To hear other villagers tell it, the man was an abusive father. He stood in the middle of his dimly-lit cottage with a jar stuck on his head, and I knew it was time to strike. He’d never see it coming. I pulled out my canvas, and I began to paint.
Eastshade, coming to PC later this year, is an open-world exploration game that takes overt cues from the likes of Skyrim and The Witcher 3, but you never harm a hair on its strange inhabitants’ furry little heads. Instead, you paint your way across the countryside—crafting canvases, angling your point-of-view just right, and then capturing an image of whatever you see. Think of it as the aforementioned fantasy RPGs with a dash of Pokemon Snap. Instead of beating people up or stealing all of their cheese wheels, you paint them.
Well, you do if they’re narcissists, like a pompous asshole I met lounging in a tavern who, upon seeing my painting of him, declared that there should be a room full of paintings dedicated to his “bold” adventures. (He also paid me well for it, so I can’t complain too much.) Other times, characters might want paintings of their favorite places, or eclipses, or wildlife. You can paint whatever you want, though, and developer Danny Weinbaum told me that’s the real point of it all.
“The design manifesto for the game for me was just to build a world first,” he told me at GDC in San Francisco last week. “We wanted to find a way to gamify stopping and smelling the roses. We used to have some light survival mechanics, and those were the worst. We want people to go slow.”
Weinbaum and his team settled on painting because it checks all the boxes, asking players to really get in touch with the game’s one-fifth-the-size-of-Skyrim world while avoiding turning you into “a mass murderer of people who are trying to live there, 99 percent of whom are bandits.” Instead, you get wrapped up in characters’ lives, with your choices (and yes, paintings) affecting what ultimately happens to them.
The guy with the jar on his head, for instance, didn’t react to my painting at all (something Weinbaum said he plans to change, because so many people try to paint the guy), but he did decide to deck me after I told him what I’d been hearing about his parenting around town. After I regained consciousness, an officer showed up and questioned me. Weinbaum said that, later in the game, the jar guy will lose custody of his kid because he proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was violent when he hit me.
That mini-story could’ve gone in a number of directions, but is still pretty straightforward in the grand scheme of what Weinbaum says Eastshade will offer. He called it “a game full of side quests,” many of which will feel like “mini sagas.” And while the game does have a central progression through various locations, there isn’t really a main storyline. You’re a tourist, and Weinbaum doesn’t think players need some Greater Purpose getting in the way of their exploration.
“My favorite feeling in the world is coming upon a new city,” he said. “Feeling that energy. I remember walking into Munich, and it was like ‘Oh my god.’ The game is about exploration for its own sake.”
In my experience with a demo build of the game, which I played for about an hour, it works. Eastshade’s world is equal parts attractive and strange, full of rolling vistas and bizarre animal people, my favorite of whom declared me his best friend after I answered a short questionnaire with a lot of nonsense. It invites curiosity and, more importantly, rewards it. That said, I mostly just wandered around the game’s first area, a populated town, and am curious to see how it’ll all work in open areas, abandoned ruins, and other areas of the like. Also, will this structure remain interesting for the duration of a whole open-world game? Oh, and of course, there were bugs like when dialogue options from one conversation ended up in one with an entirely different character somehow.
Taking inspiration from mini-stories in games like The Witcher 3 (and having displayed their own chops in last year’s tragically underappreciated farewell simulator Leaving Lyndow), Weinbaum and his team want all of Eastshade’s weird little nooks and crannies to be worth players’ time. “There’s no main quest, so if the side quests feel like filler, the whole game feels like filler,” he said. “I think this works better for games anyway. How can you tell a main story if the player can do whatever they want?”
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