Reviewed on: PC (Steam)
You know that feeling you get walking through a quiet meadow, the leaves just on the turn to crisp autumn crimson, the smell of the air as the sounds around you build their own landscapes? Well, imagine that, but then the ghost of an elk tells you about a cat that witnessed the birth of the universe but likes to hide away from interlopers, then stepping through a ball of light into a shadow world full of snakes that spatter out an iridescent light show when startled.
Where the Legend of Zelda was famously inspired by the sense of wonder Shigeru Miyamoto found hiking through the countryside of Japan, Future Unfolding by Spaces of Play evokes the same experiences allied to a child’s sense of wonder and inter-connectedness. The world itself is sublime here, in the sense of a mystical playground into which one stumbles without knowing any of the rules.
Formally a puzzle game, the game’s world challenges you to make sense of its systems through reasoning and observation—what may at first appear to be incidental detail is usually signposting the way towards greater understanding and manipulation of the environment. While you’re free to wander throughout the large spaces, you’ll quickly become aware of blockages challenging you to use the techniques you’ve built up in new ways to think your way around the problem.
Combining a form of procedural generation with hand-designed puzzles and scenes, each player will encounter a slightly different version of the world. What works for one may not necessarily apply to another, and talking about how you overcame certain challenges has proved a distinct pleasure.
If I’ve so far painted a picture of a quiet, contemplative and sedate experience though, I’ve been misinforming you. The mesh of interacting systems, most of which I don’t want to spoil, packs every scene with surprises waiting to be discovered—animals bursting out of undergrowth, rocks spinning aside as you zoom past in a wash of saturated colour, chunks of scenery disappearing in a pleasing burst as you solve parts of the world-puzzle.
The game’s extensive and astonishing colour palette can at times put one in mind of extensively-stylised indies like Hyper Light Drifter, but while that title hews close to a neon-accented pixel art style, Future Unfolding embraces the natural, growing vast fields of primary tones that generate a comforting sense of place.
Something else it shares with Hyper Light Drifter, well pointed out by the estimable Matt Lees’ video on the subject, is that the primary experience of play is overcoming obfuscation. While a game like Dark Souls might hide its complexity in plain sight, by presenting walls of statistics that are initially intimidating and concealing thoughtful level design with labyrinthine twistings, Future Unfolding is presented in a simple, but intentionally unexplained way. Finding out how to play the game, how the interactions actually work, is key to the game’s appeal.
For that reason, I’m reticent to explain away how the puzzles work, for fear of dispelling the magic. Procedural generation ensures that every game space will be different, but I’d hate to rob you of the joy I extracted from testing and refining my actions over the course of play until feeling completely at home in situations that were alienating at first. In fact, that’s probably what I valued most about Future Unfolding, aside from its lush visual aesthetic and stirring if minimal soundtrack: the feeling that even by just wandering through this world, I was learning more about the things that mystified me at the start.
Unfortunately, I did at one point encounter a serious game-ending bug in the pre-release version given to us for review. After a certain point, opening the map screen would instantly crash to desktop without any explanation. Fortunately, I was able to get around this by avoiding the map screen and warping to a new area, and the developers were responsive to feedback so I’d expect fixes for any remaining issues.
Should you buy it though, I hear you clamour? Well, given that it encourages peaceful exploration and the slow unfolding of mystery over time, it may be that it will strike some as lacking in pace or structure. If immediate gratification is something that matters to you, I’d give this one a miss. Search your feelings, you know it be true.