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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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I'm pretty sure Tchia is going to be a classic

Do not pass archipelago.

A friend once said that the best way to have fun in an open-world game - the best way to see if an open-world game was likely to be fun in the first place - was to pick the first story marker and run in the absolute opposite direction as fast as possible.

Out of the cave in Skyrim? Head wherever the game isn't telling you to go. Boots down in Just Cause? Ignore that first invitation to chat with a resistance leader. Emerging from the ramp in Crackdown? Actually, Crackdown never really tells you what to do anyway. Point made.

I've followed this advice while playing a demo build of Tchia over the last few days. Here's the thing, though: I didn't follow it on purpose. Reader, I was compelled to. Tchia is an open-world game set in a sun-dappled archipelago inspired by New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific Ocean. You play as a child exploring and gadding about the islands, and I'm pretty sure there's a bit of narrative in the build I played - a quest that leads to another quest maybe, a cut-scene, a gradual introduction to the powers at my disposal.

But you know what? The weather was so lovely, the island earth under my feet so inviting, I just ignored all that and I wandered. I picked a direction and headed out. As such, I know very little about what Tchia is trying to tell players in the first few hours, I suspect. But I also feel like I know a deep truth about Tchia: it's absolutely lovely - vibrant and characterful and transporting and generous - and when it comes out later this year a lot of people are going to fall for it.

Tchia.Watch on YouTube

Traversal is an early pleasure. Tchia takes the stamina system from Breath of the Wild and uses its familiarity to create a bunch of lovely new elements. If you have stamina you can run and swim and climb pretty much any surface and glide down out of the sky. The dive-bombing thing from Zelda still works too, where you plummet and then open the chute low to spend your stamina nearer the ground where it will save your life. HALO jumping, or butter scraped over too much toast? (So much of the magic of Breath of the Wild comes down to the unfortunate butter/toast ratio.) No matter - it still works.

But Tchia then adds stuff. The first of which is bendable trees. Climb a tree and you start to bend it. You can ping it back and forth and then launch yourself to get major air. It's Zelda but opened out to include a touch of Mario, and it means that you get the stamina system but with added range. Fling yourself! You can cover so much territory this way, zipping from one tree-top to the next. Magic.

Tchia
Tchia's skyboxes are very beautiful.

Then there's a system which allows you to inhabit another creature or item for a while, for as long as, you guessed it, a stamina meter dictates. This means I can be at the bottom of a cliff and I can suddenly possess a nearby bird and swoop up to the summit, with the option to poop on people if I want. I can take a rock at the top of the summit and embody it to roll all the way back down the hill into the sea. I can float in the sea and embody a shark, to get me a jet of real speed.

Tchia music
Tchia diving
Tchia.

This stuff, along with things I doubtless haven't discovered yet, work alongside things like a raft I can control for crossing big bodies of water and a musical instrument I can play for certain effects. There's a lot of stuff I can choose to do or choose not to do in Tchia. But crucially, it all seems to really fit with the landscape, with this rangy New Caledonia-inspired archipelago that brings a lot of the fun to Tchia.

Time and again I am surprised by the size of it. I think I have been conditioned by A Short Hike and the like to expect fairly small, compact open-world places in a game like this, albeit places stuffed with things to do. Tchia has plenty of things to do, but it also has space - the rogue, errant wide open spaces that make Crackdown such a pleasure. Space in which nothing is planned, so what do you want to do?

Over the last few days I've been for endless walks, I've climbed mountains and worked my way along their wriggling backbones. Some of the best times I've had have just involved watching the time of day change as I spend time by myself - the cure for loneliness being solitude and all that.

This is not to say Tchia is empty. It's just that it knows the value, I think, of a bit of emptiness in the right place to make something feel real. Outside of this, there's already a rich engagement with the cultures of the island, right down to the music and food. There's funny little baddy encampments to flush out, Zelda style, and there are doodads to collect and people to meet. Last night I found a treasure map - cannot remember where - and followed its clues to a rocky outcrop in the sea where something brilliant was hidden, along with another treasure map, suggesting that the fun only continues.

I think Tchia is going to be very special, then. Traversal, a rich sense of place, and an ease about what you do and in what order you do it. Cannot wait.