Games of the Year 2019: Eastshade
Stopping a moment to paint the Bloomsacs. Then another moment. Then so many more
Like the player character in Eastshade, I began 2019 by closing a major chapter of my life and starting, in many ways, entirely fresh. Like them, I packed up my things and moved away from a familiar home on the heels of a particular personal tragedy. Like them, I traveled with the promise that in this new place I would find people, spaces, and resources to grow in my chosen trade.
There, the similarities between myself and the unnamed player character in Eastshade end. I'm not a painter; my new city isn't a verdant island populated by talking bears and monkeys and gazelles; it does not have a secret underground tea drinking society (though if you know of one, you must tell me). I was not thinking, at this game's release in February: "Oh, I am like this character and I should play this game to work through my emotions!" I was thinking that the screenshots on the Steam page looked awfully nice and that a game where you paint things might be interesting. I don't know that it would have affected me the way it did had I gone in actively seeking self-reflection.
"The player is not the main character of Eastshade -- Eastshade is the main character of Eastshade"
The player is not the main character of Eastshade -- Eastshade is the main character of Eastshade. It is a game about a place, as developer Danny Weinbaum told us earlier this year. There is no world-changing plot, no tear-jerking emotional arc, no climax, no denouement. You arrive on the island of Eastshade, you spend ten or so hours falling madly in love with Eastshade, and then you leave Eastshade and that is the game.
And I think it's probably difficult not to fall in love with Eastshade, at least if you're the sort of person who's open to picking up a game where you walk around and paint landscapes in the first place. For one, it's lovely. Weinbaum's background is in 3D environmental art, he appears to be quite good at it, and I'm glad circumstances lined up for him to make a game where he could showcase that.
At any given point as you traverse Eastshade you are either looking directly at a desirable landscape painting, or you're about five steps to the left of one. Weinbaum was wise to limit the act of painting a picture to having enough of a resource (possibly the only truly "video gamey" part of the whole thing). If he had not, I would just be tiptoeing around the island for hours on end, stopping and painting every few steps -- effectively what I did with the screenshot button anyway. You can't not pause and gawk at everything. There are rolling hills dotted with turning windmills and terraced farmland and fluffy pink trees and a hot air balloon rising over a glacier and delicate forests surrounding gentle streams and a lighthouse by the sea and a sparkling city and this list was much longer before but I have to cut off the sentence eventually.
"There's no benefit, no enjoyment to rushing. Why would you?"
No island, no city, no place is defined by its camera roll. As you traverse Eastshade (by foot or, later on, a ridiculous tiny wooden bicycle), you'll encounter its delightful talking animal inhabitants. These are all ordinary folks dealing with ordinary troubles -- no dragons or kings or unexplained murders or the usual adventuring fare. For a moment you suspect there's a ghost, but it's not a ghost after all. There's a cult leader, but she's mostly concerned about stopping people from drinking tea that turns the world funny colors. You can try to help a dysfunctional family if you feel compelled, but as you're a total outsider that ends a bit sadly. There's nothing much higher stakes than that.
I assisted a bear playing a harmless tart-swapping prank on his brother, helped an enthusiastic baker ask a cute shopkeep to be her girlfriend, and at one point sat perfectly still in an inn for five full minutes listening to a bard tell a local myth about a witch and her spider friends. Sitting still! For five whole minutes! For absolutely no in-game reward except the delight of hearing a story! I am still flabbergasted at the joyful audacity of this game to ask that of a player.
I would be remiss not to mention that all this is backed by a gentle, flowing soundtrack by Phoenix Glendinning that always seems to perfectly time its sweeping violin lifts with the moment I come over a new hill and see the sun rising from behind the mountaintops. I have listened to this soundtrack on repeat hundreds of times this year, usually while writing and drinking tea, as a true Eastshadian should.
The glory of Eastshade is the experience of being in it, of soaking in the sights and sounds and small stories that are around you. Though there are a few limiting factors to keep you from accidentally tripping over the end of the game too soon, for the most part the island just welcomes you to show up and stay as long as you like. The "goal" is to paint a handful of landmarks that were special to the player character's departed mother, a task you can accomplish relatively quickly. But there's no benefit, no enjoyment to rushing. Why would you? Eastshade revels in slowness and smallness, in appreciating the way light drips through the library windows or in waiting, waiting, waiting for the singular moment each day when the moon and sun line up in a perfect, rose-colored eclipse.
"Eastshade reminded me of the joy of being in a new place at a time in my life when I badly needed a nudge to venture out into the world"
There's something beautiful and valuable about games that aren't just good on their own, but good in the particular way you need in your life at the time you play them. I played Eastshade in a moment of transition. As I watched Eastshade grow smaller and smaller in the wake of the player character's departing ship, winter was starting to thaw outside my apartment window and I was ready to venture out and learn to love the new city I found myself in. I don't know that Eastshade necessarily transformed how I look at the world around me -- I think it's hard for any game to be life-altering in that way -- but it did remind me of the joy of being in a new place at a time in my life when I badly needed a nudge to venture out into the world. For that, I think I'll forever love the game, the "character," and the place.
(I was told I could write around 1,000 words about Eastshade, and since a picture is apparently worth that many, I made a screenshot gallery to sneak in 26,000 more.)