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Abstract Alien Architecture is Really Pretty, Ok?

I’m playing an out-there exploration game called 'ESSENCE,' and (don’t laugh at me), I think it’s pretty cool.

I'm not going to lie, I rolled my eyes at the description for ESSENCE. And immediately downloaded it.

Tell me this doesn't sound like it was written by a new age guru from a 90s comedy:

ESSENCE is a surreal non-violent first-person exploration adventure.

Its world is forgotten by time and space and is emerging out of the gloom and unfolding its branches towards the sun. It is reaching for you. It is reaching to be explored. It is reaching to unravel its secrets, to let you see beneath its beautiful surface.


It has been waiting for you. It has been waiting to show you what it has been and what it is going to be….

All ESSENCE screens captured by author

But I'm not here to make fun of this game, because I am totally digging it. I knew I was probably going to like it, hence that immediate download. "Surreal," "exploration," and "adventure" are jump-up-and-listen keywords for me, and the fact that, I think the game is about exploring weird alien architecture (at least, that's how I'm choosing to interpret it) means I am very interested in the places it takes me.

So I loaded in and started on my existential journey.

So far, I've been in a bizarre desert, a castle-like structure with… this guy.

A crystalline cave. An area with… statues and trees. All lit and constructed and staged in such a way that suggests advanced intelligence and some kind of understanding of humanoid needs (gravity, atmosphere, language). There's a little bit of text to hang a loose narrative thread on—I woke up in this place, and I'm trying to figure it out. I can interact with some objects and cause change in the environments.

It's soothing and very, very pretty, even on settings that my work laptop can handle without chugging too badly.

Though I lack the art history and critical theory background to fully articulate why, I have always been drawn to more abstract forms of art. Particularly surreal landscapes and sci-fi color schemes, evoking rather than really showing places I just want to go to and run around in.

And that is ESSENCE, a collection of especially beautiful and weird places to poke around in, with just enough there to play with, mechanically and narratively, to keep it from feeling like I'm just running around on elaborate sound stages. There is something here, a sense of mystery and wonder, that will keep me going until I finish act 1.

In the best way, the game reminds me a bit of Kitty HorrorShow's Dust City, with much more budgetary muscle behind it.

ESSENCE is in early access on steam.