Yondergrove, Hedgerow Hall, and the Ideology of the Cozy Forest

“Yondergrove” (name has been changed; see below) is a fantasy roleplaying video game set amid great forests, lakes and rivers. Started in 2020, it is a public alpha that's free to play, and caters to small-group roleplaying. There are no enemies to slay, no levels to gain, and no non-player characters to interact with. Like a game of make believe in the park, the narrative pace is entirely set by the players who show up and create a woodland creature character, fox or squirrel or what have you, to serve as their avatar.

The game cites as its influences Redwall and Watership Down, stories I loved as a kid. But the first game to create an alchemy of these thematic elements, to which Yondergrove pays homage in almost every aspect of its implementation, is Hedgerow Hall. Created in 2002 by indie author and game designer Alexandra Erin, then going under the pseudonym Hedgemistress, Hedgerow Hall imagined a MUD (multi-user dungeon) which captured the spirit of camaraderie, exploration, struggle and intrigue of the anthropomorphic animal protagonists in the woodland fantasy genre.

I read every Redwall book as a child, made the recipes generously included therein (well before they were published in book form,) and played Hedgerow Hall extensively. So I was thrilled to find the Yondergrove game and give it a try, joining the community for an evening of roleplaying adventure.

Even with the game in its incomplete form, I found a lot of what I was expecting and remembered from my experience with Hedgerow Hall: player-run shops displaying all the bounties of the forest, cozy burrows open to all comers, a large community center, and a lively cast of woodland creatures to interact with, each playing out their own stories. But the vibes are off: despite its many surface-level similarities, the unfinished alpha of Yondergrove doesn't feel like the same sort of game, and thinking about why it felt that way has led me to a deeper'n'ever appreciation for the vision and mechanics of Hedgerow Hall and the ideology it presented as the underpinning of its cozy forest game aesthetic.

Note: The Name of The Game

I changed the game's name to “Yondergrove” in this piece in response to concern from a game developer that interested players might find it in their web searches and be prejudiced by this reflection on a single role-play session, a snapshot in time where the game is unfinished and its alpha community is very much still finding itself. If you play a game like Yondergrove, I hope you view it with fresh eyes and a critical mind, and bear always in mind that a roleplaying game is a beautiful dance between the players and the game rules.

Immigration and Arrival

In both games, your character arrives at the grand hall as a penniless immigrant. You choose which animal you want as your avatar, each with their own strengths and weaknesses which you can adjust with positive and negative traits to create a well-rounded character or a narrow savant. You wear only your fur and have neither tools nor weapons, nor a coin to your name. But here is where Yondergrove and Hedgerow Hall show their first significant divergence in vision.

Hedgerow Hall puts forth a vision of abundance, in which the titular Hall provides a nurturing haven for immigrants to get them on their feet and on the path to independence. You can always return to the Hall for free meals and water (your character gets lethargic when hungry, but it is not possible to starve) and training in any skill of your choice by the Hall's many NPC tutors. There is a tutor of each animal type, ensuring that you always see a familiar face when you begin playing a character, and the different animals teach different skills, suggesting archetypes of skills that go together and capitalize on the signature strengths of each animal.

Hedgerow Hall's generosity is not unlimited: you cannot ask for more than a few square meals per day, and your skill training is limited by the number of "skill points" you have available. You begin the game with a few dozen of these, and every hour or so of gameplay your points get replenished, whatever activities you chose to partake in during that time. With your initial allotment of skill points, you can choose to immediately become basically proficient in one or two skills of your choice, or you can gain a beginner's level in a handful of skills. If your idea of fun is to create a character who's scrappy and self-sufficient right off the bat, you might seek training in scrounging for food and climbing trees to avoid danger, and this is provided free of charge by the welcoming tutors of the Hall. Of if you desire a mystic's life, you can seek the skills to identify crystals from among rubble that can hold a magical charge, and to power them up with your own mind.

Meanwhile, the vision of Yondergrove is of austerity and consumption. Its central structure is the image of cold neutrality: it offers no free meals except whatever is provided by players as charity, its halls are silent and empty unless players choose to actively loiter around for welcome duty, and it is likely that none of the characters you meet will be the same animal as yourself. The library is stacked high with skill training books, to which you can help yourself. But reading is a destructive act in Yondergrove: any time you read a book it is lost forever, and the library's stacks are finite. Unlike a public library, here there are no returns, and gaining proficiency in a skill requires destroying not just one book but many. Of course, this has been taken to its logical end in the game world: the library is barren of books on useful, popular subjects like scrounging for food, climbing trees, identifying minerals, or charging magical crystals. The books that remain are the unpopular ones: a stack of tomes on sword-fighting is over a hundred books high, because swords are hard to come by in this fantasy world of scarcity.

Rent or Charity?

The only way to learn any skill in the world of Yondergrove is to read skill books. You cannot learn by doing, or by watching another player. The objective of this design, as stated by the game's developers, is to create an in-game economic hierarchy between the new and established player where, if a new character wants to be able to do anything useful like scrounging for food, they must first ply the charity of another player who becomes their benefactor, or agree to pay rent in return for training in the form of consumable books.

Some of these books may have been hoarded into private collections directly from the library: many books in player-run shops carry the iconic "Complete Edition" stamp which comes only from books found in the library or created by an established player with a complete mastery of the skill. Player-created books are made from scarce bark and ink by those with skill in writing and woodland-crafting.

All of the skills necessary to bootstrap an economy, like making books, clothes, weapons or jewelry, are locked up behind counters in player-run shops. Every entry into the game is transactional, with the established properties providing some necessary resources on lease, extracting promises of future payback. Unlike in Hedgerow Hall, there is no subsistence in Yondergrove without debt.

The Dignity of Animals

Part of the joy of playing Hedgerow Hall was how each character would adhere to their animal archetype, or rebel against it. Rats were especially good at fighting, and many rat brigands (or body-guards) roamed the woods. Shrews were especially good at foraging and many a shrew's burrow was richly adorned with the fineries they would discover in the woods. Squirrels were able climbers, and it was not uncommon to spot a scurry of squirrels debating and snacking on nuts high up amid a stand of trees. The squirrel who could not climb, the shrew who could not provide for herself, and the weakling badger mystic were uncommon enough to be interesting outliers in their own right.

In Yondergrove, squirrels who cannot climb are commonplace because climbing is a fun, useful, and popular skill, so all the climbing books are locked up in private collections. Rabbits who cannot provide for themselves are the norm, because books on scrounging are especially scarce and in-demand. A rat with competent sword-skill and a decent set of arms and armor would have to be deeply indebted to one or more entrenched players who could support all the expenses of such an endeavor. The animals of Yondergrove seemingly have none of the intrinsic dignity we as human players associate with their kind; or, more precisely, they have exactly as much dignity as they are able to purchase by taking on debt.

Adventure, Exploration, and the Green Way

The overall experience of playing Hedgerow Hall is that you can make your own way in the world by accepting a modest existence, or you can realize grand ambition by cooperating with the community of animals you find around you. You can range wide in exploration and interact infrequently with other animals, you can play a socialite, or anything in-between. The game design choices that made this possible were imposed in the form of a social compact followed by all players and enforced through a combination of role play, moderation, and the narrative design of the game world and interface.

In terms of lore, the game provided an explicit designation for the social compact that it offered players. Why do tutors provide training free of charge? Why do even the cruelest of villains refuse to kill other characters, never even giving it a consideration? Why does the Hall provide square meals every day to the most saintly or most reviled of characters alike, no questions asked? Why do critters foraging for food in the woods never turn up insects, fish, snails or crabs? It's all because of the Green Way, the catch-all excuse to explain the social order, where all immigrants are owed autonomy and all animal life is to be respected.

If Hedgerow Hall is the cozy woodland utopia of the Green Way, Yondergrove is the woodland dystopia without it. Like a vision of childhood fantasy seen through a glass darkly, it depicts the world of Redwall or Watership Down via the stunted politics of austerity and libertarianism, a secluded glen of interconnected animals each playing out the story of their lives as a rentier or an indentured worker.

The Game is In Alpha

Yondergrove reminds me in many small ways of the aesthetic and pace of Hedgerow Hall which I dearly miss, and the game is far from finished. I expect that its community will continue to grow and change, and that its many systems and mechanics will be overhauled as they work to find and sustain a dedicated player base for the long term.

I'm excited to see the direction that the Yondergrove team takes the game from here. What they have built has already given me a much deeper appreciation for the particular elements that gave Hedgerow Hall its legendary vibes and its charm. I'm grateful for the opportunity to luxuriate in the memory of my favorite Hedgerow Hall stories of old, and I will return to see how progress is coming.