Publisher Wild Sheep Studio Developer In-house Format PS4 Origin France Release 2016
Michel Ancel stands before the firstever live playthrough of Wild and begins by saying, “I have to talk quickly, because the sun is going down.” He’s put a lot of pressure on himself: the original plan for this behind-closed-doors demo was to rerun the Paris Games Week trailer with the creative director narrating, but at the last minute he insists on going hands-on.
With Ancel admitting, “We don’t have a precise idea of the limitations of the game,” this decision might be one he now regrets. The sound cuts out, animations stutter, and at one point he hops inside the body of a rabbit, goes swimming and the game locks up. While understandable this early in development, it does signal that at this point much of Wild’s promise still resides in the heads of its developers, rather than is recorded in code.
But what Ancel’s impromptu demo proselytises is the core message. Here you explore the relationship between man and nature from the perspective of a shaman who can summon animals, possess them, ride on them, and ultimately come to understand them. You might learn something new about humanity, too. “A very important thing is that during this period, which is five or six thousand years before Christ, the gods were animals,” Ancel says. “If you look at Egyptian gods, they were a mix of animals and humans, and now most gods look like humans. Because [back then] nature was the most powerful thing on Earth; now we think that we’re the most powerful.”
Wild is an attempt to knock us back down a few links on the food chain and restore our place in nature’s web. Take the taming of a bear. At the beginning of the game, bears act as an enemy of sorts, fierce and unpredictable. While they’re not necessarily out for blood, get between an ursine and its food – or, worse, its cubs – and you should expect a fight. This dynamic shifts dramatically if you can lead one to one of many shrines dotted about the landscape and perform a ritual, turning it from foe to friend.
Summoning different creatures’
deities, here called Divinities, will be fundamental to your progression, too. In our demo, Ancel’s shaman plonks a snake on a sacred stone and then enacts a ritual to call forth a giant goddess covered only by patches of green scales. Ancel stresses that the system isn’t yet fully in place (the deity doesn’t disappear so much as vanish like a popped bubble), but Divinities will take the form of mission-givers. And they’ll ask you to make difficult choices.
You might be forced, for instance, to play as a serpent for three days so you can truly
“We want people to feel like there is a project to the game, there’s something to achieve”
appreciate the reptile’s plight. It immediately confers a whole new set of vulnerabilities and predators to contend with, such as eagles bolting down from above. Or you might have to decide whether to kill one of your flock of followers as tribute, and if you’ve invested time into raising one to maturity, then this has the potential to be a heartbreaking decision. Because nature is an impersonal force, there are no heroes and villains – just survivors. Throughout the course of the game you expand your team and evolve as a player, starting as a boy and growing into a man.
It’s not only things with teeth that can kill you out here, however. Freezing rain falls from the sky and biting snow blankets the ground, threatening to end you. While the unforgiving elements are random, more regular is the threat of night. Time itself is a threat in the wilds of Wild.
Ancel cites Don’t Starve as an inspiration. Find or build a shelter, he suggests, and travel only during the day. You’ll also need to hide while summoning, whether that involves climbing a tree or ducking behind a rock, since your shaman can be killed while you roam the world as a beast. It’s a feature that will give Wild rhythm, and a promising sign that Wild Sheep is anchoring its philosophical leanings to a solid structure. But again, it’s a structure that exists only in theory. All that really happens when the sun sets in our demo is the visibility reduces to near zero.
Your overarching goal involves mapping the environment. You’re like a primitive cartographer, pushing farther and farther into the unknown to acquire knowledge about the land and committing it to memory. “We want people to feel like there is a project to the game, there’s something they achieve,” Ancel says. “So you acquire territory and try to organise your next journey with all the animals. And it’s up to you to decide, ‘OK, let’s start three camps [here], because I want to explore this part of the world.’”
Don’t Starve isn’t the only inspiration. Wild supports Bloodborne- style multiplayer in which players can open up their game to invaders, leading to the tantalising prospect of a frog-versus-sheep showdown. If you’re looking for help rather than hindrance, co-op is supported, and you can play as anything: one human can control a crow and provide aerial recon, for instance. There are no icons to mark human agency, however, so any animal might be another player in disguise, creating potential for a paranoid Invasion-Of-The-Bodysnatchers-style metagame, as well as a literal game of cat and mouse.
In fact, Wild is without a UI of any kind, dispensing with handholding as you chart its colossal, pseudo-procedural world, which is due to end up the size of Europe. “Right now, it’s infinite,” Ancel says, “but infinity can be a problem. [Our priority] is all about the combination of things and all the gameplay that can come from these combinations. We want every player, for example, to spawn in different locations so they don’t see the same beginning of the game.”
It’s a fitting stance for a game all about playful experimentation. Every animal has a part to play, no matter how big or small. You could inhabit the body of a frog and paddle about near the shore to attract a catfish, then switch to the shaman and fish it from the water. Or you might borrow a rabbit as a live distraction device, baiting larger foes away so your shaman can slip past. Roaring is also possible, and this can be both beneficial and harmful. Rearing up as a bear makes some creatures flee, even driving them to kill themselves in panic, but this gives away your position to apex predators such as wolf packs.
At this point it’s difficult to separate the dreamy landscape of Wild from the one inside Ancel’s head. What’s real and what does he want to be real? There’s promise in a bodyswapping survival game underpinned by an inter-species dynamic in which you use animals as your own personal A-Team, and a world that doesn’t prescribe a specific way to play. Thankfully, while Ancel was worried about the sun setting during his talk, he and Wild Sheep have a lot longer until a dawn brings with it Wild’s release day.
Michel Ancel, Wild Sheep co-founder