At the top of a hill I stopped amongst the narrow pines and falling snow to sit through an advert for a Clash of Clans knock-off. When it had ended, and I’d taken my reward, I spent a moment or two watching as the sky changed colour. I couldn’t see much of the sky from where I was stood, but I saw it all play out on the ground regardless. A cloud shifted away from the sun, perhaps. A shadow receded and the sandy path before me started to glow with light. I’ve seen these things in the real world – the sudden, eerie, appearance or disappearance of the sun and the stage-management effect it has on the world lying all about – and I’ve seen it in films, very occasionally, and only when Terrence Malick, who cares about such things, is at the helm. I’ve never seen it in a game, though.
At heart, I think The Trail wants to be a game about returning to nature, and witnessing all the strange, quiet tricks that nature can sometimes play. It’s a beautiful game, and at times it’s also the strange, difficult, game that I often suspect it truly wants to be. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I moved on from that hill, and nature receded, buried under dull quests, dull collecting, dull crafting, dull invitations to watch dull adverts for dull games. It’s not that The Trail is not what I hoped for, because I could always just adjust my expectations accordingly, and I believe in meeting games on their own terms anyway. It’s that, weird and presumptuous as this is, I really don’t think The Trail is what its creators thought it could become: it doesn’t feel like they have finalised its terms. Not yet, anyway. You have to hunt for what’s great about it, and while it’s definitely there, it’s often buried.
God, it sounds so lovely. You’re off on foot across the wilderness, taking in the sights that are rendered in lovely flat-colours and fidgety natural shapes, bathed with Golden Age railway poster lighting. The sights are worthy of this treatment, too: creamy cliffs, snow-edged mountains of grey slate, lustrous valleys swaying with dandelions while stone arches ease over the path. You’re fixed on a track, and your only control of your character for the most part is how fast they move, but that’s no problem when you can spin the camera around you and take it all in, all of it so pretty, all of it already receding, beauty on a plodding conveyor belt with the added poignancy that you can’t seem to turn around and immediately reclaim anything that’s passed you by.