Yonder’s construction is even more impressive when it’s revealed that it somehow only demanded three people. Prideful Sloth, a small Australian studio composed of industry veterans, took influence from Harvest Moon, The Legend of Zelda, and Bastion and then equipped Yonder with a passive, welcoming pose. In operation, Yonder’s founding assumption is that the desire to do good usurps the traditional drive for violent conflict.
Yonder’s premise is vague but sufficient. Murk, purple clouds of corruption, have engulfed the land of Gemea. This makes the locals unhappy. The player controls a created character of either gender, returning them to Gemea after a long absence. You’ve been trusted with ridding Gemea of Murk and inspiring bliss and contentment among the local populace.
This is easy because you are also a Sprite Seer. Sprites are tucked away across the land and, depending on how many you have, possess the ability to clear away pockets of Murk from each of Gemea’s afflicted regions. Sprites can be found by solving rudimentary puzzles, aiding the locals with simple requests, or simply idling about Gemea. There are twenty two Sprites in Yonder, but (I think!) the most that are ever required to clear away Murk are just thirteen.
In its story and basic operation, Yonder likes to keep it simple. If you beeline the main quests, clearly marked in a quest log via your handy compass, it’s possible to visit all eight regions of Gemea and take care of business in just a few hours. Doing this will check the typical videogame completion box and simultaneously miss the point of Yonder. It has a beginning and an end, and the end is sweet, but Yonder deeply wants the player to get lost along the way.
Allowing Yonder take you is more of a process than it may seem. There are neither enemies to murder nor weapons to acquire. Yonder is a non-confrontational, nonviolent game and it wears this badge with pride. Within the last few months I have blown heads off in VR twice, beat the snot out of every available type of human, teleport-killed henchmen, and witnessed the end of existence. No matter your personal gaming résumé, it’s probably time to witness delight and try to embrace passive euphoria. Yonder wants to be that game.
Yonder allows some traditional means of engagement. A smattering of tools are available; a hammer to bash rocks and ice, a sickle to reap grass, a pick to mine minerals, and a fishing pole to—you guessed it—fish. This allows you to accumulate a hefty inventory of goods, which is also the point where Yonder begins to establish a higher identity. It also wants to be a crafting game.
Crafting is driven and enabled by the economy powering Gemea. It’s a bartering society with little use of actual money, meaning the wood you’ve been chopping and fish you’ve been stockpiling have a certain value associated with them. Different vendors in difference cities have different prices, though none will be willing to trade anything away for less than it’s worth. They will also happily rip you off, which I learned when I trade a rare egg worth 900 whatever for a blue dye worth 1/40 of that.
Yonder repeatedly tries to steer the player into its crafting and bartering world. You’re given the option to build a farm in each region and then outfit it with structures you learned how to build in other regions. Following this path will eventually yield a greater economic profit, which is also where Yonder started to lose me. This felt like work and the only rewards appeared to be the satisfaction of a job well done. I don’t personally need any more of that in my life.
As a reasonably adjusted person, I also understand that others—especially younger folks with fewer dollars and greater time—may better enjoy what Yonder brings to the table. Most regions of Gemea have their own economic specialty. Constructor, tailor, tinker, brewer, chef, and carpenter all have their own guilds. Entry is as simple as scouring (or buying) a few items and crafting a new material. Mastering them demands a bit more dedication in the form of additional item collection and crafting.
It doesn’t feel like Yonder is comfortable inside of its own crafting systems. Some items, as best I can tell, you will never be able to craft. You have to buy them, which means bartering, which sometimes means walking across the world to the only vendor you remember having. There’s an obtuse fast travel system attached to specific waypoints, few of which are especially well marked, but it remains a chore. Yonder already walks the player across the world several times and I’m not quite sure why it creates so many additional reasons to do so.
Speaking of which, each region also contains a fair amount of quests to help out the local townsfolk. A shipwrecked sailor is missing his crew and needs you to find his three lost mates. A lady out in the arctic wants to grow a beard, which requires a rare inland fish. Another person has lost dozens of cats. Yonder’s self-administered restrictions ensure many of these quests are of the “fetch” variety with bits of crafting in between. Few of these, however, are required.
A global measure progress is found in de facto happiness meter. Buried in a menu, each region has a rating that measures the goodwill you’ve inflicted upon the local populace. Presumably it fills up with quest completion or farm strength, or at least it did in the Grasslands where I completed most available tasks and built my only farm.
Sometimes Yonder can be unclear about what it wants. At one point some Arcadian Ice was locked in place and a nearby Sprite told me I needed to make a loud noise. Down the road, at the brewers, I had just learned how to make fireworks as part of their guild initiation. I bought a clay pot from the pottery guys, made my blue dye, found a specific seed I needed and, twenty or so minutes later, had all the stuff I needed to craft another firework. I set the firework off near the ice and then nothing happened. Later I would discover than I actually needed to go to a different part of the cave and ring a huge bell. Oh.
This lead me to believe that Yonder’s most potent source of conflict is within itself. The bartering system may be too arduous for younger gamers and the questlines might be too simple for older folks. The world of Gemea is pretty throughout its entire day and seasonal cycle, but, other than some adorable animals, feels sterile. Persisting and starting menagerie is geared for the long term, but will anyone even make it there? I don’t know the solutions to any of these problems.
Yonder was impressive when I was just wandering around. The opening hour was essentially me, on my own, exploring a paradise. I loved the way tree leaves turned pink, the rock canyons bled yellow, and the deep north felt enraptured by a faraway borealis. This is where Yonder was most valuable to me, a brief vacation away from any traditional form of game. It was like an alternate take on Proteus and it was lovely while it lasted.
I imagine Yonder with an earnest heart and an anxious mind. Brilliant landscapes and gorgeous vistas create a waking daydream while economic riddles and perfunctory direction recall the drag of reality. Yonder’s strides, despite an admirable form, don’t seem to take it anywhere.