To describe what Shape of the World by Hollow Tree Games is, it‘s useful to explain first what it isn’t and the first example that springs to mind is Sonic the Hedgehog. Where Sonic is speed, danger, points, enemies and bosses, Shape of the World is the exact opposite. You move slowly, there are no threats, no endings and no desperate collection of rings to keep you alive. In short, this game is like nothing I have ever played before.
Shape of the World is less a game than it is a meditation or exploration. You move, first person, through a world of bright, block colours and strange beady eyed creatures seeking the next triangle “goal” marker. Passing through the triangle changes the colour of the world and indicates that you are moving toward a new triangle goal. Along the way you have a limited set of interactions with the ever changing environment: By tapping on a tree you make it vanish and give yourself a temporary burst in speed. By tapping a series of glowy white rocks, you activate a roller coaster like elevated path that comes with a really satisfying “clicking” sound effect (more on game sounds later), and you can also tap the larger of the ground based creatures causing them to give you a bouncy shove.
These short bursts of interaction are really a side dish to the main course of the meal that is the exploration of the world, the focus of the game’s 1-3 hour play time. There are hills, valleys, waterfalls and lakes – all rendered in big beautiful colours. There are trees and shrubs that pop up as you move forward and rock faces that rise up out of the ground to direct you in a different direction. There are floating fish, squiddy things that travel in packs, worm creatures that peak at you from the waters edge and a flying whale that echos in the distance even after it passes.
The game is a trip.
Sound plays a huge role in the game experience, as ambient music drops in and out, speeds up and slows down as you wander around seeking your next triangle. Faint animal noises, the clatter of plants growing, and a delightful “ping” sound anytime you interact with a tree. There is a lot to take in, but it all comes at you so slowly and smoothly, that at times you just need to pause and pan the camera around to see what you are missing.
Playing Shape of the World is strangely addictive. There is never the frustration of a “cheap kill” bad guy that you cant beat or a puzzle you can’t solve. All there is is another rock to tap, another path to grow or another hill to climb. The game seems to have a certain intuition to your play as well; just as it seems the next triangle is lost or the same music has played too long, ping! There is the next change, there is that missing triangle, there is something you haven’t seen yet.
If the game has a flaw, I would say it is in its replay value. I enjoyed my initial two hour walk about through this game, but when I went to pick it up and play some more I found that it did not hold a “resume game” option past a few days. This meant I had to start over. Which wasn’t so bad, but I can’t say I would want to do it again and again. The visual experiences and colours are bright and beautiful, but the world around you does become somewhat repetitive, especially the second go round.
My final thought on Shape of the World is that it is a game experience worth having. It’s peaceful, reflective and offers a welcome escape from the button mashing intensity of a standard game offering. I can’t help but feel that this game is in some small way a gateway to a virtual reality experience. It has introduced me to a different genre of gaming that I hope to explore further.
Shape of the World is available now for Nintendo Switch through the e-Shop.