To see a landscape from above is to transform it, to understand it differently, to form new concepts of action within it. A plane’s window brings a world into view and renders it alien, a swollen floor of cloud-tufted strangeness. It feels like game developers are still discovering the power of such perspective shifts, though they’ve treated us to some wonderful examples. The Total War games reel from the clatter of individual spears on helmets to the Tetris-esque spectacle of formations locking together. Fortnite opens with a skydive, the camera briefly enclosing the whole of an island that will soon shrink to a few, bullet-torn acres. And then there’s this week’s Vane – a glorious, if clunky, third-person odyssey which casts you as a bird who is also a child, journeying across a desert world.
That should probably be journey with a capital “J”. The fluttering, scarlet spectre of thatgamecompany’s work looms large over Friend & Foe’s new game. You see it in the curl of the protagonist’s headscarf and the delight Vane takes in the shifting of sand, bulbs of the stuff erupting from your footfalls as you scale the dunes. There’s also the obvious influence of Team Ico (Friend & Foe’s five employees include veterans of The Last Guardian) in the mildly chaotic, arse-over-teakettle movement of the child, not helped by a framerate that is clearly a lower priority than the setting and certain elaborate environmental effects. Vane finds its own, peculiar dimension beyond these inspirations, however: its closing chapters are like nothing I’ve seen, and there’s something quietly revolutionary about how changing species allows you to perceive its landscape anew.
You begin as the child, carrying a glowing orb across creaky metal platforms during an apocalyptic hurricane. Robed avian figures eye you from orange-lit doorways as the ground is torn from beneath your feet. After a few moments of this the stormclouds surge, rushing the screen – and you reawaken as a bird, perched on a white tree with nothing but air and silence for miles around. A button press launches you skyward to assess a world that is now a wasteland (quite where each of the game’s five chapters sit in time is one of Vane’s lingering enigmas). Like a 19th century astronomer reading canals into the surface of Mars, you begin sifting hints of artifice from the ebb and flow of geology. The suggestion of a wall, here and there. Swaying pylons that lead you out towards the world’s misty perimeter. The sloughed-off carapace of a tower, lying in segments across a riverbed.
This is evidently a place with a story behind it, but it’s easy to forget that as you hurtle through canyons, allowing each terrain feature to hold your attention only for the time it takes to vanish in your wake. The game’s flight physics are a bit spotty – the camera zooms annoyingly when you build up speed, and landing on things is a fiddly business, as you fumble for the correct altitude relative to your perch. All the same, the feel of the bird’s body under your thumbs is intoxicating. I spent an hour or more just chasing the light over hillsides or wandering from pylon to pylon, ignoring the environment design’s efforts to lure me towards certain objects or areas.
After a while, though, you stumble on something that refuses to be left behind – a pool of blazing golden dust that wraps you in fog as you glide over it, folding your wings down into arms, your plumage into scraps of cloth. It’s a bruising reset, the child gulping air like a newborn, now a prisoner of the geography rather than lording over it. But as a human, you can perceive things that weren’t apparent through the eye of a bird: handholds and movable objects, the music of insects near pools or the eroded staircases that peek through gaps in the strata. The material composition of the terrain becomes more obvious, more intriguing. You realise, in short, that Vane plays host to many landscapes in parallel, one for each of the bodies it asks you to wear.
Shape-shifting is, as you’d expect, integral to the gentle terrain and object puzzles that make up Vane’s three-to-five hour length. There are objects you can only reach and interact with if you’re the right species, a familiar gambit complicated by the fact that you can only switch forms by diving into fresh deposits of golden dust. Tumble off a high ledge while human and the gold will flake away, restoring your avian form. Later, more dramatic puzzles expand on the applications of this mysterious substance, allowing you to alter the world itself in breathtaking style. I won’t give away too much, but the game’s last two chapters occur in a very different realm, and involve some frankly absurd feats of procedural terrain generation, the architecture sprouting and buckling like flotsam tossed on the waves of an invisible ocean.
Another surprise is that Vane isn’t about questing alone, or even as part of an Ico-esque odd couple. It’s about joining collectives, finding kin in order to overcome certain obstacles. As a bird, for example, you can call out to other birds to draw them to your perch. The game’s not-quite-wordless story is broadly an exploration of transcendence and sacrifice, with some familiar scriptural overtones, but within that, it’s a fascinating meditation on the voice. It’s about speech as the basis for community, creation as a kind of exhalation, and the celestial catharsis of a bloody good shout. The immediate reference is again Journey, in which players sing to one another and the mountain as they clamber towards divinity, but there are also shades of Oddworld, with its army of slaughterhouse workers waiting to be emancipated by Abe’s doleful greeting. Beyond that, I think of Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” and the Earthsea universe of Ursula Le Guin, in which language and landscape are one and the same.
Sadly, such ambition goes hand-in-hand with some structural blemishes. I ran into a nasty progression problem early on, thanks to the game’s arbitrary respawning of a barrier I’d cleared; adding insult to injury, this also meant I had to suffer through one of Vane’s rather so-so synth tracks repeatedly. There’s no player death, strictly speaking, but some sections kick you back to a checkpoint if you stray or lose something you need to progress – a bit of a hiccup, in a game of seamless transformations. Such inelegances aside, this isn’t an experience for those who prefer a steady pulse of gratification. As with Shadow of the Colossus, it wants you to take your time, to let the geography act on you, to savour the play of moods and scales afforded by the switch from child to bird and back again. Settle into those rhythms, and forgive Vane its rickety moments, and you may be astonished by where it takes you.