Prideful Sloth, based out of Brisbane, Australia, is a tiny studio composed of just three people and a handful of contractors. Its first game is the upcoming open-world crafting/farming adventure Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles. And it is excessively cute.
“The game says this is a fox,” I say, squinting at the four-legged creature ambling about on my screen, “but it’s clearly a red panda.”
Beside me, producer-designer Cheryl Vance stage-gasps like she’s just been called out on a horrible secret.
“It’s true,” she confesses. “I love red pandas.”
On paper, everything about Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles sounds like a rehash. Open-world, farming, crafting, light adventure. But Yonder is more Zelda than Minecraft: bright, cheerful, every sharp corner filed down and every surface buffed to a soft gleam. Prideful Sloth bills itself as a “micro-AAA,” its team members veterans of industry mainstays like Activision and Rocksteady, and Yonder certainly comes across as more of a studio title than a scrappy indie with its level of polish. Vance delights when I use words like “charming” and “adorable,” as though I’ve stumbled upon her team’s special code words. This is exactly what they were aiming for.
“There are times when I pick it up and I get a bit teary, because I am actually quite impressed with what we’ve managed to do,” says Vance. She notes how different it is to have developers — grown men, many of them — discuss adding sparkles as opposed to the darker and more serious subject matter that is the bread and butter of AAA. “When you [take people who have worked on] Devil May Cry and Batman and go ‘here it is, this is what we’ve made’… It’s very different but we’re all very much invested in it personally.”
After fiddling with a few sliders to create an adorable little blue-haired avatar, I send her racing straight off a cliff and squeak in surprise as my character automatically opens a rainbow umbrella to slow her descent, guiding her gracefully back to earth. Every square inch of Yonder ripples with that kind of joyful whimsy. There is no combat. You can fish and trap animals for their pelts and meat, but even this process is abstracted.
I befriend a shaggy-wooled buffalo with moose antlers that is taller than I am and lead it back to my farmstead to adopt it, where it agreeably ambles about in its pen and bubbles with hearts when I pet it. I immediately race back out to find one of the red panda foxes to adopt as well, but get sidetracked: a roly-poly tabby kitten is meowing somewhere off in the tall grass, and I absolutely must collect it.
“That was always our big concern: would people ‘get’ the cute?” Vance recalls. “With the noncombative approach and the soft, gentle world, are we locking ourselves out of a large gaming audience? And in the end, that mentality comes from having those audiences defined [for us]. And this goes back so far in gaming… But the answer is, doing [a game like this] doesn’t lock you out of an audience. There’s something else you need to engage them with instead.”
Yonder has a storyline of sorts, an epic quest that a player can pursue if they want, but Prideful Sloth has taken pains to avoid the sort of tunneling that often happens in adventure games and RPGs. The open-world elements remain accessible and vast, with five farmsteading regions and countless fields and villages to run through. There are countless crafting recipes, but crafting is neither as complicated nor as modular as, say, Minecraft‘s.
If you could imagine Skyrim pared down to a child-friendly scale, without sacrificing that feeling of enormity and distance, you would have a good impression of how Yonder plays. A kids’ game, in other words, but not a kiddie game. The distinction is an important one, especially in light of what Vance is saying about the artificial nature of demographics.
“It goes to show just how oldschool that traditional way of defining your audience is. It’s outdated,” she says. “We had to take a step back and go ‘that’s an old mindset that we brought forward from our old development days, and we need to get rid of it because it doesn’t exist.'”
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is due out later this year for PlayStation 4 and PC.