difficult to take it wholly seriously as a setting in large part because this is so prominent: because it’s an invocation of a trope. Eastshade does not contain books because each of its books have especially important information or beautiful words to deliver: it contains books because books are part of a particular, recognisable aesthetic,  because the player already likes books and what they symbolise. Eastshade’s cats do not have particular looks and personalities that evoke the joy of a particular cat: they are all the same cat, pretty much, arranged as an element in a composition. They signify the thing you like rather than simulating it.

In a lot of ways Eastshade seems like a portfolio piece for AAA work, demonstrating a very strong sense of polished environment design and experience with tying that into common game elements. It’s clearly more than that, but the state of its narrative worldbuilding – not fleshed-out enough to feel real, but not dialed-back enough to not matter – can make it feel a little hollow.

It feels like I’ve dunked on this game a lot. That’s not entirely fair: my interests run towards environment in support of narrative and character and worldbuilding, but Eastshade’s priorities are completely the other way around. Which means that I’ve focused a lot on aspects that are kind of peripheral to the central drive of the piece. The things that Eastshade really wants to be good at – environment, mood, exploration – it does very well.

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2 Responses to Eastshade: Fantasy Without Crisis

  1. georgedorn says:

    Despite the ‘dunking’ you’ve still piqued my interest, though I’ll likely have the same issue being in the right mood to want to play it. I suspect it requires the same sort of mindset as Eidolon? Or is it generally more accessible and ‘game-y’ than that?

    • I haven’t played Eidolon myself, although Jacq has. It is not as slow-paced as Eidolon, I think, and less lonely, and it doesn’t have much by way of scattered diary pages.

      In fact, it has very little of the classic environmental storytelling – ‘something happened here, find clues about what’ – that walking simulators almost invariably rely on. The game rhythms are much more like an open-world CRPG – and that’s a format more actively designed around motivating the player, so it’s arguably more accessible, yeah. It’s aiming for a similar mindset as a walking simulator, I think, but it does more of the work to get you there.

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