One of the most well-known anecdotes in gaming is how Shigeru Miyamoto’s childhood explorations of forests around his hometown inspired the Zelda series. Little did young Miyamoto know that, while traversing the rough terrains of innocent curiosity, his wonder would go on to fuel one of the most iconic videogame franchises ever.
Yet, recently, a grumble of dissatisfaction has been rising among Zelda fans who fear the series has lost that fundamental sense of childlike discovery. Game critic Tevis Thompson captured the essence of that dissatisfaction best in his influential dissemination of the broken Zelda formula:
“Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks. A lock is not only something opened with a silver key. A grapple point is a lock; a hookshot is the key. A cracked rock wall is a lock; a bomb is the key. That wondrous array of items you collect is little more than a building manager’s jangly keyring. […] A world is not one predetermined sequence after another, and a world is not a puzzle with a single solution.”
Bogged down by convention, hand-holding, and linearity, Thompson argues that what used to be a game about the trials and wonderment of youthful exploration has now become a route routine. Go here, get this key, grab that item-key, find the even bigger and shinier key—lather, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat.
But with the upcoming Future Unfolding, Berlin-based studio Spaces of Play challenged themselves to bring exploration back to virtual adventuring. “We thought, ‘Why not try to make a modern adventure game that actually respects the player’s freedom?'” development lead Andreas Zecher said. “So we don’t ever tell you what to do in Future Unfolding. We don’t tell you where you are, what this world is, or even who you are.”
Right now, you’re probably rolling your eyes and calling BS. Lots of game creators say they want to give the player more freedom, while in reality, they only mean they’ve got better at masking hand-holding. But the uniqueness of Future Unfolding lies in level design, and a procedurally generated world that refuses to put up invisible walls.
“Everything you need to progress is right there in the level. There’s a lot of stuff you can miss because we don’t tell you and because it’s not necessary to reach the end. But nothing is hidden or locked away,” Zecher explains. There’s no points, no hand-holding, no leveling up to validate the player’s progress. “There are rewards for exploration, but it’s not items or keys. The reward is knowledge: things that make you aware of how to unlock new areas and abilities.”
The difference between Future Unfolding and other games that tout player agency is that discovery isn’t just a feature tacked onto a linear, predetermined story. Discovery is literally the only way you’ll be able to play the game. “By not explicitly telling people which buttons to press or what to do, we’re encouraging them to push the boundaries of the game themselves.”
Unlike others in the genre, Future Unfolding‘s procedural generation doesn’t only apply to aesthetics and areas either. The creatures inhabiting the world are subject to rule variations themselves. In one playthough, lions could be enemies, while in another they could be your fiercest allies. Animals can disappear, multiply, and even morph into other types of animals before your very eyes.
Zecher says that even he, one third of the small development team, is still constantly surprised by the game. That’s because an underlying dream-logic drives Future Unfolding, with a shifting rule set and landscape that favors symbolic meaning over continuity. It leaves the player in a permanent state of curiosity, the studio hopes, and “by consciously breaking expectations we will keep the player alert. The goal is to force the player to constantly questioning [sic] reality as it presents itself.”
Like a dream, understanding the significance of the world is also left up to the player. Animals come up to spin you riddles or give cryptic messages, but none of it is ever perceptive. “We don’t only want people to figure out how to play the game themselves, but also what that play means for themselves. It can be different for everyone,” Zecher says. One playtester, for instance, believed the map was a representation of the protagonist’s mind. “Which isn’t necessarily what we thought, but it’s a perfectly valid interpretation.”
It’ll probably come as no surprise that a major influence on Future Unfolding was designers Mattias Ljungström and Marek Plichta’s own experiences exploring the Swedish and Polish countryside while growing up. Like Miyamoto, they found that the childish impulse toward curiosity and discovery translates perfectly into the videogame format.
Yet, recently, even those childhood experiences seem in danger of disappearing. Over the last year, there’s been a lot of debate over the so-called “over-protection” of kids. While twenty or thirty years ago, letting your kid wander around their hometown was the norm, today it’d be considered bad parenting. Over at The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin writes that the modern “preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery.” She even offers play as a solution to the issue, though—granted—she’s talking about the kind that takes place in real-life playgrounds.
But what if our virtual playspaces are suffering from this same issue? What if developers’ preoccupation with making safe, accessible games has lead them to a type of adventuring that lacks any real sense of risk-taking and discovery. Accessibility remains an important issue to tackle, of course. But not at the expense of what fundamentally makes videogames incredible spaces for exploration.
Surely, rubber-padding adventures until they become digestible to everyone isn’t the answer. But the universality of a game like Future Unfolding demonstrates a more promising technique, proving that hand-holding and accessibility are not one and the same thing.
Spaces of Play hopes to release Future Unfolding sometime next year. You can keep up to date with the game over on their website.