Earlier this month I played Eastshade, which is my favorite game so far this year.
In most respects Eastshade resembles an open-world RPG, particularly the Elder Scrolls games. Its aesthetic evokes something between Morrowind and Oblivion. You wander the wilderness gathering plants to use as crafting materials. You can find books scattered around towns and read them for little dribbles of lore. NPC conversations begin with that characteristic zoom into the interlocutor’s face. Everyone is an anthropomorphized animal, in the style of the Elder Scrolls’ feline Khajiit. There is fishing.
Where Eastshade differs from traditional open-world games is that there is no combat whatsoever. The developers describe it as “a peaceful open-world exploration-adventure,” which is exactly as it sounds.
You play as a traveling painter visiting the island of Eastshade on your late mother’s recommendation. As is typical in video games, your particular skill happens to be in high demand: instead of requesting mercenaries to dispatch bandits, the people of Eastshade request paintings—perhaps of a sandy beach, or an owl, or a cave they once saw in a dream. You explore the island to find the places they’re talking about, press a button to pop out a painting, and then deliver the art. Meanwhile, you have your own agenda; the “main quest” is to paint four places your mother once loved as a memorial.
(One fun detail: in addition to a canvas, you need a resource called “inspiration” in order to paint. You can gain inspiration by discovering new places and reading new books, as well as a couple other ways that I’m loath to describe because they feel like spoilers.)
Sometimes game-like obstacles get in the way of your painting—you may have to scavenge for materials to create new tools, for instance, or complete a fetch quest to gain access to a new area. The most striking part about these obstacles is how familiar they are. When you open the crafting menu and realize you haven’t yet collected enough White Bloomsac to create the Raft, you are having one of the universal video game experiences.
All this is to say that the moment-to-moment gameplay of Eastshade is actually not so different from other open-world games. That sounds like a criticism, but I don’t mean it to be; I actually find it encouraging that eschewing combat doesn’t dilute the experience at all. My hope is that more triple-A designers will play games like this and realize that nonviolence doesn’t have to be some weird indie gimmick; their big-budget open-world games can hold together just fine even if they never give anyone a sword or a gun.
To that end, there’s a way in which Eastshade feels like it’s calling a bluff. Last week on Twitter, artist Katie Tiedrich expressed a sentiment I often see about open-world games (and which I have expressed myself):
sincere tweet: take the guns out of red dead redemption and give me a 70+ hour game about a seventeenth-century biologist where I can ride around on a horsey through nice environments and look at animals through binoculars and catalog local flora/fauna
Eastshade is closer to ten hours than seventy, but is otherwise aimed squarely at this idea. Oh, it says, you say you want an open-world game without any fighting? What do you think of this?