Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nature Treks: Healing with Bloom and Saturation

Feeling a little stressed out? Anxious about that big event tomorrow morning? Tired of looking at the same slate-gray city sidewalks all the time? Can't remember the last time you saw an honest-to-goodness tree? Then it might be time for you to go on a calm, relaxing walk through a mountain pasture.

Nature Treks: Healing with Color is a free Unity-based project by John Carline (of Greener Games) that aims to offer a relaxing, therapeutic gameplay experience. Its current build features two gameplay modes: a "trek" where you walk around collecting colored orbs, and an "auto trek" that lets you sit back and watch as the camera moves through the environment on its own.

As an interactive "game," Nature Treks leaves quite a lot to be desired, but taken as an interactive "therapy device," it shows some promise. If nothing else, the audio and visual experience is certainly quite relaxing and might be worth checking out.

The "trek mode" lets you free to wander around at your own pace with the simple goal of filling up your "color meter" by collecting glowing orbs of color. Each time you pick up a new color, a calm, soothing voice describes the nature of that color: "Blue, the universal color of healing. It is truth, serenity, harmony, and helps soothe the mind." Your goal is to fill the meter to 100%, at which point you can consider your mission complete or continue strolling through the pastures.

The visual experience is very pleasing, considering that the scenery is more attractive than any piece of nature I've ever witnessed. You've got fields of grass waving in the wind, illuminated with the soft glow of an afternoon sun that casts shadows from the trees. Crisp mountains rise up towards a deep blue sky with billowing clouds. Streams of water run through the pastures, gathering in a crystalline pond. Glowing butterflies that dance around in the sky, leaving trails of luminescent, swirling colors. To put it simply, it's picture perfect.

But despite the visual appeal, the game has pretty high hardware requirements for an indie game. My computer meets the recommended specs (and even exceeds them in some areas) had a low, choppy frame-rate when running on the highest settings. Playing at 10 frames per second is the opposite of "soothing," and turning the visual quality down to improve performance noticeably detracted from the visual experience. This is one game where graphics really do matter; playing on anything less than max is likely to reduce the intended effects of the game.

The audio component remains consistent, however, with tons of nature effects filling your ears and helping to immerse you in the environment. From birds chirping, trees rustling, water babbling down a stream, it's all very subtle gets the job done well. There's also soundtrack by Llewellyn that plays in the background, mostly a bunch of soft, melodic chords and faint touches of ambient melody. The music is relaxing in and of itself (the sort of sound that feels like you're floating on a cloud), but coupled with the visuals, it's even more effective.

Some people may find the voice over that describes the colors to be a distraction from the immersion, but I kind of liked them. The voice is a calm, neutral sound that often gets used in hypnosis and therapy, and helped me to focus my mind on the game. Without that voice, it was still a little too easy for my mind to wander back to "reality," planning the rest of my day and thinking about things I had to get done. It might be nice if, in the future, there were an option to disable the voice if you don't like it, or even to have a voice that reads poetry or something to focus your mind more, but otherwise we're stuck with it as is.

The only major problem with Nature Treks, besides the relatively steep hardware requirements, is that the navigable terrain is bordered by invisible walls. No one likes invisible walls, but these ones really disrupt the immersion. The terrain looks like it goes on and beckons you to continue forward, searching for color or other interesting pieces of scenery, but then the invisible wall blocks your path and pulls you out of the moment. It reminds you that you're playing a game, and almost offended me just because of how deceptive they were. These are not good for a game that bills itself as a stress/anxiety reliever. 

Collecting the orbs of color is surprisingly rewarding. It's not a chore to find them, but I did feel a genuine sense of discovery whenever I found one. I was also torn with finding them, sometimes, because I might want to explore the scenery in a different direction. But like with the voice-over, there seems to be some kind of mixed potential with the colors. The voice describes them and attributes some kind of therapeutic symbolism to them, but then you forget what all of that's supposed to mean and then they just become arbitrary. 

But anyway, that's Nature Treks. It can be a relaxing way to spend 30 minutes of your day, though it's hard to tell if it's really any more relaxing than anything else you could be doing. I'd almost prefer to spend my time doing something more productive, so Nature Treks may only be especially helpful if you're particularly stressed out for whatever reason. Either way, it's a charming experience and would be worth checking out, especially since it seems like Mr Carline has plans to update and expand the premise in the future. 

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