Standing at the edge of a perilous cliff, a parade of a dozen virtual animals and I look down into an abyss. Suddenly one jumps, plummeting into the darkness. Then another, and another. Without even thinking, I jump too.
My parents always asked me if I would jump off a bridge just because all my friends were doing it. After all these years, I finally have an answer: Yep, it turns out I would.
We all died. But you know what, I'd probably jump again. That's the kind of weird social contract created by Meadow, an MMO about exploring a beautiful forest as cute animals. Unlike your typical MMO, there are no quests to do, levels to gain, or heaps of gear to equip. Instead, Meadow is an experimental sandbox where the only real objective is to explore and gather collectibles scattered around its map. It's not the collect-a-thon aspect that has me invested, but the abstract sense of community it creates as you meet other player-animals and begin exploring together. It's simple, weird, and I love it.
I first spawned into the world as a little badger cub without any explanation of who I was or what I was doing. Like its forest, Meadow also expects you to explore the controls and user interface with all its cryptic symbols to figure out what to do. Before long, I was walking through the tall trees, barking at nothing, and feeling more that a little confused about the whole thing. But then I encountered another player—also a badger cub—and we exchanged a few emotes and barks before they set off in a direction. Not knowing what else to do, I followed.
As we ran along, my badger buddy began showing me twinkling flowers we could collect as well as weird colored blocks. When I gathered enough of one specific color, I'd unlock new emotes, pelt patterns for my creature, and eventually new animal forms altogether. Most animal forms have subtle impacts on how I play, like frogs being able to swim faster. But if there's one aspect I'm not overly fond of, it's that half of the animal forms—the best being a flying eagle—require owning developer Might and Delight's previous games. While it'd be nice to not have to spend over $60 to access every creature, each one only introduces negligible changes to movement (aside from the flying eagle) that don’t really affect the experience.
That ‘gotta catch 'em all’ drive is worth ignoring, as the real sense of satisfaction from Meadow isn't unlocking every animal and every emote. It's watching as a group of two animals begins to attract more and more players, eventually turning into an eclectic herd of strangers bound by the common purpose of not being alone.
Before long, our own group had gathered almost a dozen animals together: goats, lynxes, badgers, rabbits, and even a few frogs. It's here that the magic of Meadow began to reveal itself. Without any ability to communicate directly, each of us was restricted to the handful of emotes to communicate. Each one covers the basics, like pointing in directions, asking the party to stop, or informing others that flowers or colored blocks are nearby. Unlockable emotes round out the emotional responses, like laughter, crying, or a sly wink. It sounds limiting—maybe even frustratingly so—but I began to adore how simple gestures could communicate so much.
When we all hopped off the cliff face together like a bunch of lemmings, we also all spawned next to one another. Immediately a chorus of chirps and barks erupted from the group along with emotes of laughter, and it was a delightful to experience something so silly with a group of strangers. As we continued to explore, I began to feel a sense of belonging with my herd—and more importantly with the badger who had inadvertently led me to them. And I could tell others felt the same way. As stubby little badger cubs, we didn't move nearly as fast as the lynxes and goats of our group. Instead of leaving us behind, they'd run ahead to scout and circle back to make sure we got a chance to collect anything they found.
Compared to other MMOs, that's a stark contrast in how I interact with strangers. When exploring Azeroth in World of Warcraft, for example, neither I or any other player have much impetus to socialize and play together. We each have our own quests and goals to achieve, and so we pass each other like strangers on a street. The times when I do interact with strangers aren't always the most friendly encounters either—as I found out while I was learning how to play a tank character.
But Meadow pulls players together, eventually forming large groups that sprint through the forests calling out and emoting to one another. The cryptic interface and the lack of communication as to what the hell I was supposed to do drove me to seek out and follow other players. The limited emotes forced me to reduce the complexity of my feelings to single emotions, and slowly the group learned to adapt and thrive. It's as fascinating as it is endearing.
And yet, flowing just beneath that joyous sense of community is a profound loneliness. Every player you meet in Meadow is anonymous. I didn't understand that until I went to logout after an evening of playing and was stung by the reality that I would never see these players again. And even if I did, I would never know it was them. With only a handful of skins for each animal, every critter in Meadow is essentially the same. The group stopped to gather itself and I laid down next to my badger bud. I had no way of communicating that I had to go to bed, so I sent them an emote of my badger crying. They responded with a question mark, and I knew that they couldn't understand. I will never see them again.
Imagine living in a world where everyone looked the same and you had no way of expressing yourself as an individual. On the one hand, there's a kind of warmth in that anonymity but also a deep sadness in understanding that no person will never truly know you. Meadow is simple, but it uses that framework to explore the joy of unspoken bonds that can exist between strangers. A feeling of camaraderie independent of who you are or where you come from. I might only play it for an evening or two, but for $3/£2, it's an experience worth having. Like two cats hiding beneath a parked car on a rainy day, in Meadow, I just don't want to be alone.