Clara is about to start the next phase of her life. She's been accepted into the Guild of Scientific Exploration, a prestigious group of researchers who travel the fictional world of Eastshade, braving unpredictable seas and untold peril to discover, catalogue, and learn.
Most video games would focus on the immediate dangers Clara is about to face as part of the Guild. Players might expect to encounter strange creatures, ocean storms and high drama as Clara embarks on what, by all accounts, seems to be a grand adventure. Instead, Eastshade Studios' Leaving Lyndow, which is out now, takes a more restrained approach. It's about everything that happens before the journey begins.
In the game, Clara—a monkey-like but otherwise human character—wanders Lyndow, her pastoral island hometown of idyllic forest paths, farmlands, cottages and teahouses. She visits her family and says goodbye to friends before shipping out, maybe never to see any of them again.
Her mother tells her to pack a remedy for seasickness. Her ex-boyfriend is sad they have to break up before the trip, but happy that Clara's off to live her dream. Her uncle is furious, worried she's setting out on a path that will lead to her death. A classmate is jealous that she passed the Guild's entrance exams when he didn't. For her part, Clara seems equal parts thrilled, terrified, and overcome with the particular nostalgia that comes from looking over every part of a hometown that may never be returned to.
Leaving Lyndow is a flawed game—its dialogue is uneven and it often falls short of true emotional resonance. For example, it devotes much of its brief runtime to explaining unnecessary details of its fictional setting, rather than providing more time for the characters to talk. Yet it is welcomingly unique in its approach to the typical video game adventure.
Games too often mistake life-and-death circumstances for character development, prioritizing blood-pumping action over scenes of reflection or mundane (and relatable) conversations. The small drama of our lives is hard to portray between gunfights or against the backdrop of looming, world-ending catastrophes.
Leaving Lyndow shows that games are perfectly suited as a medium for approaching a single, specific emotion or sensation.
Many games are billed as exciting experiences, sold on the promise that a few hours spent with them will provide a bit of adrenaline—that they'll liven up an idle evening with a few minor thrills. But, action becomes rote with repetition, and video games' insistence on focusing so heavily on a single facet of the human experience can get old.
Leaving Lyndow isn't meant to compete with the likes of Call of Duty or Mass Effect, sure, but it's also unique among smaller games, too. There's no major conflict between characters (beyond the tension between Clara and her disapproving uncle) and no simple conclusion to its narrative arc. Leaving Lyndow is concerned instead with portraying the particular melancholy of saying goodbye as we prepare to fulfill a lifelong dream. It wants only to capture a feeling—to create a vignette that is likely to resound with anyone who has experienced a departure like its protagonist is about to make.
There's a sadness to the game, but in just half an hour it manages to complicate this feeling by acknowledging that leaving one part of our life behind for a new one brings with it an innate sense of hope. The soundtrack switches from a lone, melancholy flute to a lush orchestral arrangement in a major scale to push this impression forward.
One scene shows Clara daydreaming of her late father's death at sea, the player slowly walking along its bottom, toward a shipwreck. But another sees her arriving at a dockyard where the towering vessel she's about to board floats in front of a wide-open body of water so vast it seems to embody the idea of possibility itself.
Leaving Lyndow serves as prologue to an upcoming, presumably much larger game called Eastshade. In many ways, it's easier for an introductory work to resist the desire for grandiosity than something that has to speak entirely for itself. Still, it works perfectly well as a self-contained story—a quiet, reflective piece about what's left behind in the process of setting out for adventure. It shows, regardless of its follow-up, that games are perfectly suited as a medium for approaching a single, specific emotion or sensation without greater dramatic elaboration.
This is a welcome example. Audiences have guided characters through the excitement of exploring new worlds and risking death at every turn countless times in video games. Leaving Lyndow furthers the argument that other kinds of stories are possible—that there's as much value in capturing life's quiet moments as its most exciting ones.