A Lost Ember review
Lost Ember is a game about a wolf and a disembodied spirit wandering around the ruins of a long-lost civilization in search for their identity. That’s just a technical description if you want the short story. But don’t be fooled by that reductionism. There’s much more to this game than its trailer shows.
Let me start by saying that, as in any good story, it doesn’t matter if the characters in it are talking rocks, fire-spitting dragons, or androids; as long as their actions are meaningful enough to evoke some aspect of our own humanity. That sounds cheesy, I know. At least, that’s a simple filter I use when I’m around satisfying my narrative addiction by watching movies, playing story-driven games, or reading a novel.
So, when I say there’s more to Lost Ember than a short description could say, I’m actually talking about a successfully executed story on the video game medium. Good stories are good also because they can’t be contained into a tiny pastime session. They can go beyond that if they’re crafted to expand the questions we already have about human existence. After finishing the game, I felt like Lost Ember does just that.
In Lost Ember, you play as a wolf who befriends a spirit trying to reach The City of Light, or the supposed afterlife destination of the deceased according to the mythology of the spirit’s fallen culture. Therefore, exploring the world around you is key for what you’re tasked to accomplish.
As the only creature with a body on that mission, you’re also given the power to posses the bodies of other animals and reach further into the world you’re trying to decipher. If your companion spirit is already free to go mostly everywhere in his light form, you’re free to act upon the physical world in the shape of all the different animals you’re able to take control of. See the world through the eyes of a duck, a hummingbird, a wombat, a turtle, an elephant, a buffalo etc.
Your companion spirit is your guide in most of the game, but he is caught in-between two worlds and can’t move forward without your help. While he’s a resourceful talking being helping you make sense of what unfolds before your eyes, he also has doubts of his own. Metaphorically speaking, he’s a light that goes on and off depending on the part of the story you’re at. That makes him believable, relatable, human.
The world in Lost Ember is majestically built by very disciplined developers. Everything goes well together: the color scheme, the animations (with a few expectations), the soundtrack, and the overall sense of visual aesthetics specific to the interactivity of video games. You can see that as you go around running through clusters of dandelions strategically positioned for your viewing pleasure, or by choosing to see your character moving in slow motion for the sole visual amusement of it. It feels like every tiny detail like that was carefully put there to quench our thirst for contemplation.
To say this is all there for the pure the sake of escapism wouldn’t be fair to the developers’ hard work. In fact, there’s more to it. There’s this undeniable passion for the beauty of life upon the uncertainty of what happens after our death. Digging through the ruins of a culture that no longer exists is already a strong admiration for the ephemerality of life.
In Lost Ember, you’ll soon find out it is also about digging through the memories for atonement. It’s about how the fabric of life is weaved into wounds, losses, mistakes, tragedies, and forgiveness.
But what about the gameplay?
While you play Lost Ember, you’ll be driven by the need to learn more and more about the mysteries of its world. Your tools for doing it are taking control of other animals to explore your surroundings and learn from the memories of the past in specific spots you’ll see in the game environment. You’ll only need to master a vague sense of navigation to keep going. There are no enemies to fight.
Lost Ember is mostly about experiencing the beauty and meaning of life rather than facing a rival force. For that reason, it is fair to say this game is in the same vein of games like Bound, Journey and even Flower. If there is a force to stand against or to conquer, it is the mystery surrounding the wolf and the spirt: who are they? Why are they together? Where did they come from? And most importantly: where are they going to? If you’re sensitive enough to how these questions resonate to an expanded meaning of life, you’ll also find yourself asking them.
However your take is on such existential questions or on what lies beyond death, our shared concerns about the ups and downs of this adventure which is life are still true, regardless of culture, philosophy, religion, and society. The expression of those universal traits of human subjectivity is the very reason why I think this game is worth your while.