Painting has never been something I’ve had much skill with. My attempts have always hedged towards embarrassing, with shaky brushstrokes and deeply flawed translations of the image I have in mind to the canvas in front of me. Nonetheless, I understand the merits of the craft and can appreciate the dedication even a single painting requires of its creator. Every colour carefully chosen to resonate with those around it, shapes drawn just so, layers of iteration and happy accidents synthesizing into one cohesive piece that blooms in front of the viewer; a collage of abstractions that coalesce into beauty.
Balancing atop a precarious peak, high above the bluffs below, I pan my view across the horizon. I’m figuring out how best to frame the windmills littering the landscape, pitting them just so against the dawning sun and the wildflowers fluttering in the breeze. I’ve been camping on this hillside for the last day or two, unable to settle on an angle or time of day to capture this beautiful place. In my pack: a collection of several teas that have strong visual effects when ingested. I sip a few of them, trying to decide if I want this painting to showcase the natural colours of the world or a vivid palette altered in some ethereal way.
This experience is the core crux of Eastshade, a game from Danny Weinbaum (@eastshade). As a traveling painter, you’ve come to the island of Eastshade in the hopes of honouring the last wishes of your now passed-on mother. She had several favourite locales here, and to honour her memory, you set out to paint those very vistas. Along the way, your journey crisscrosses the whole of the island and introduces you to the unique customs of its people as well as allowing you to meet a wide cast of characters to talk to and help.
On the surface, Eastshade echoes of the exploratory elements of The Elder Scrolls. Its lush forests and mountains both fully explorable, very much championing the idea of “See that mountain? You can climb it” that the franchise is known for. A lot of time in Eastshade is spent wandering to and fro, collecting quests from townsfolk and taking in the sights. Quickly, however, you’ll realize that this game isn’t really about painting so much as it is about the connections that your art ends up facilitating.
Humanity truly overflows from Eastshade. Unlike The Elder Scrolls, there’s no combat here. Your only forms of interacting with the world are to either talk to individuals or collect crafting ingredients from the wild (or from people’s homes, which doesn’t seem to constitute theft since they’re quite happy to share). From this, it takes the standard trappings of the first-person open-world RPG and remixes its elements to create something wholly new. For instance, rather than the usual combat driven factional intrigue of the genre, you’re instead tasked with investigating an underground collective of tea-drinkers who engage with holy strains of tea to induce hallucinogenic dreams.
But, to get to that point, there’s a massive series of quests for you to progress through. The majority of them seemingly have no connection to one another beyond a point, starting as you stumble across a friendly face that offers a schematic to cobble together a raft that prompts you to hunt for an adequate sealant to complete the recipe. With no clear direction for where to get it, you wander the beautiful landscape until you stumble on to a junk dealer that happens to be selling it — for 500 glowstones (the currency of Eastshade). Glowstones are hard to come by, with painting commissions paying 20 to 30 for the most part, and the alternative, becoming a fishmonger, a very time-consuming activity which takes the utmost patience.
However, this salesman will offer to barter the sealant for one other thing: the codeword to gain entry to the hideout of the tea-drinking Dreamers under the city. With another layer added in a swift brushstroke, you set off to see who could possibly know what the word is. Again, going back to the Elder Scrolls comparison, Eastshade iterates on something Morrowind centered heavily: dynamic conversations utilizing unlockable topics. See, talking to the salesman gives you the topic of “Dreamers” to bring up in conversation with other people around the island, allowing you to attempt to pry more information from them. It’s an organic way to prompt the player to talk to all that cross their path and allows for self-driven investigation. The way in which the narrative folds stories and deftly weaves them together is nothing short of genius.
These quests, much like Morrowind, lack waypoints to their objectives. This forces the player to pay the utmost attention to the world, its inhabitants, and what they have to say. It grounds you in a way that sets it apart from its contemporaries who break immersion with their on-screen compasses constantly directing you to every single point of interest in the world and directing you specifically to where every quest needs you to go: a formula bereft of mystery, adventure, and certainly immersion.
Instead, Eastshade moves in the complete opposite direction with its focus on diegetic mechanics. Starting out, you don’t even have a map of the island, instead gaining it after helping a cartographer you meet within a few hours of playtime. It’ll mark areas you’ve been, but it won’t show you where you currently are; again, this puts the player in a position where they must actively engage with the world around them rather than providing a simple shortcut to facilitate consumption of quick-and-easy solutions. There is a fast travel system in place, but, like everything else, it also stays grounded in-world. Rather than clicking on an icon of a place, you brew and drink a tea that will allow you to walk to a place you’ve already been. Time will pass during this, giving a sense that, despite the cutaway of the loading screen, you’ve continued to exist in this world and have physically moved between locations.
Furthermore, Eastshade marks your engagement with the world via your paintings. Many quests will have you providing a recreation of a vista to the questgiver, only for that very painting to appear in their home afterwards. Even the commissions you receive, which are acquired from a book at an art dealer, will furnish various homes around the world. You’re able to hold on to paintings for yourself as well, which will don the walls of your home should you ever return from Eastshade after completing your mother’s charge.
All in all, Eastshade is the direction I wish The Elder Scrolls would have taken after Morrowind. In place of sanding away all the rough edges until all that’s left is the most marketable, accessible, and straightforward game possible, Eastshade embraces the strengths of the forays into the genre that came before: direct, dynamic interaction with characters, engagement with the world on a fundamental level, and diegetic systems that keep you immersed within that world. It’s a deeply remarkable game, easily admirable for its ambitions, and stunning in how well it can stick the landing. If Skyrim is a Thomas Kinkade painting, then Eastshade is a Monet masterwork.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.