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Ben Plays: Raft
I turn around and now I'm drifting.
In discussing with Tao if we should cover Raft on the pod, he said, "My main worry is that it's a simplified Subnautica or The Forest without any narrative element, but that might not be true". We decided against covering it, but I was still curious enough to have a nosy and see how accurate his assessment was. The result? Honestly, pretty damn accurate.
That's not to say there's not plenty to like in Raft. After all, both Subnautica and The Forest are fantastic games, so if it apes their approach and does it well, there's no reason it can't join that club. The problem is that while it somewhat mimics their gameplay, it's far less polished in every respect (graphically, stylistically and structurally), and dare I say, amateurish, in its attempt. More disappointingly, where The Forest and Subnautica both succeed on the strengths of their narratives as much as their survival and building mechanics, Raft's story is nearly non-existent - or at least, such a minor addition to the game, it's easily missed.
The game begins with your character already aboard some flotsam and jetsam, the crude foundations from which you'll craft your very own Kontiki. You begin with a hook, which you can cast out like a fishing line to snag and reel in the various floating resources that are caught in a current and endlessly streaming past you. It's a strangely compulsive sensation that creates a sense of near panic as you scramble to try and retrieve every single one of them, a physically impossible task, toggling between your build hammer to expand your base, your build menu (which begins fairly limited but still quite overwhelming), and back to your hook to catch the next palm leaf, plank or empty plastic bottle.
The first few times I started a game, I didn't realise my raft could just float away on the waves, never to return, and I swam off into the ocean, weathering shark attacks as I chased barrels and crates like a kitten chasing butterflies. When I spotted land, elated, I made a beeline for it, only to realise I hadn't yet developed any of the tools required to harvest its resources, and my raft was shrinking into a distant speck on the horizon. And then I fell through the island, and through the world, and found myself alone in open water again, treading to stay afloat... As the Maverick Sabre song goes: ‘We turned around and now we’re drifting’.
Yeah. It turns out the game doesn't let you stray too far from your Raft, and apparently despawns the entire world when you do. Damn.
By attempt number 3, I felt I knew what to expect and what my priorities should be: storage because the starting inventory is tiny and inadequate; spare hooks (because without a hook you have no means of accruing more of anything and they wear out rapidly); a research table to investigate the potential of new raw materials as I discovered them; food - which meant researching a fishing line, maybe some pots to grow potatoes and beets, and a grill to cook them all; water - which demanded a purification system because the salt water exacerbated my thirst; a weapon to fend off the greedy and bellicose shark that kept devouring the edges of my raft and undoing my hard work; then incremental increases to my scavenging efficiency - nets to automatically collect drifting resources, a paddle to manoeuvre my craft into currents and away from stagnant backwaters near islands, a sail to travel more swiftly and with greater control over my direction. Hours and hours later, it all began to feel like it was coming together. I still felt like a crap juggler, paranoid my balls would drop (don't be puerile), and just like in real life, my to do list of activities felt like it was growing ever longer no matter how much I achieved, but at least death didn't feel like quite such an ever present concern, the shark was less of a bother (I even killed a few), and I'd finally anchored for long enough above a reef to develop clay bricks and build the smelter which provided more advanced resources (glass and metals).
But by this stage, despite what felt like well over ten hours in game, narratively, nothing had happened. My only hint that there was to be any story at all were some blueprints I'd discovered for an antenna and radio, and a little scrap book (similar to the one in The Forest) that implied my character would at some stage begin making entries. I got to wondering, I'm staying alive, sure, but am I actually enjoying myself? I'm just surviving, literally keeping my head above water, in a very elementary fashion, without much sense of genuine discovery or genuine accomplishment - there were no new biomes to marvel at, no magnificent new creatures to be afraid of, no locked ships or abandoned shipwrecks to explore, just me on a raft, the stream of endless resources and the occasional empty island. What was I doing? Was it worth carrying on?
I took to Reddit to find out how other gamers were spending their time in Raft. There were people like me, slightly baffled as to their objectives, and there were the sandbox creatives, making extraordinary masterpieces that must have preoccupied them for weeks or months at a time. After Astroneer, any one of our listeners will know I don't have that kind of willingness to immerse myself, apparently aimlessly, and certainly materially unjustifiably, in a game. I'm goal oriented. I need a campaign, a story, a clearly delineated timeframe and a finish line, after which I know I'll be free to move on, feeling a sense of completion and satisfaction.
If you missed it, listen here:
To be clear, Raft has a story. But it’s unfinished, has just two chapters so far, and unfolds in much the same way as you'd expect, in clues and notes and blueprints for new technologies and research apparatus. It plays out more as a tacked on tale to satisfy players like me than because the developers considered it instrumental and core to the game and gameplay. To be brutally honest, it functions as a MacGuffin to justify your continued, indefinite quest for survival. As commenters on this Steam thread describe: "The ending is drifting waves" and "The ending is basically your Raft where you are able to develop it forever if you choose to do so".
Develop it forever! Even if this were a stunning, gloriously realised and fully immersive world - and it is a far cry from any of those things - that would be a tall order for your average gamer, torn between hundreds of other titles vying for their attention (not to mention other forms of entertainment)! I'll pass. For me personally, open ended games like Raft are a dangerous time sink. Experiences earlier in my life, such as borderline addiction to World of Warcraft and to some extent various Halo multiplayers, have left me wary of involving myself with them too deeply. Fortunately, Raft wasn't quite competent enough to even tempt me.
For this reason, Raft was short lived on my hard drive and the vessel itself probably shipwrecked in a pixel purgatory somewhere. I don't regret installing it, even if, ultimately, the limits of its exploration were too constrained. There's always a simple satisfaction to be had staying alive in survival games like these. Who knows, maybe Green Hell might prove more fulfilling?
Let us know your thoughts below.