A journey into nature becomes a beguiling, Byronic enigma
Alion in a cave is quoting Byron at us. Then again, it’s not long since we used some blue flowers to change the rest of its pride into rabbits. Or, for that matter, since we managed to get a sheep to teleport us to a new area. Though we’re still not really sure what the birds do. Our notes after playing Future Unfolding’s preview build might read like a particularly feverish hallucination, but then this intoxicatingly strange game feels a lot like a vividly remembered dream. The top-down view probably has something to do with it, but it has a similar woozy, heady quality to Hotline Miami – if, perhaps, Dennaton’s troubled antihero had swapped guns for a moderate amount of peyote and headed off into the countryside to find himself.
We are, quite thrillingly, lost. Future Unfolding thrusts you into a world without a hint of reason or a purpose. There are no control prompts or objective markers. There’s a map, but it’s one whose landmarks are only filled in after you’ve discovered them. It all looks both familiar and otherworldly: the rocks, the vegetation, the animals give it a grounding in nature, and yet the colours are a little off. And our avatar is probably the strangest ingredient of all, a bright-blue figure who leaves a thick trail behind him as he runs. That lack of instruction, and the accompanying feeling of directionlessness, will be daunting to some and empowering to others. We’ve grown accustomed to being coddled by modern games, to being shown exactly where to go at all times. Icon-studded maps and manual waypoints have become the norm. Future Unfolding isn’t the first game to react to that, but it takes it a step further than
Future Unfolding thrusts you into a world without a hint of reason or a purpose
many. Which isn’t to say you won’t find the odd bit of gentle guidance, but these come in unlikely forms: a strange green substance in a suspiciously geometrical arrangement on the ground, or a pink rabbit that darts off as you approach. Each of these curious occurrences prods at your natural inquisitiveness.
We follow the rabbit and eventually it slows down long enough for us to tame it by pressing the all-purpose context-sensitive interaction button. The only other command is a temporary sprint, which can be extended by gathering fruit. While most of your exploration will be at walking pace, you’ll occasionally bump into more dangerous creatures. Snakes launch a venomous spray in several directions and must be avoided, while lions prowl aggressively before telegraphing a rush attack that means an instant kill if it connects. Die, and a hole quickly opens up in the ground and then contracts to nothing, leaving a tree in your wake. Within seconds, you’ll be returned to the world, albeit in a safer place within the same area.
There are portals to locate and nodes to activate, but these are no ordinary locks and keys. There’ll sometimes be single solutions to individual problems – at one stage we tame a long-horned steer in order to leap across to a distant cliff – but environmental puzzles feel more like an organic part of the world than a conspicuous form of gating. You’ll rarely find yourself looking for anything specific as much as discovering things by stumbling across them and steadily figuring out their place in the world – and, to a point, your own. As you play, the title feels ever more fitting: this is a place that spreads out and develops over time, steadily revealing more of itself until it achieves a certain familiarity. Parts of it are still dangerous, others opaque, but it’s no longer unknowable.
For some, Future Unfolding will be a world to be pleasantly perplexed by. Others will view it as a giant puzzle to be slowly deciphered. This isn’t a place governed by real-world logic, but there’s a consistent set of rules to learn. The absence of assistance means minor discoveries become more significant epiphanies: clambering aboard a four-legged beast is one thing, but it’s not much use until you learn how to control it. With just two buttons it’s not difficult to figure out the secret, but the solution is all the more satisfying for being unprompted.
That inscrutability will, undoubtedly, be a turn-off for some. Likewise, its stubborn refusal to offer any easy answers as to what it might all mean. And it does lack the innate warmth of something like Proteus; having its creatures quote Byron and Robert Frost may be a highfalutin affectation too far. And yet, much as its elliptical nature perhaps creates a certain emotional distance between player and game, this is a fascinating world to experience. We may never understand the wider significance of the birds. Maybe there isn’t one. But for us, the lion’s right. There is pleasure in these pathless woods. There is rapture in the lonely shore.
Every object is composed of dynamic particles. You can push your way through trees in the forest, and dash through vegetation to destroy it
ABOVE CENTRE At one stage, we manage to get a sheep to blink out of existence. That rules out ‘shepherd’ as a possible career move.
ABOVE Patches of flowers in a pattern usually mean something. Sometimes they’ll give you a temporary boost; elsewhere, they might morph into a barrier, or cause some other environmental effect
LEFT You can climb down slopes, but you won’t be able to go back up the same way. You’ll usually find a circuitous route to higher ground; otherwise, command a steed to leap the gaps.
BELOW Any deeper meaning to Future Unfolding’s strange patterns may be hard to divine, but we sense that it’s consciously designed to be open to interpretation
One lion is easily avoided, but usually you’ll find more arriving on the scene quickly. They pause briefly before pouncing, giving you just enough of a window to be able to dash clear