For gamers of a certain age, their first memories with the medium involve moving from the left side of the screen to the right. Ever since 1981’s Jump Bug, players of side-scrolling video games have been persuaded to do one thing: move right. As the genre has progressed with densely-layered and mechanically demanding games, this singular pull has followed gaming for almost 40 years. The side-scrolling genre was an easy entry point for many due to its simple sense of reward and goal setting; all players had to do was move to the right before this movement became habitual. FAR: Lone Sails is built on this same foundation, but no other game has imbued this habit of momentum with such a high degree of emotion. Plainly-speaking FAR has used its simple toolkit to not just provide a meditation on the act of travel, but a meditation on the limits and origins of the medium.
FAR opens on a dead, greyed-out sea bed. The only colour on the screen is the game’s protagonist, a girl clad in red, at a scene of a recent burial. The opening minutes of FAR contains no exposition or explanation, but the title’s use of implication tells players all they need to know: the world is dead, and nobody knows where to go. Players, though, are inclined to move to the right of the screen, where a 30-second journey through the protagonist’s wooden house acts as a primer for the incredibly satisfying gameplay loop of the title. By collecting and navigating this short space, the space acts as a non-intrusive micro-tutorial. After moving through the house, the player discovers the game’s best feature and central hub: its vehicle. At this point, nothing is prodding players on aside from a desire to see more and move forward, thus hinting at the core of FAR; the game is a trial against stasis, an illustration of the human desire to always seek entropy.
The vehicle itself, which looks like an ersatz cross between a rickety boat and a tractor, propels players through FAR’s desolation. Players must compile bits of scrap and fuel to keep the vehicle running, along with managing its engine and repairs. Essentially, the meat of the game—which is travelling to points of interest in a linear fashion—is micromanagement. What keeps this relatively simple micromanagement enthralling is not necessarily a looming threat, but the desire to see more of the game’s grayscale, sprawling vistas. The game has a fail state when the weather turns, with death by exposure a possibility. Moving outside of the vehicle always carries with it a sense of anxiety, but weather aside, players can venture out to the wastes unperturbed. If FAR was to bear a major criticism, that would be the lack of an ever-present sense of danger. Early on, the possibility of an unknown threat creates an atmosphere of palpable tension, but once players realise the outer world carries no real threat, this dissipates.
While FAR’s environments are as void of life as they seem, the game does throw up some surprising and touching interactions with relics of human civilization. To spoil these would be to ruin the game’s rewards, but a striking highlight was stumbling upon a radio tower. After a small platforming section, players can find a working radio; the radio mostly spews static, but often breaks into song or recordings of voices. This radio can be scrapped for fuel, but, at least in this reviewer’s case, the radio reserved a spot in the bedroom area of the vehicle as a way to stave off FAR’s ever-present, suffocating sense of loneliness. Interactions with the odd fauna aside, all players find on their travels is different forms of death. Small comforts adorn FAR, but are often fleeting as they are sacrificed to fuel the game’s only companion: the vehicle. The tension between keeping comforts and the necessities of using them facilitates a vivid commentary on the sacrifice required to survive. While the aforementioned lack of a fail state exists, the possibility of running out of fuel feels like a nightmare. For the vehicle to fail would mean utter loneliness, a loss of the protagonist’s last connection with, well, anything.
In between these light set-pieces are moments of meditation; the game’s loop of maintenance, art style, and delicate application of sound all contributes to an appreciation of pilgrimage as a tool for peace. These moments of reconnection usually comes with an upgrade for the ship, diversifying and complicating the loop of maintenance further. A welcome addition comes early in the game where the ship gains a threadbare but functional sail. This addition allows players to reserve fuel more should the wind pick up, granting some much-needed time to take in the gradients of biomes on offer. The art style of FAR is truly exemplary, managing to offer variation whilst sticking to the overarching theme of an ashen, muted world. FAR’s sound design, too, is a major draw. The atmospheric soundtrack is weaved in effortlessly, while subtle touches like the rickety groan of the ship and distant thunderstorms contributing significantly.
Travel has formed the basis of many works of fiction. No other game, though, has committed to this human need to move forward as much as FAR. Aspects of the game touch on real-world issues—the dissolution of agrarian life, reliance on fossils fuels, technology as comfort—but the only one that really matters is the reiteration of what travel means to people. The title starts by tickling the innate need in gamers to move forward, before gently coaxing them into a pilgrimage. In only three hours, FAR is a reminder that even when things get rough, we can always push forward.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.