Ambient electronica can be many things, from simple mood music to deep, challenging, and often evocative landscapes of sound. Experimental and cinematic, stuff that sits in the back of your mind only to rise to the surface through precise movement and progression. The genre title itself merely a label to classify anything with a synthesiser that doesn’t feature an obvious downtempo groove. And for those that are wondering, ambient electronica can and often does include percussion, rhythm, and what are commonly referred to as beats. It can be catchy too.
Shape of the World, from indie outfit Hollow Tree Games, is an experience driven almost entirely by its ambient score – where the interplay between the music and its digital but deeply organic world serves as the singular driving force for players. It’s first-person exploration through nature, where mechanics like planting trees and activating large boulders offer a meditative appreciation for what makes up a key part of our own landscape. A sentiment that can be felt in both the music and sound design, matching the flow of the visual progression seamlessly.
It’s an experience that is also minimalist to a fault, where colour itself and the transition between say an orange sky to a blue backdrop is treated with the same importance as a big story beat. Like Journey, Flower, or Abzu, Shape of the World succeeds and elevates both the visual representation of its themes, interactivity within each new area, and the wonderful ambient score through animation. The opposite of static, player movement in Shape of the World is intrinsically linked to both the life of the momentum-driven music and the world itself.
From trees sprouting to become fully grown in a matter of moments, to mountains and hills that rise as you approach the horizon. Stairways that lead players into the unknown, with Giant Steps forming in a percussive manner that calls on the precision and freedom of jazz. Emerging from the outskirts of a forest into an underwater system of caves, taking flight in a manner befitting of wonder, Shape of the World packs quite a few memorable moments in its short-but-sweet running time.
It’s also abstract to a fault, rarely communicating its mechanics in a hands-off approach that is both commendable as it can be confusing. Moments of build-up and cinematic progression in the underlying score almost hypnotically drive you towards the next location – triggering a sudden change, or breakthrough in both visual and sound design. From a game perspective, the progression is driven by a mostly linear path up a fantastical and strange mountain. A mountain made-up of various types of landscapes. Thematic places to visit.
The fact that at times you feel completely in control of where both the music and world is heading, makes Shape of the World more than an interactive experiment. There are puzzles, but never in a way to stop you on your journey forward. Like the music, there’s a pull or need to keep going. It’s what one might dismiss as art first, game second. Shape of the World is, well, neither. Instead it is a transportive journey that feels like a great ambient electronica album come to life. Brief and wonderful, and something to savour.