In Journey, you huddled together trudging uphill against a torrential blizzard. In Dark Souls, you called upon each other to defeat rancid beasts clenching clubs with the magnitude of double-decker buses. In DayZ, you patched up each other's wounds during gunfights and devised plans to ambush the bandits that had robbed you.
Our shared struggles against adversity are what bring us together in these virtual worlds. The temporary (or long-standing) friendships they nurture are what burn brightest in our memories of playing these games. As Derek Bradley of New Zealand-based studio Aurora44 says, these "relationships are forged"—like a steel blade; they're hammered, heated, and bent into shape. "We consider this to be the core experience we are trying to craft," he adds.
The gales make exploration abrasive
Ashen is an action-RPG about your struggle to find a home in a land without a sun. The only natural light comes from the glowing ash that erupts from a mountain, and even that dims as it steadily settles on the ground. There are cannibals, opportunistic bandits, wild beasts, giants, and strange creatures of the dark. It is not a place you'd want to travel alone.
So hostile is Ashen's world that even the wind pushes you around; tripping you up, knocking you off balance like a 5th grade bully. The gales make exploration abrasive as you're swept off course and encounter entire areas made inaccessible by ferocious headwinds. Either you press on miserably, give up altogether or, as Derek suggests, sharpen your intuition and use the criss-crossing currents to propel you towards your destination with gusto.
"Players might use the wind to jump over otherwise impossibly wide chasms, hold their shield out to pick up more of the wind, and equip heavier gear to counteract the force of the wind."
But letting the wind carry you great distances adds further risks to your survival. There is no map in Ashen, and so you must navigate using distinct landmarks as guidance. You're also constantly at the risk of dying of thirst, and so straying too far away from the waterways, unable to refill your canteen (which drains when using stamina), means walking ever closer to your grave. If you do die then you'll lose everything in your backpack but retain any equipped items—the obvious rule is to wear what you treasure the most.
Death forces another forfeit upon you too, as you'll respawn all the way back at the last save point you activated. Fitting in with Derek's previous notion, retrying each section of your arduous journey is a necessary process in the forging of your relationship with the environment. This is why save points in Ashen are sparse—one found in each zone—and can only be activated once. That's not as harsh as it sounds. Derek explains that you can respawn from them as many times as needed but, unlike the bonfires in Dark Souls, these save points die out once you activate another one elsewhere.
"The key to this is that whenever a save point dies, a new one is born at a new location in that zone. So losing your save point isn't the end of the world, it just means the player needs to keep their wits about them and continuously evaluate the landscape."
"the darkness is so thick it is almost a substance."
It's this propensity for getting lost and the dangers it holds that has increased the importance of ensuring Ashen's world makes geographical sense. The plan is for you to be able to study the environment and accurately calculate where a river should be—a valuable skill that could save your life. Accommodating for this means mountains, forests, and fjords have to sequence and flow into each other with a natural world logic. The effort behind this that Derek describes has an encyclopaedic degree of depth that, as he puts it, goes "right down to the bones of the earth."
"When we put moss on a rock, it's because ash has been blown into that spot and the moss is feeding off it. The rock itself might be in that place because there is a subterranean shelf of rock running through that area. So everything has a story, even down to the simplest rock."
Changes in altitude, water supply, giant landmarks, and subtle differences in lighting are all taken into consideration when composing each unique area. That's before the ruins of ancient civilizations—which are built one on top of the other—are even taken into consideration. So far only the highlands have been created, but Thomas Scholes's concept art for Ashen shows off subterranean valleys with sheer drops, submerged temples of worship, and stone forts with lumpy patterns bored into them. If only traced as sediment, there's clearly a rich history to discover and piece together at all layers of Ashen's world.
With all this attention to detail it's not too surprising that Derek describes the environment as the star of the show in Ashen. That may give the impression that the readable contours of the game's world are immortal, or to put it another way, that they are the only element of the game consistent enough to rely on. That may be true at the start, but over time it will increasingly not be the case, for this world is at the constant peril of the ghastly Gnaw.
"The Gnaw is an area primarily on the outer reaches of the world, where the darkness is so thick it is almost a substance. While the world before the first dawn was dark, The Gnaw has always been a place of suffocating shadow. It has a caustic nature to it, eating away at the land. Those that have survived have managed to stay ahead of it until now, but it continues to encroach on the final pool of light in a sea of darkness."
Derek describes this darkness with the threat of an Old Testament god. It's an unfathomable horror worthy of Lovecraft's evocative words. It burns through the land like a searing acid, inviting a comparison to the dreaded, unstoppable Abyss in Dark Souls. The Gnaw adds the "uncertain feel of a rapidly changing world" that Derek reveals is important to Ashen's story, and is something the team drew from Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road.
The threat of the unknown, never knowing what you'll wake up to, what's around the next corner, leads to the two key aspects of Ashen that are present in all of its designs. Those are its bleakness and its glimmers of hope. Nowhere are these conflicting facets more present than in the heart of Ashen, its passive multiplayer.
Combat is predictably Soulsian in manner
Ashen's online players will seamlessly drift into your world at random, one at a time (like in Journey), as you will theirs. But no one is obligated to team up despite it being helpful that you do. In fact, it's vital in some cases, as certain challenges will require a partner to overthrow. Fortunately, the NPCs that inform you about the world, and give you reasons to venture into it, can also be teamed up with if you prefer. However, they all have their own agenda and should be thoroughly interrogated before being trusted. As significant events unfold as part of the developing story, you'll have to decide whose interpretation of the situation you trust the most.
"Whatever you choose, the outcome is likely to be part success and part tragedy," Derek says. "It's just about weighing up what is more important to you."
Whether you decide to cooperate with another online player or substitute them with an AI companion, you'll be able to explore with them, and fight side-by-side in vicious, testing battles. Combat is predictably Soulsian in manner which, for the uninitiated, means it's like trying to clean a chimney with a walrus sat on the end of a pole. In other words, it's sluggish, weighty, and dictated by stamina levels. This emphasises the importance of skill and observation as your most lethal weapons. But Derek points out at least one way that it differs, if only ever so slightly, from From Software's inspiring design. That's in the limitations on weapon availability in Ashen.
"Surviving in Ashen is a harsh existence, getting a weapon forged is even more trying. For this reason, weapons like spears and axes are far more common than something like a sword. The manpower, resources and skill required to create a sword far outstrip the cost of creating an axe head. A well-crafted axe is a trustworthy weapon that will see you through the harsh night. Finding something like a sword will be extremely rare (if at all possible)."
Ashen's emphasis on survival punctures through into the combat conditions then, and may offer an even more desperate and savage feel than even Dark Souls managed, albeit with much less variety. Fighting and exploration aside, you're also able to integrate online players further into your story by bringing them back to your town (if you can survive the trek back). Doing so will disconnect your online link and that player's character will become a persistent NPC that contributes to your town, leaving a valuable mark on your world. They can do the same with your character, too. However, like all choices you make in Ashen, Derek warns that this is a decision that shouldn't be made lightly.
"Having someone join your town will have good and bad aspects to it. They might be excellent at exploring the world, so the NPC in your town is able to give you information about the outer reaches of the world. But they might also kill a lot of people, causing the NPC on your end to murder one of your other townsfolk."
Betrayal and murder are risks you can't predict unless, of course, you've played through the game before. Even then, as we've discovered in DayZ, there's no predicting the actions of an online stranger. In any case, it's the hope of Aurora44 that you'll want to replay Ashen for more than just its multiplayer. This is why it's ensuring that it will be impossible for anyone to see everything in one playthrough. If you head off into the dark wilderness for a length of time, then it's likely that you'll miss content that occurs in and around your town.
But seeing all of the content that Ashen has to offer doesn't matter all that much. Aurora44 aren't trying to add extra value to the game by stuffing it with content. It's all in service of the game's focus on supporting interesting player-driven stories that stay with you and feel meaningful. Everyone's playthrough should have enough variances supplied by the multiplayer, combat, and exploration that it feels unique, to an extent. Every small thing you do and don't do, every person you ignore and fight alongside, even the times you give up and turn back home; it'll all be part of the experience that you forge and take away from the game.
You can follow Ashen's development over on its official website.