Early access, early thoughts: Book of Travels

I suddenly started seeing coverage for Book of Travels this past Thursday. That happened to be the day after the game launched for early access, after an apparently delayed development process. I knew none of this context. I hadn’t even heard of Swedish indie developer Might and Delight before this. I just knew, upon seeing screenshots of the game and reading descriptions of its focus, that this seemed very much so a game for people like me. I just started playing yesterday and have fallen thoroughly in love with this charming title.

Might and Delight is marketing Book of Travels as a Tiny Multiplayer Online RPG, or a TMORPG (in contrast to MMORPGs, of course). Individual servers are capped at seven players. While you could easily join some friends in a shared server and chat over Discord, socialization within the game is rather light and whimsical. There is no chat text bar. There is only a selection of simple emotes to communicate basic ideas and emotions, just enough to potentially nudge other players to work together. Groups are organically assembled just by being around others for a little bit, but they’re also easy to leave. Most of your time, you will probably be alone, wandering the idyllic fields and forests of this fantasy world.

There are other big differences. The game’s core priorities and mechanics are quite different from most MMORPGs. The very start feels different, as you pick broad, archetypal Forms rather than specific classes, and you pick a variety of background elements like a basic origin story, a starting “wind” that you were born under that relates to things you are inclined toward rather like a meteorological astrology alternative, and some basic descriptors for your external appearance. A great deal can be augmented with free text fields, empowering organic roleplaying rather than mechanics-focused results. Those free text fields are even used for age and gender. While you can type in a nickname, your first and last name are supposed to be important to your character and determined through in-game dice roles to ensure that everyone has an immersive identity; your starting equipment, just some basic clothing, food, and/or tools, is also rolled. A focus on roleplaying and immersion are therefore baked in from the start. The game should feel different from any other MMORPG, with beautiful storybook imagery presented from a side-view perspective, with obstructing trees or rocks popping into or out of view as you advance toward the foreground or retreat into the background; movement and interaction are both guided by a point-and-click system that feels far more like what I’d expect in a classic/retro adventure game or isometric RPG. Where stats matter most, perhaps, is when completing endeavors, which require the application of a skill at a certain level to do something like completing a mystic ritual at a shrine or fixing a machine. Stats are augmented not just by the player character’s individual ability but also by equipment and the presence of other player characters working in a group to complete an endeavor, so even then there is more than one way to complete these optional events. There are tasks given to you, but there is no automated journal, and there are no quest markers; you need to make your own notes in your own real-world notebook and consult the in-game maps to determine what you’re needing to accomplish and where. Magic is also a little different, with instant-effect magical abilities achieved through the tying of knots imbued with reagents and longer-term status effects achieved through the brewing of special teas.

I understand that roleplaying is always available in any MMORPG. Collecting herbs and fishing are common tasks. But they’re additional features. Roleplaying and immersion are not the focus. I remember the old description of two open-world game types: theme parks versus sandboxes. Theme parks are oriented around keeping the player constantly entertained with structured diversions. Sandboxes don’t have structure, they just provide an open setting for players to interact with and hopefully make their own fun in. Most MMORPGs are theme parks, whereas Book of Travels is decidedly a sandbox with a focus on player-inflected, dynamic storytelling (though there are plenty of interesting characters and events, and there is plenty of interesting lore, within this sandbox).

There is no main quest to set off on. To the extent that there’s a larger narrative, I’ve barely touched on it (if at all) so far in my travels. I follow hints, tips, and rumors disclosed by non-player characters I encounter. I set off for interesting destinations on my map or explore interesting features within the region I find myself in. I have mostly just wandered the roads, and sometimes off-road, interacting with the denizens of the land, discovering new things, running a few errands for people I encounter, and collecting herbs and flowers and other botanical odds and ends. I could tell you that those plant samples are going to be used as reagents for magical knots and teas, but I honestly just like collecting them as I explore. My character’s Form is that of “The Mosswalker,” whose cryptic description states, “Deep cleft bright in small delight.” The associated artwork shows a figure, sunhat tipped low, reclined against a grassy slope, smoking a pipe with a tea set prepared nearby, shoes kicked off and a couple bundles of items dropped to the ground. I’ve used that as inspiration for a languid, easy-going fellow who simply enjoys seeing the world, rather in line with the brief introductory scene describing the character as wandering off from a caravan to explore a given path. I walk almost always, almost everywhere (and the stamina system encourages walking). I spend long stretches of time in the game picking plants or fishing or simply observing. I’ve only played for eight hours so far, but it’s significant that I have not fought man or beast throughout that time and do not even own a weapon. You can certainly play a character in pursuit of danger and adventure, and I might at some point start such a character, but I love that there’s a multiplayer RPG that prioritizes roleplaying, immersion, and adventure over combat and leveling. For that matter, I’m not even impeded in advancement, to the extent that I need/want to advance my characters’ skill repertoire, since you get Knowledge Points (basically experience points) simply by interacting with things and people in the world and learning more.

There are two really fun social interactions I’ve had in the game so far that I’d like to share, as well. First, I happened across another Traveler who was fishing off a pier near a teahouse. I used emotes to indicate a friendly greeting and a thumbs up, and the other player reciprocated. I joined them at the pier and started fishing too. We stood side by side, simply fishing, for maybe a half an hour. About halfway through, I chose an emote indicating two people and gave a thumbs up, and they emoted a smile in return. When the other player finally went off to pursue some adventure, they waved goodbye, and I did the same with a heart icon, which they reciprocated as well. I’ll never know who that person was, and I very likely will never encounter their character again, but it was a surprisingly peaceful, authentic, and human interaction between two people, two total strangers, just sharing some time together.

The other unique incident was when I was wandering through a familiar orchard at night; I came across a person who needed greater mystical help than I could provide, but there was another Traveler nearby. I initiated the endeavor, and without any further prompting, the other Traveler joined in, and we succeeded. We exchanged thumbs-up and parted ways. Just simple little encounters that still felt really special and powerful in the moment.

There are some bad things. So far, it’s nothing to do with the gameplay or the world as designed. There are just a lot of bugs. I’ve had a lot of issues with using the train or the ferry to travel places; the game has trapped me in areas after disembarking, or it has warped me back and forth between my departure and arrival points. These issues were always fixed by logging out or exiting the game and signing into a server again. I made sure to report the issue, of course, since it’s an early access game and the point is to further develop and improve the game until its full, official release. There has also been a problem where my character simply does not exist on many servers; this has been a widespread enough issue that it seems to have been prioritized, and there was an update on one of the game’s Discord channels today that this should have been resolved through a server reset. There have been a few other, less disruptive issues, as well. Given how much fun I’ve had, they’re all worth putting up with. But you might want to keep that in mind if you’re considering whether to hop into Early Access or wait.

Other than some issues that I am confident will be ironed out in the coming days and weeks, I love virtually everything about this game. We’ll see how long I stay with it, but I could see myself continuing to play for longer than I have any traditional MMORPG. It’s fresh and exciting and original and really feels like I’m discovering a genuine new land with its own distinct cultures, an experience I haven’t felt with a game since perhaps Morrowind. And the developers are promising considerable new content, with many more lands opening up, as the game continues in its Chapter Zero segment of Early Access. I’m excited to see where its roads take me.