Very recently I moved to a place within thirty minutes of the beach. To another coast entirely, actually. But before that I’d see the ocean on rare occasions. Usually it would be with my family, over the summer, when we’d hop over the scalding sand and spend the days gliding atop waves. My favorite times spent by the sea were at night, weaving through the hermit crabs and sand critters that stabbed at my feet, squinting over the blackened ocean and feeling removed from the cluttered world in a way that’s difficult for me to explain. It’s an exhaustively deep calm: skimming the boundaries of a cloistered universe, unable to imagine the vast ecosystems electrifying the Atlantic’s interior.
Aran Koning, of the Sokpop collective, has managed to replicate that experience beautifully in Driftwood. A homage to nights spent swimming in the North Sea, Driftwood finds players tucked between sand dunes, ambling anywhere they like. Initial versions of the game experimented with more involved gameplay, giving players goals and mechanics, until Koning ‘realized that going to the beach is goal-less to [them]’. So the game was changed, rendered similarly aimless, to rapturous success. Stars dot the sky, reaching their arms through the clouds, and the spines of skyscrapers stand the wind at the beach’s end.
There’s not a lot to do in Driftwood. But there doesn’t need to be. It’s a game that asks for patience and gives back a little peace. When the game first booted up, I reached for the shift key to notch my slow saunter into a light sprint, only to find myself bending over for a seat in the cool sand. It’s a clever subversion of player expectation, and it put me pleasantly and firmly within the mindset Driftwood demands.
There are small notes to find as you explore that add up to more of a tone poem than a narrative, and it’s a nice touch. It gives a sense that this place has a history for whoever you’re inhabiting, allowing the tiny particulars of your character to surface without distracting from the aimless being-ness the rest of the game puts forward. Not enough to know your character’s history. Just enough to understand that there is one.
Maybe they’ve been coming here often. Or maybe they’re from someplace far away: Tennessee, maybe, where the river cuts through but the ocean is never seen. Maybe they’ll move close enough to the ocean someday for it to feel like a kind of home, but for now it’s a biannual destination, a coffer of secrets and unbridled tourism, all at the same time. And maybe these night walks are usually with friends or family, tracing the borders of a land they don’t know, feeling apart from each other and everything around them. Not a kind of loneliness, really. More like peace and quiet where the water meets the land.
Anyways, it’s a beautiful time and the weather’s right for a walk. Go see for yourself.
Driftwood is a part of Sokpop’s two-games-a-month output. If you like it, consider becoming a patron, which will net you two new games of theirs each month.