If something works well and proves popular, it's taken up elsewhere with increasing frequency. Even video games like to follow trends. There are times when zombies are especially popular. At other times it's the co-op experience that's en vouge. One day we're all playing shooters, another we're all trying to survive the end of days. Either that or it's a specific visual style, such as cel-shading, that's fashionable. Currently open-worlds seem to be the big thing. With the ever-expanding possibilities of new technology, it has never been easier to create sprawling worlds for us to explore, with new games offering us more and more freedom and increasing player agency. Among the most anticipated games to embrace this style in the coming year are Just Cause 3, fantasy adventures in the form of The Legend of Zelda for the Wii U and The Witcher 3, and of course there's No Man's Sky.
It is with the latter that AER probably has the most in common. The adventure developed by Swedish devs Forgotten Key has a very similar premise. The six-man team didn't start by thinking of a story or basing their game on clever gameplay mechanics. No, in the beginning there was only one theme - and it was one that needed to be playable: it's about the sense of discovery. With that in mind it takes us to what studio head Robin Hjelte describes as a high-flying adventure. There are several small islands where a variety of residents and animals live. On others there are ruins to explore. People have a way of traveling between the different islands - maybe a bit like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, however this time we're moving through the air.
The nomadic tribe to which we belong has a rather unique tradition. It sometimes happens that a person is born with a special gift that enables them to transform into a bird and fly. This person is then the one chosen to go on a pilgrimage to discover the world and seek memories of the past. We, playing as the protagonist, have this gift and fly out into the world. While we're there we'll not only meet other shapeshifters, but we'll find out that something isn't right with the wider world. We come to a place from where corruption is spreading. It thus falls to us to try to and find out what's behind this corruption and stop it in its tracks.
The flying and discovery occupies a very significant part of the experience. About half of the time spent in the game takes place in the air. The controls for aerial movement are quite simple. We move our wings or we go into a dive, increasing our speed. It's also possible to slow down, so as to land at a certain point. Hjelte compares the feel of movement with Wipeout, and we even reminisce about Pilotwings. Bearing in mind that the game's development is still at a very early stage, it definitely works pretty well. On our little trip it's already clear to see that the exploration between the floating islands will give us lots to discover. The order in which we travel around seemed completely unimportant; this is an open-world and we're free to explore them as we see fit.
Interestingly, this concept is actually similar to what Sean Murray and his team are planing with No Man's Sky. However, it also quickly becomes clear that there is also a big difference between the two games: while playing the role of Auk in AER we try to heroically save a perishing world (and a finite one that houses purposefully-built landmarks such as temples for the ancient gods), and we also either fight against monsters or try to sneak past them. In any case, despite the open-world, we're following a story. The space adventure No Man's Sky waives all this in order to focus on the feeling of exploration and discovery (a digression, but head this way for more details on the structure of NMS). It's evident from what we've seen that these themes will only form one part of AER.
Of course, from a visual-perspective, the two titles are completely different. AER has a rather unfinished feel; all landscapes, objects and living beings are decorated with nought but a handful of polygons. Therefore they're not realistic, and this is emphasised by their slightly overstated and surreal styling. With the simultaneous use of so many colours, the adventure does have something of a comic appearance. Perhaps you could say that it looks a bit like we're walking - or flying - through a piece of modern art. It's in these moments that memories of Okami are stirred, and that's a game that has captured many hearts with its picturesque visual style. Robin Hjelte referred to the tone of his game as 'atmospheric', in the same vein as Journey and the The Legend of Zelda series.
Given the feeling that the studio wants to capture, these feel like good comparisons (tonally at least). There's a definite sense of freedom, and we're promised that explorers will be rewarded for their curiosity. Seeing as AER won't be released until 2016 - and that's on PC, PS4 and Xbox One - it's difficult to say what will await us in the end. Whatever happens, this is a fascinating concept. Open-worlds are more popular than ever before, and if that means we're going to continue being offered experiences that promise as much as this, that's most certainly fine with us.