In Jusant, there’s a species of palm-sized creatures called pebbles that don what appears to be hard, gray carapaces, and you’ll first find – or hear — them scuttering along its plunging cliff faces. As a seasoned mountaineer, you’ll learn to rely on pebbles for scrambling up steep crags, grabbing onto them as makeshift handholds as these creatures hurriedly make their way between small fissures. At times they cease to move, as if grappling with the weight of hauling you up huge slabs of rock, but seem otherwise unharmed when you let go. I can’t help but think that their sheer prevalence, alongside the remains of a recently abandoned village, hints at what used to be a symbiotic harmony between nature and humans. As civilization expanded, pebbles, too, may have evolved to conform to human behavior. In fact, they barely shy away when you reach out to grab onto their shells.
This sense of harmony extends to the rest of the game, which is all about the wonder of scaling boulders, cliffs, and mountains. It’s devoid of any dialogue, and you’re not forced to engage in any obligatory video game-esque activities like collecting resources, crafting tools, hunting beasts, or displacing people from their homes. You just explore the last vestiges of a civilization, marooned on a dusty, barren landscape. Climbing here is a gentle, meditative act, a means of movement as well as a form of reverence towards nature. You’re not plundering any of its resources to scale the heights; rather, you’re healing the environment in small ways, such as restoring life to drying flora. You’ll also traverse toward hard-to-reach altars and frescos, occasionally gasping in awe at their wonders.
Its world, too, is a gorgeous combination of a habitat that’s thriving with life and a civilization that’s long gone. Beyond the pebbles, flocking birds gather on top of boulders, and critters called chocos spring into life when you walk near them, chattering as they retreat to their burrows. The higher you go, the more of that long-lost civilization you’ll be privy to. Letters and diaries are strewn alongside discarded furnishings, climbing paraphernalia, and religious artifacts — all the trappings of a settlement accustomed to living at high altitudes. At times, ascending the mountains of Jusant feels like a pilgrimage of sorts; you climb, you pause, and you meditate on what seems like echoes of the civilization’s last days through conches that you can pick up along the way.
Jusant is so enchanting because it also captures the cadences of real-life rock climbing excellently. I’m an amateur climber, and I’ve found climbing to be more than just a display of brute strength. Rather, it can be a contemplative experience. In Jusant, you’ll chart out routes, identify useful handholds (that is, surfaces of the cliff you can grab), and manage your stamina mid-climb by shaking off the pump in your arms In Jusant. You climb by maneuvering to holds with both hands, while placing pitons mid-climb to prevent falling from great heights and losing your progress on the route. Jusant isn’t punishing, since you’ll never suffer fall damage from inadvertently slamming your feet on the ground from a considerable height. The challenge comes from having to spend some time examining your surroundings and pondering potential moves. Is this rock wall climbable? Are there any good holds to grab onto? Can the building on the other end of this settlement be traversed by taking a leap and a swing in that direction?
While such roadblocks can be frustrating, this largely replicates the spirit of rock climbing, with the sport often described as both a brain teaser as well as a meditative experience. Don’t expect to see the bright quest lines typical of other games, which just want to get you scrambling to your next goal. Instead, Jusant wants you to stay a while, ponder, and revel in the beauty of its picturesque landscapes. As you figure out your next steps, it doesn’t hurt to peer from your precarious spot and enjoy the sights as you rappel down a huge, orange slab of rock, clouds rolling over the mountain peaks in the distance.
Introducing new thrills on your expedition is a companion called a Ballast, a creature made entirely out of water that can unravel new paths and ways to climb. Chirps from the Ballast can revitalize dehydrated roots, sprouting small but hardy buds that facilitate your ascension. It can rejuvenate shriveled flora, transforming them into massive plant stalks that stretch up toward mountainous peaks. It can jolt a swarm of firefly-esque insects into giving your jumps a bit of a boost, allowing you to leap higher. But more than doling out new challenges and approaches to complete climbs, the Ballast’s extraordinary abilities, coupled with the conspicuous lack of video game busywork (questing, leveling, and all that jazz), point to the thematic implications in Jusant: that the beauty and wonders of the natural world are worth protecting beyond how we can and have exploited them.
It’s hard to deny the parallels between Jusant’s sprawling deserts and that of our own world. Like ours, Jusant’s seems to be in the midst of environmental decay. However, the meteoric popularity of rock climbing in recent years has increased the negative impacts humans have had on wildlife at several climbing spots. Take for instance how the use of climbing chalk has affected plant growth and how the presence of climbers can scare off nesting birds. Even though its environmental impact has not been extensively studied yet, rock climbing has become a microcosm of the detrimental impact we have on our environment.
As climbers, we like to think of our relationship with nature is overall positive. And this is what’s reflected in Jusant’s depiction of rock climbing. The very image of a solitary climber who scales the cliff faces in the wilderness, fulfills his obligations to nature, and contemplates its boundless grandeur is almost idyllic. While Jusant is also quietly hopeful in its outlook, its portrayal of rock climbing and our relationship with nature is tinged with caution. Sailboats, left behind in improbable places, hint at the catastrophic history of the settlement nestled within Jusant’s summits — the detritus of a post-human environment.
What Jusant proposes, however, is our potential to close the fissures we have wrought onto nature. Climbing — and by extension, the presence of human activity — in Jusant thus becomes a restorative activity, rather than solely a destructive one. This can be seen through the exploits of its unnamed protagonist who, at one point, restored a once-barren landscape into a verdant green. On the surface, Jusant may be about the meditative joys of rock climbing, but it’s also so much more: it suggests despite it all, it’s still not too late for us to reconcile our rocky relationship with nature. I can’t help but think that this is an overly optimistic outlook. Yet, it’s that optimism and joy that makes Jusant such a charming and picturesque alpine adventure. It invites you to listen to the scuttering of the pebbles, soak in the monumental views of the mountains, and meditate upon natural wonders that, through your efforts, are on the cusp of revival.