Painting, Pacifism and Talking Bears: My Lockdown Trip to Eastshade

If, like me, you prefer to play just one game at a time, experiencing everything it has to offer before moving on to the next, then video games are a little bit like a vacation. For a short period of time you visit another world, soak up its atmosphere, culture and landmarks (and maybe slaughter a handful of its residents along the way) before leaving it behind and returning to normality. And often towards the end of a trip away you’re ready to leave, tired of your new routine and missing the comfort of your own bed. But sometimes on holiday you dread the impending end, wanting to explore more, see more, do more, all the while thinking of the responsibilities you’ll be returning to when it comes time to leave. This makes leaving bittersweet, but it is also what makes the holiday memorable.

For me, the 2019 open-world adventure game Eastshade had this same impact. With every checkmark I reached and every quest I completed, I felt the gnawing sense that my time in this home away from home would be over all too soon. But I was also aware that this is kind of the point. The player-protagonist of Eastshade is quite literally a tourist, and the game does a fantastic job of making you feel like it’s time to leave whilst still ensuring that a little part of you wishes you could stay. As bittersweet as the goodbye was, it came at the right time and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Right from the very beginning of the game you’re aware that your unseen protagonist has a life to go back to, even if you know essentially nothing about what that life is like beyond the fact that they are a painter. The opening has you on board a ship, soon to arrive on the eponymous island of Eastshade. After getting to grips with the basics via some quick interactions with NPCs, there’s a loud crash and the cabin begins to flood. It all feels very familiar, the sort of fantasy RPG opening that you’ve seen hundreds of times over, existing both to introduce you to the game’s mechanics in a confined, controlled space and explain why the player-character is starting the game with no money or belongings. After the crash, though, the screen fades to black, and the game introduces itself properly. A simple but poignant text-only dialogue flashback between your protagonist and their ill mother plays out over the otherwise blank screen. It is brief, but tells you everything you need to know: she insists that you promise her you will visit the island of Eastshade as she once did, and you agree.

You awake washed up on the island to find that you were not, as you may expect, the sole survivor of the shipwreck. Everyone else was fine, and even your painting easel made it out safely. Welcome to Eastshade – a land which has its mysteries to be solved, people to be helped and disagreements to be resolved, but very little in the way of conflict, drama or action. As Sam Kabo Ashwell writes in his piece on the game, Eastshade is “fantasy without crisis”, for better and for worse. Right now, though, in a world that grows more stressful every day as we’re cooped up inside biding time until the impending apocalypse, Eastshade’s almost comically idyllic world was just what I needed to stay sane.

Whilst exploring the opening area, I was reminded of the freedom I once felt setting off into Cyrodiil in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a game that defined so much of my youth. Only, Eastshade is not a world threatened by demonic invasion, nor one whose countryside is teeming with hostile wolves, ogres and minotaurs. In Eastshade, there is no threat. You’re not an army recruit swept up in a firestorm or a humble stable worker turned knight, and you certainly aren’t the prophesied saviour of this realm, because it doesn’t need saving. It’s a small, serene island populated by (mostly) friendly anthropomorphised animals, and you are quite explicitly just a visitor. Your only end goal is to paint your mother’s four favourite spots on the island to fulfill her last wishes. This task will take you all over the island, from lush forests to snow-capped mountaintops, but the detours along the way are what allow you to truly take in the landscape and culture.

Eastshade’s premise is a simple one, but one that flies in the face of conventional game design. It’s an RPG without combat, an interactive map or even a HUD, and it manages to eschew these near-ubiquitous things without the player ever feeling like the game is lacking in anything. In this sense, to me it doesn’t feel so much like a stripped-down RPG as it does a walking simulator that reintroduces much of what other games in that genre took out – namely an inventory, a quest log and an open world.

The game even makes jokes about it’s lack of action. In the main city of Nava, the blacksmith comments on how glad she is that no one asks her to make swords (“the most boring thing you could ask a blacksmith to make”), whilst an elderly wanderer encountered in the woods portents of incoming death and apocalypse, before his grandson trailing behind tells you to ignore him – “he says this every time it rains”.

Despite lacking the adrenaline-fuelled fights that are so integral to the gameplay in other games of its type, Eastshade always seems to give you just enough to do to ensure you don’t lose interest. Something easily overlooked is how well the game constructs your journey, making you feel as if you’re discovering everything at your own pace despite there being a vague trajectory each adventure across the island will most likely take thanks to gated obstacles such as toll bridges and initially impassable rivers. These hindrances can serve to stifle your adventurous spirit at first but the game does a truly impressive job of ensuring you overcome these hurdles naturally and often just as it seems like you’ve seen all that the preceding has to offer. As such, they don’t often feel like massive restrictions, and keep the world from feeling overwhelmingly large during the game’s early stages.

In truth, many of Eastshade’s quests are little more than bog-standard fetch quests that players would bemoan were they in an Elder Scrolls or Witcher game, but there’s enough variety to them and their number rarely feels excessive. In the mid-game section, things start to pile up as a number of seemingly independent quests begin to overlap, but the game soon opens up once again as you find the way forward. The map itself is vast enough to make exploration feel exciting, with several well-hidden locales that are well worth a visit (one psychedelic trip into a frozen cavern was particularly memorable) whilst small enough that traversal is never tedious. It was only upon completion that it occurred to me I hadn’t used the fast travel feature even once, and despite a static (and easily missed) map that doesn’t include a player icon, I never found myself hopelessly lost either. 

It’s also notable that every last one of the game’s quests can be completed in a single playthrough. It’s truly impressive to me that Eastshade is a world that feels rich without demanding that you commit hundreds of hours to it. Though you could put this down to limited time and resources for the developers, it nevertheless felt truly refreshing during a time in which simplicity, subtlety and comfort are all I’m seeking from the entertainment I consume.

Much of the time, you’ll be discovering new areas, finding books and helping others to drive up your Inspiration meter, which allows you to paint. This mechanic can be frustrating since you need it to complete quests, meaning that running out of Inspiration is a nuisance, but it also encourages you to engage with the world around you, be it by listening to a song by a songwriter you encounter in the wild, reading a book excerpt about the island’s folklore or simply brewing a tea with ingredients you find around the island. It’s a marked difference from the experience in many other games, in which it is all too easy to find yourself racing through the landscape, making a beeline for a glowing quest marker on your screen. When it comes to creating the paintings, in a purely functional sense you know that all the game wants you to do is put a certain object inside the lines like a screenshot, and yet you can’t help but take pride in your work, taking the time to find the right angle and properly frame an image, even if you know the painting in question is going to an NPC, never to be seen again.

Throughout your journey, the serene soundtrack elevates the beauty of the world, but just as impactful are the purposeful moments of quiet in between tracks. During these periods, you are left with the ambient sounds of the island; squawking seagulls, the gentle breath of the wind, waves crashing against the shore and always the soft crunch of your feet trudging onwards. These moments last just long enough that when the music inevitably bursts into life again, it feels purposeful, turning a simple walk into something full of life and effervescence. I have always intensely valued those moments in games that make you want to stop and just soak up the atmosphere – certain landscapes from Oblivion are as engraved in my memory as ones from real-life adventures – and I found these moments to be frequent as I explored everything Eastshade has to offer.

Which brings us to the game’s conclusion. At the end of Oblivion – well, that’s just the thing. There is no real end to a game like Oblivion. Sure, you can complete the main quest, vanquish Mehrunes Dagon and stop the end of the world, but immediately after, the world returns to normal. In an almost comically anticlimactic moment, the surviving NPCs sheath their swords and gradually trudge back to wherever it is that they normally reside. The more you play Oblivion, the more your heroic (or indeed nefarious) deeds begin to lose meaning as you complete quest after quest and garner title after title, becoming the leader of a daedra-worshipping cult of assassins whilst simultaneously leading the noble Knights Of The Nine. In Eastshade, your time spent with this world is tangibly finite, your relationships with its inhabitants fleeting. It feels like a game designed to be played once, and that’s okay.

Whilst you can explore to your heart’s content there is a limit to the amount of activities you can do. Once every quest is completed, every location discovered and every NPC met, there is no reason to stay here. The game knows this too, because to complete it, you must set sail for home. When the time came to leave, I was surprised to feel a pang of sadness as I looked back at this island I had come to know so well. I was reminded of an image etched into my mind from a holiday of my own – flying home from America on a family holiday, the very top of the Golden Gate bridge peeking through the gloomy clouds below. In that moment, I remember being hit with the knowledge that everything would soon be exactly as it always was. The excitement, discovery and adventure was all behind me. But at least I came home with memories – new experiences that I’d carry forever as impactful moments to look back on or as anecdotes to tell among friends. In a stroke of genius, Eastshade ends with you now home from your trip, looking over belongings you acquired on your journey as well as letters and postcards from the people you met and helped along the way. Despite myself, I emitted genuine smiles as I remembered the people I encountered and things I did with (or, more accurately, for) them. For once, the end of a game left me feeling enriched, as if all the fetch quests and backtracking actually meant something. I left Oblivion when the experience finally began to grow stale – I left Eastshade reluctantly and only because it just made sense to do so.

Having seen everything the game has to offer, I doubt I’ll ever return to the island, but I’d be lying if I said my experiences there won’t stick with me.

Eastshade is available now for PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh operating systems and Xbox One. For this piece, the game was played on PS4.

Words: George Parr

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