Almost a year ago, my grandfather died. It has been hard to escape feeling like a hack because I keep bringing that up. The reality is, I haven’t written much since that day and what I have written has been punctuated by a tone that overflows with grief that I’m still not sure how to deal with. Nevertheless, here I am, attempting to write again. This time though, I am not going to steer away from that well. Part of that is self-motivated. The other part is Far: Lone Sails.
I watched the trailer for Far: Lone Sails one night while perusing the upcoming games in the Xbox Store. The music, the art, the tone, instantly hooked me. I am partial to games that have a system based in upkeep. I love building cities in City Skylines. I love managing my base, personnel, and resources in XCOM. Maintaining the mechanics of this land ship, traveling across a wasteland was an easy pre-order.
The first moments of this title froze me. My character sat in front of what I can only assume is the grave of their father. A picture lays propped against a tree. The music is soft and sweeping. The environment monochromatic. Grays and whites punctuated by the red coat and hat of the player.
If there is one thing that stands out immediately in Far: Lone Sails, it is its ability to deliver an aesthetic swiftly and creatively. As a long time fan of Playdead’s Inside and Limbo, the task of telling a compelling story in the limited space of a side crawling platformer is a challenge not easily overcome. Music and art take center stage, while gameplay often takes a back seat, punctuating the visual tableaus with puzzles. Okomotive’s ambitious entry into this genre is an outstanding accomplishment.
My grandfather served 23 years in the Navy. A period of his life he spoke of sparingly. To this day I am unsure if that was because it conjured memories he didn’t care to relive, or if there was another reason. The stories he told were always comical. Stepping up several decks in a single bound while the ship flexed in choppy waters. Drinking hot beers on the deck while docked at shore in the Philippines. Nearly missing the boat back while resupplying. His Navy career was a mystery to me. It will always be a mystery.
Far: Lone Sails takes place in a world made desolate by a disaster given no explanation. As you step down a sandy beach, the sound of an ocean never comes. Instead a windswept desert stands in its place, the carcasses of various ships strewn about the wastes. As you step into your ship (the eponymous Okomotive), crank up the engine, and pull away from the scaffolding surrounding it, you set off across this lonely place. The destination: unknown.
Within moments the world begins to unfold itself around you. Broken down ships are everywhere. Dust crept onto their decks. Debris lays scattered, half submerged in the sands of of time and abandonment. Something happened to this place. It is hard to keep from imagining a world full of color. Rippling seas teeming with life. Nothing remains but shattered hope, abandoned dreams, derelict homes.
When my grandfather passed it was sudden. He had interstitial lung disease. One day he felt worse than usual. He and my grandmother went to the Emergency Room. Eleven days later he was gone. Despite the expertise of the doctors that attempted to help, they never found out what caused this flare up. Despite everything they attempted there was no explanation. I remember my uncle, sitting in shock next to his dead father. “My whole life I have believed in science. And science has failed me.” The words were sobering.
As you progress through Far: Lone Sails the obscured history of the world begins to unravel itself. The shallow, dried out seabed gives way to rolling pastures. Billboards pass by for a small farming and industrial town, The Blue Isles. This town, as picturesque as it may look with its rolling green hills, rests abandoned. The hills are washed grey-green, and before long you find barns and farmhouses torn asunder. Cars rest on roofs.
A tornado appears just beyond the last partially standing buildings. Without words it becomes clear: the damage done to this world is deep and irreparable.
The game continues this story of unnatural disaster as you progress. Color comes and goes, rarely, but those colors are always bleak. Dreary. Joel Schoch’s score moves emotionally throughout these moments, rising as the Okomotive churns forward, dipping as night falls, rising as the day breaks, the amber glow of the sun projecting into the thick clouds that cover the world. Schoch’s score is incredible. I’ll never forget trudging through the rain, the drops plinking off of the Okomotive, while the score receded. Leaving me to the sound of the rain and my thoughts. One of the best parts of Far: Lone Sails’ score is its willingness to leave you in silence, proving that even in its absence it can have a dramatic impact.
It was rainy the day he died. I remember thinking, “thank god no one else will be happy today.” I had always found comfort in rain. Since then, rain has been…different. No longer just a source of comfort, it is a reminder. Every time it rains, I am brought back to that day. Each time a little less, sure, but it is still there. I think it may always be there. I’m not sure I want it any other way.
The thought that he died of natural causes so suddenly felt, well, unnatural. He was tough, he rarely complained, and to think that one day his body just decided it was tired of struggling was hard to understand.
For the next six months it was hard to see color in anything. Everything felt greyed out. Food tasted different, sleep was less rejuvenating, laughter didn’t linger like it used to. My inability to write became apparent quickly. I struggled for hours to get singular thoughts onto a page. I was afraid that talking about this loss openly would look like a crutch I was leaning on. So I didn’t write.
The billboard for the Blue Isles says “A Fresh Start” just beneath the name of the town. Another says, “We Build Our Future”. The people of this place tried their hardest to move past the fact that their world was dying. But they don’t appear to have ever attempted to address the issue. The rusted and hulking remains of industry and manufacturing tell a story of a people who believed in science, and who were betrayed by that belief.
As the remains of civilization pass you can see people building escape hatches, not treating a wound.
Writing has always been my release. My means of escape, of coping, of healing. Not writing meant I did none of those things properly. I bottled and distilled my grief, making each moment it returned stronger. I tried everything to get away from it. I hid my pain from my grandmother, trying to be strong for her. I hid my pain from my wife, trying to prove that I was fine. That I was able to hold it together. I tried my best to move past the fact that a part of my world had died. In reality I was building escape hatches.
Without giving away the ending of Far: Lone Sails, because you should absolutely play it, I realized that part of me needed to let go, sure, but a larger part of me needed to face the problem head on and push through it. My grief is my Okomotive right now. I need to maintain the ship pushing me through life. I need to remember that, even if the ship is damaged, it is fixable. But it won’t be forever. Someday, it will decide it can go no further. When that time comes, it will be okay to let it go. To move on to another vessel. To take a moment and say, “Goodbye old Friend.”
The front of the Okomotive in Far: Lone Sails has two figures etched on its prow. An adult and a child. The house you pass through in the opening moments show you a Father and his child and the machine they created together. I am not entirely self-made. I owe a lot to Timothy Sawyer. His family was the thing he was most proud of. I realize now, that is why he didn’t share a ton about his service in the Navy. It wasn’t what he built with his hands. His family was. Now that he is gone, we must take journey forward, through the waste and colorlessness, to a new place. And he is still here for the ride. Even in his absence he has had a dramatic impact on all of us.
I valued every moment I had with Far: Lone Sails. It has brought me a lot of peace over the last few weeks and helped me better contextualize the struggle and pain of moving on. Of pushing through the shit to get to the other side.
Mechanically easy to pick up, hard to put down, a brilliant and evocative score, and entrancing art elevate Far: Lone Sails into the poetic. A contemplative and somber yet unwaveringly charming journey It hooked me immediately. Despite having beaten it twice, I keep finding myself coming back for a little more every couple of days.
Thank you for making this game.