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Friday July 21, 2017
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, and the difference between conflict and combat
by Alayna Cole | May 17, 2017 | Comment Now
We shouldn't dismiss a game as 'casual', just because it eschews combat in favour of other forms of drama.
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, and the difference between conflict and combat

People have been debating whether videogames cause violence for so long that videogames and violence have almost become synonymous. People are fascinated by the combat systems of games, and the new challenges that these can bring. Game communities are filled with vibrant discussions about strategies, abilities, and the spray patterns of various weapons. When I put on my teacher hat and talk about ‘conflict’ with my students, they almost immediately think I’m talking about ‘combat’. But it’s important to know that these are not the same thing.

Typically, games require some sort of conflict to engage the player. But this doesn’t have to mean fighting! Conflict can refer to a lot of things, but it usually means that there is tension between the player and another player, the player and the game, or the player and themself. That tension can be in the form of combat, but there are so many other options.

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a game described as visually similar to The Legend of Zelda, with the primary difference being its lack of combat. Yonder relies on puzzles and quests to create conflict, and the exploration of a dynamic world to keep the player entranced. It takes its cues from Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, with the player farming and collecting to please villagers and animals, and to ultimately save the vast island from the creeping threat of ‘an evil murk’.

The tone of articles about Yonder seem shocked about its lack of combat, but the farming games it has taken inspiration from also lack combat systems. In fact, Stardew Valley - also explicitly inspired by Harvest Moon - created one so it could appeal to more players. Games without combat aren’t something new - they just often aren’t our focus. Looking at many point-and-click adventure games, puzzle games, rhythm games, and simulation games makes this immediately apparent (although there are, of course, games within any of these genres that also feature combat systems of some kind). However, these games are often put to one side because they are ‘casual games’, ‘art games’, or ‘not real games’.

Last year, we saw the release of Firewatch, a game that encouraged players to linger in gorgeous, sunlit spaces. Instead of a weapon, Firewatch armed the protagonist with a disposable film camera, allowing them to take photos of the scenery and further emphasising that this is a game for pause. Still, that’s not to say that Firewatch is devoid of tension - the mystery of the game is cleverly designed through distant human figures and rustling noises, keeping players intrigued without the need for fighting.

2016 also brought us ABZÛ, which similarly relies on mystery to intrigue the player, in the form of the ‘dangers that lurk in the depths’ of the ocean. ABZÛ’s description on its Steam page encourages you to ‘immerse yourself’, ‘perform’, ‘discover’, ‘interact’, ‘linger’, and ‘form a powerful connection’ - this game attempts to engage its player through exploration (of absolutely stunning landscapes) and communication.

Matt Nava, who was responsible for the art direction in ABZÛ, also worked on Journey (2012), a critically acclaimed game about cooperation, exploration, and avoiding combat. Everything in this game is made to appear open-ended, but is carefully controlled - the player can only interact with the world in carefully pre-determined, and deliberately positive ways. Although there are predators in Journey - just as there are predators in ABZÛ - these are part of the game’s ecosystem, rather than being enemies for the player to control.

The influence of Journey is evident in Yonder: the team at Prideful Sloth even worked with John Nesky, who is listed in the credits as ‘Feel Engineer’ for thatgamecompany’s title. The way the camera follows the protagonist and reveals the landscape feels artful and familiar. I have been known to shamelessly judge a game’s atmosphere on its sunsets, and the day/night cycle in Yonder looks incredible. This game looks like one I could get lost in, as I have Firewatch, ABZÛ, and Journey before it.

I like that Yonder seems to be taking the environment of a meditative game and adding clearer goals for me to strive for. As much as I enjoy wandering around spaces with uncertain objectives, I am also recovering from a substantial Stardew Valley addiction, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a new take on the farming and collection simulation genre. Yonder also weirdly reminds me of Slime Rancher, which is equally cute, but is yet to satisfy the high hopes I had when I first encountered it.

Yonder has certainly caught my attention, and it reinforces the idea that games are capable of more than some people give them credit for. I hope it does not become the next title to be dismissed as ‘not a real game’, simply because its challenge, engagement, and entertainment does not come from the intricacy or challenge of a combat system.

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is coming to PC and PlayStation 4 on July 18.

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