FAR: Lone Sails is a vehicle adventure game. In a unique vehicle you travel across a dried-out ocean following the tracks of a once thriving civilization. Through an array of roadblocks and through hazardous weather you need to keep your vessel going. Where will this journey take you? Are you the last of your kind?
Platform(s): PC, (PS4 & Xbox One in development)
Release Date: 17 May 2018
FAR: Lone Sails is a game that speaks volumes without ever saying a word.
It might be, in my humble opinion, one of the finest displays of environmental storytelling that I’ve ever seen. I was honestly staggered by how well this game tells its story without ever having a line of dialogue or by having you stumble onto a letter containing three metric tonnes of exposition. Instead, the game relies on every other narrative device up its sleeve to tell its tale, be it in the music you hear or the landscape you see.
The game originally started out as a bachelor’s thesis for creative lead and game designer, Don Schmoker and with an accumulation of interest and positive reception it was taken up by publisher Mixtvision and built upon as it snowballed through various expos and festivals. It’s perhaps quite fitting that the team behind this game have built and modified it like a vehicle itself with feedback being used to tweak every part. Despite this, Schmoker doesn’t actually own a driving license but it’s not like Miyamoto was a certified plumber when he made Super Mario Bros.
But this has been done before, right? There’s been countless indie adventure platformers with silent protagonists and sweeping, eerie backgrounds, right? You got your LIMBO, you got your Journey but this game has something they didn’t.
This game has a… train?
That’s also a car.
And a bed, so technically a motorhome too
The Spirit of the Machine
Sharing the name with the developer team itself, the Okomotive is both the literal engine of the game’s progression but also the engine behind its success. The game is all about motion and pushing ever onward, the okomotive serving as a tool, a base, a vehicle and a companion the entire way through.
In short, this steampunk train-car-sailing-boat is built around a huge engine. The operation of the okomotive centres around three tasks: manually filling the fuel tank with detritus found along your way, pushing the ignition to start the engine and venting steam to prevent it taking damage and for a quick speed boost. Fuel, ignition and vent. Fuel, ignition, vent. It quickly becomes a routine you get better at micromanaging, deriving a real sense of ownership and satisfaction when you can get the okomotive up to full speed and the engine singing like a bird. But new additions get added along the way and each one plays an important role both in the okomotive’s maintenance but also in puzzle-solving later down the line. A close watch on the weather, the interior and exterior environment and available fuel is critical to this core mechanic. Sometimes you’ll be battling against hail and wind, chugging up a hillside while other times just require you to extend the okomotive’s sails up and watch the wind carry you along. Now let’s talk about how the okomotive feels.
The vehicle itself has a greater level of characterisation than anything else in the game. Detailed with artistic touches, game mechanics and an iconic design, the game even goes so far as to imbue it with emotional significance and spirit. Much the same way that Pixar has managed to make us feel emotionally for toys, tropical fish and Scottish people, FAR: Lone Sails places a mechanical creation at the centre of the story and shows you its triumphs and losses along the way. In so many other games, a vehicle is nothing more than a faster or shootier or more stylish way to travel between A and B but the okomotive carries far more importance than that. You feel intrinsically bound to the fate of this machine. I had a grin plastered across my face watching it zip through the calmer areas of the game and I was anxious when it started to take damage. This is a vehicle that fights on, that struggles and at times it hurts.
But how could a vehicle display such a range of emotions, or indeed ANY emotions? The okomotive doesn’t have a Knightrider-like voice or the cold dead eyes of Brum, instead every facet of the game’s design comes together to drive home the emotional weight. From a stunningly dynamic soundtrack to an ingenious use of art design and colour as well as masterful control over the pacing of the game. Sequences fraught with danger are fast-paced, dramatic and set against bleak scenes of dark and ruined environments. But the game makes the bold choice of maintaining a glimmer of hope in this post-apocalyptic world with areas of natural beauty and nostalgic call-backs and upgrades.
I think one of the highlights of the entire game that I found was a sequence which required almost no interaction at all. A stretch of road that maybe lasted 30 seconds, maybe less, where I simply sat back and watched the okomotive fly with a majestic backdrop scrolling by in the distance. It was a safe moment, a sigh of relief that no amount of dialogue or narration could have bettered.
So much of what the game ‘says’ in terms of a narrative is done through the world you travel through. Often in games this is achieved through the incredibly subtle art of writing warnings in blood on the wall of a particularly hard level. FAR: Lone Sails goes one better by using no blood at all! Instead hints and clues are painted into the world itself and the visual quality makes picking through it a thing of joy.
It’s both watercolour masterpiece and charcoal rubbing at the same time. Split between the playable foreground and the jaw-dropping background, it shoulders the burden of narrative in a way that few games can or are confident in attempting. Every environment is meticulously detailed, depicting a sad and abandoned world. The setting of a world without an ocean creates levels structured around familiar sights like harbours and ports or the insides of battleships and submarines but with the water removed, the rusting remains become haunting steel skeletons and dormant ruins. Homes stand empty on a long-gone shoreline and every indication of the world as it was before, evokes a sorrow and a mystery that the game never burdens with an explanation. This lack of world-building or exposition keeps things focused on the journey onward and the game never encourages you to stay in any one place for too long, always driving ahead, always trying to reach… whatever it is you hope might be at the end of the story.
Indie games have really gone to town on exploring interesting ways to use camera controls in recent years. The Banner Saga filled every level of distance with detail and action that vastly improved the game’s visual appeal and its cinematic scope. FAR: Lone Sails continues this exploration with three distinct ranges at which you can view the game and the characters. A close-up view of the player character, a mid-range view encompassing the okomotive and a wide-angle view of the landscape puts the right frame around every moment in the game, but it also highlights your reliance on your vehicular home and how small and lost you’d be without it. Taking the opportunity to breathe in the game’s backdrops in the wider-angle view is a real treat and artist Martina Hugentobler’s work is certainly deserving of this camera mechanic.
As mentioned earlier, one of the supporting pillars of the game’s cinematic quality is in the soundtrack. This is one of the areas of the game’s design that I think elevates it above other indie platformers and story-driven singleplayer games. Because the game can reliably detect when you have reached a certain milestone, the music set to each experience is perfectly paired with what’s happening onscreen. When you first see the okomotive a wary tune plays with some simple strings. As you encounter the remains of a huge factory complex, a foreboding horn section sounds out in deep tones and booms. The scripted nature of the game plays well to these strengths but there’s a brilliant dynamism too that pairs the music with the speed of your engine too, rewarding the smooth operation of the okomotive with a soaring accompaniment. It’s in the scattered flashes of hope and cheer where you can tell composer Joel Schoh really decided to have fun as the music really gets a chance to impress when you come across a radio tower…
There were brief moments where the score would fade away as I got waylaid by an empty fuel tank and this slightly diminished the thrill of so many components working in unison, but these were few and far between.
Okomotive clearly recognize the dual strengths of the game’s visual and musical styles as both are available as DLC from the game’s launch. The opportunity to explore the soundtrack and the artbook is a level of access to a game’s design that often gets overlooked with smaller games but FAR: Lone Sails is one that truly deserves to have them on display.
There are no numbered levels in Lone Sails as the story itself is largely defined by the roadblocks and the locales you’ll come across. The Windmill, the Volcano, the Mine, these all act as environmental chapter headings in a wordless tale that stretches through the game. But really the game is about you and the engine. From the very beginning the game hints at a connection between the pilot and the okomotive beyond just creator and machine. The protection the vehicle offers you and the way you care for it in turn reinforces over and over that your fates are bound together, and in the moments where the game forces you apart, you feel vulnerable and alone.
I won’t go into details, but the journey you and the okomotive take isn’t easy or safe but it’s a voyage of discovery that will have you rethinking how emotional you can get over a diesel engine.
When I first spotted FAR: Lone Sails at EGX Rezzed 2018 it caught my eye and I loved operating the inner workings of the okomotive in the demo. But the full experience of the game is far more than just vehicular maintenance.
Okomotive have created in their namesake a nuts and bolts creation that achieves a range of emotional storytelling that I never thought possible in the absence of a cast of characters with a script full of dialogue and plot. For want of a complaint the only critique I can give is that I wanted to drive through this world for another hundred hours. If there were an endless mode in this game, then I’d be still venting steam and checking my spark plugs.
This is a game that proves just how effective a well-crafted and well-directed linear game can be and that a simple journey from the left of the screen to the right, can still be an unforgettable and emotional one. Beautiful to look at, to listen to and to play through, FAR: Lone Sails is a triumph of design that elevates the role of the video game to more than just a win/lose scenario.
Press code provider to the author by the developer for the purposes of producing a review.