Tuesday, 24 December 2019

FAR: Lone Sails

It's cold outside, so let's warm myself up by playing FAR: Lone Sails, a melancholic indie game set in a frozen wilderness where you are a tiny solitary figure in a vast dead empty landscape learning to let go of the past as you propel yourself into an uncertain future.

It's the debut and so far only product of Swiss developers Okomotive. It began as the student project of a chap called Don Schmocker, who was studying at the University of Zurich at the time. Judging by the credits he managed to persuade the entire staff of the university plus the people of Zurich to help him.

The game was released commercially in 2018 to almost universally positive reviews. There was particular praise for Joel Schoch's soundtrack, which sounds a bit like Michael Nyman's music for Peter Greenaway. The soundtrack has saxophones going dah-dah-dah and pounding pianos. I first became aware of the game when portions of the soundtrack appeared in Low Light Mixes' Best of the Rest: 2018 mix, available here.

At times you have to get out of your land train and fiddle with things.

What's it like? It's an arty puzzle game with lovely music where you push a few blocks and do some simple jumping, along the lines of e.g. Journey or Gris, and it's sad because the world is sad, but happy because you are alive, but sad because you leave so much behind, but happy because there is hope for the future, but sad because you are just a stepping stone for the next generation, but happy because you are alive.

The game has a day-night cycle, but it's entirely scripted.

The game scrolls from left to right although everything is rendered in 3D. There's no dialogue and only the merest wisp of a storyline, told with background objects and music. As the game begins you're a little character standing at what appears to be the grave of what might be your father. The game has a digital art book that explains that your character is a little girl called Lone, so the name of the game is a pun, e.g. Lone sails.

What does she sail? She sails a land train called the Okomotive, perhaps built by what might have been her father. The first part of the game involves working out how to drive the Okomotive. You have to feed it with fuel, let off steam before the boiler overheats, and learn which obstacles can be smashed through and which require you to get out of the Okomotive and do something smart.

In the second part of the game you upgrade the Okomotive with new components, including a set of sails that propel you along when the wind is favourable. The third part of the game majors on button-pushing puzzles, although you also have to rotate some hamster wheels and operate a winch. There's an absolutely awesome bit that I won't spoil except to say that it involves an even larger land train, but it's sad at the same time, but happy. If only there was a word for something that's sad and happy at the same time. Sappy? Swellancholic?

Don't worry, they get out of the way.

The Okomotive is the second character in the game, and I was upset when... but I don't want to spoil it. I'm being vague here because each puzzle appears once and the gameplay arises from the surprise of working out what you have to do. Lone Sails is essentially a metaphor for life. The little girl is your soul; the Okomotive is your body. The Okomotive starts off small, but it gets bigger, and eventually it has a moment of triumph, a heyday, but then it starts to break down, and at the end it can't go on any more and the soul has to hop out and await rescue. I don't want to give away the ending, suffice it to say that it's bittersweet.

Bittersweet, that's the word. As with Journey and Gris, Lone Sails isn't just a set of events, it has an underlying theme, and that's what lifts it up. It's about letting go of the past and learning to live with mortality. It's not overly glurgy or sentimental and it deserved all the plaudits it got. I finished it in three hours, so it's basically like a film or a good album. A small seed that plants itself inside your head, a happy place that you can revisit later in life, at least until dementia robs you of your memories, as it will.

Unlike those two games there is room for a sequel. Ignoring the underlying storyline the simple act of working the Okomotive is fun. You develop a rhythm, and there's something cosy about one sequence where you shelter from a hailstorm under some awnings. It's a shame that the main character can't boil up some cocoa and have a nap. I liked the Okomotive, and it was sad when... no, again I don't want to give away the ending.

Oh, it's no use. I was terribly disappointed with the ending. You just break into the enemy base and press some buttons and then a cutscene plays. You never get to fight the Authority or learn what happened to the characters you left behind. Furthermore the final level gives you an unstoppable gun that kills everything with a couple of shots, so there's no challenge. I saved up all that ammo for nothing.

No, hang on. That's not Lone Sails, it's Id Software's disappointing 2011 shoot-and-drive-em-up Rage. It's easy to confuse the two games. Lone Sails is available for the PC, the Mac, the PS4, the XBox One, and the Nintendo Switch. It's not technically demanding and could probably have been ported for the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 if the will had been there.

I played it on the PC; it froze a few times, but if I ran it outside Steam it worked perfectly, so the problem lies with Steam. Is it any good? Yes, but you have to manage your expectations. It's essentially a music video with a very simple storyline and a few easy puzzles. There are no branching paths and there's almost no replayability. Kids might be upset when parts of the Okomotive catch fire, and at one point you can actually die - the game handwaves it as a dream - but there's absolutely nothing controversial about it, the end.

No, not quite the end. Apropos of nothing, if you've just bought an ultrawide monitor Lone Sails would be a good way of showing it off, and it really is the end this time.