If you were to ask someone what the point of a video game is, they’d likely say something along the lines of “getting to the end”, “completing the story” or “beating the game” as it were. Ever since Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came out back in the 1980’s, games have largely been about journeying to the end. You played through a set series of levels with your mission being to beat the final level. This is the mentality that many gamers like myself grew up with. Even Myst, one of my favorite games of all time, was still about getting to the end in the long run. That sense of completion is what games are all about.
Or are they? Modern games are a much different beast. With their sheer number and the influx of independent developers, video games have taken an interesting turn in recent years. The market has shifted towards being digital rather than physical, with people being able to purchase games online and download them directly from the internet. With Steam’s Early Access program gamers can buy a game that’s still being developed, play it, and give feedback to the developers.
But more so than that, games today can be about more than just “beating the game”. They can be adventures. They can be involved stories where you make your own choices. Or they can be nearly story-less, focusing instead on a player’s individual journey rather than a shared destination.
Enter Salt. Salt belongs to a genre of games known as “survival games”. In a basic sense, these games are about building a shelter, finding food and water, and generally surviving within the game world. You can trace the origin of this genre back to Minecraft, a game where you built structures out of blocks. Originally, Minecraft was about the survival element, forcing you to deal with the native wildlife of the game while trying to find food to eat and build a place for sleeping as well as storing your items. But nowadays, Minecraft seems to be more about the building aspect, with people building large and elaborate structures solely for the fun of it.
Salt, on the other hand, takes a different path.
Rather than survival, Salt is mainly focused on exploration. The game’s world consists of an infinite number of randomly generated islands that you can search for items, food, and other characters that will give you information, quests to do, or sell you items. The game’s pace is very relaxed, trying as hard as it can to not pressure you into anything. Part of my issue with many other survival games is that they can feel kind of obnoxious, constantly forcing you to deal with your hunger, thirst, or even body temperature. I like to explore, but often I find that my food stores are running low and then I have to spend time taking care of that instead. These games are a lot about micro-managing your needs, which can be fun and interesting, but sometimes it can feel more like a chore than anything.
Salt, on the other hand, doesn’t fall victim to that. It does have a food meter which depletes over time (the green bar at the bottom left of the screen), but it goes down so slowly that it’s rarely a problem. The game also tells you that if your food runs out, all it really does is make it so that your stamina regenerates more slowly than normal (the blue bar). Funnily enough, I’ve never had to deal with it so far when playing the game, which shows you how unobtrusive it really is.
As I said before, the game’s primary focus is exploration. At the beginning of the game you wake up on a small island with a strange journal in your pocket. The journal was left by a stranger who found you lying unconscious. It states that you should probably make a raft and get off the island as staying there is probably not in your best interest. It gives you some hints of what to craft first as well as tells you about a chest filled with items that you can scavenge. It concludes by suggesting you sail to the nearby islands to locate an inn and speak with the innkeeper as he will have stuff for you to do.
What you do after that point is up to you. Right from the start you can see that Salt is not forcing you in a direction, basically telling you “hey there’s a thing somewhere out there that you should find, go out there and find it if you want”. Finding the inn isn’t a necessity, although it will give you something to do as well as help you figure out what certain items do. Crafting is another element of the game, which consists of taking two items and putting them in a “crafting menu” to create a new item. If the combination can be turned into a new item, its icon will appear on the right side of the menu. This is necessary to the game, as you will need to do this in order to create a simple raft which will allow you to traverse to new islands. As you play the game more and more you will stumble on new recipes that you can use to create new and more powerful items and weapons.
But more than anything, Salt is about puttering around and experiencing the world around you. You can scavenge the islands for materials to craft, food to eat, or you can just sail onward looking for anything of note. You can even pause in the middle of the ocean to do some fishing if you need food or if you just want to relax for a little bit. And speaking of sailing, while you may have to start with a small raft, you can upgrade to a small sailboat later on and you can even find derelict pirate ships to repair and commandeer.
Speaking of pirate ships, you will occasionally come across pirates in your travels. This is where your weapons come in, as you will have to fight them. Honestly, this is the weakest part of the game: the combat. It usually comes down to “swing once or twice, block, then swing one or two times and repeat until either you or the enemy is dead”. The combat doesn’t have a whole lot of weight to it, so it just feels clumsy. But this game is part of the Steam Early Access program, so things are subject to change as the game’s developed. And hey, at least the enemies have items you can loot off their bodies (although so far I haven’t found anything too remarkable).
In the end, Salt is all about the experience of exploration. You use a compass to help keep direction, a sextant to learn your coordinates in the world, and you have to actually fill out the map as you go, placing islands on the map at their respective coordinates and adding markers for what you found there. You also have a journal that you can add entries into. You can use it to mark down coordinates you learn in conversation with other characters, jot down cool things you’ve seen, or just leave a long and rambling diary of a man slowly succumbing to his inner insanity…
What? No? Just me then huh? Lame.
Well that’s all I have for this time. Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.
Salt is available on Steam here.
You can also like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.