I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where a wolf was the main character. There was this one time in Dark Souls when I had a close encounter with one of the creatures. Although, that mostly involved me quietly sobbing in the corner of my room after realizing I’d listened to two full albums of some random band without managing to slay my howling, lupine foe.
Compared to that experience, Lost Ember is quite the chill game. There’s this pretty forest you can run around, with broad hills, small caves, and wooden alcoves hiding armadillos and birds you can assume direct control over. Occasionally, you might also want to follow this floating red orb which seems to desperately want your attention. At first it seems like there’s barely anything to do. Yet, I found myself starting a new game after completing the pre-alpha demo in less than twenty minutes.
It’s a rare thing, feeling truly free…
Most of Lost Ember’s charm comes from enjoying the small moments. Basic mechanics like crawling through tight spaces and burrowing underneath obstacles are used often, but do little in terms of presenting a challenge. Instead, they serve as guiding points, briefly navigating you towards places filled with calm and idyllic charm.
One such moment came when I crawled out of a cave opening, only to find myself in the middle of a luscious valley. I could go on and follow the game’s instructions by following my floating companion, or simply run around while soaking the atmosphere. In fact, I was surprised to find the simple act of running so enjoyable. Perhaps because you’re controlling a wolf, there’s this oddly satisfying feeling of freedom and unrestricted motion.
Then there was the moment when I got to become an armadillo. Naturally, assuming control of such a tiny critter meant that you can suddenly see things which would otherwise be impossible to notice. I scuttled through a tight tunnel, this time stumbling on a small area shielded by the comforting shadows of some tall trees. In contrast to the open valley, I was now standing in a tiny refuge while hanging out with a bunch of fellow armadillos.
Sure, I could activate the animal’s special digging ability and continue on my path towards the story elements of Lost Ember. Or, I could wait a bit and enjoy the moment.
Towards the end of my play-through, I could tell the developers were actively aiming for such an experience. This time I was a bird, flying through the air when a pop-up presented the following message: “hold for slow motion”. It was quite the fitting conclusion to the Lost Ember pre-alpha.
The mysticism of ruins of old
Among all the scene-setting and exploration, Lost Ember carries a story which is told in a rather indirect way. Through cryptic, metaphor-riddled narration, the game’s story seems to be presented from the perspective of your mystical floating companion.
For instance, towards the end of the pre-alpha the red orb actually started weaving a colossal bridge, the end of which led to a static projection of a person holding a spear. As if telling the tale of a proud nation amidst the fall of a great civilization, the spirit seemed to reminisce of the old days, mentioning workers gathering around campfires at night or something along those lines. I’m not sure what most of it meant, but there was the slight hint of a personal love story.
It was certainly surprising to hear the story unfold in such a way. As it stands, my hope is that the final game would handle most storytelling through the environment and leave narration only for the most important bits. Then again, I’m probably thinking way too much of Journey.
What matters is that Lost Ember’s pre-alpha shows a lot of potential. The first time I possessed an armadillo felt both odd and exciting. The motion of the creature, the change of my view height and the camera smoothing all seemed to work together towards creating this odd sensation of being in control of a tiny, wild being. Playing as different animals feels novel, and I was glad I got to experience this mystical world through a new set of eyes.