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Indie | Small Worlds

By Lewis Denby

smallworlds1I remember suddenly, at 10pm on a Friday night, that it’s Fraser’s week off and I’m supposed to be covering his Saturday indie column.

It’s lucky, then, that I’ve just discovered a delightful little web game.  It’s an entry to the sixth Casual Gameplay Design competition at jayisgames.com, it’s by a man named David Shute, it’s called Small Worlds, and it’s an exceptionally clever game of exploration and discovery.

Your character, a two-tone, four pixel stick man, begins in what seems like an otherworldly industrial complex.  Via simple platforming controls, you guide the figure around an impossible maze of rooms and corridors, heading up to the surface then back down into the facility’s depths, until finally chancing upon one of three glowing gateways to new, undiscovered worlds.

And the first thing that hits me upon entering one of these gateways is… it’s like playing inside a snow globe.  One of the levels actually is covered with snow.  In each new world you enter, your view is initially tightly constrained to the directly surrounding area.  But as you begin to explore, the camera zooms out, gradually revealing more of the level, while a pitch black obstruction clears as you uncover each new segment the world has to offer.  Eventually it opens out into a gorgeous circle of fascination.  That might sound a little verbose, but it really is the best way to describe it.

It’s such a simple idea, but works alarmingly well for a few reasons.  Firstly, its initial, tight viewpoint makes things impressively claustrophobic, even within the confines of a small flash window in a web browser.  There’s an unusual sense of subtle foreboding in Small Worlds, one that increases ever more with each new discovery, with each piece of the interpretive story clunking into place.  Keeping the camera zoomed so closely at the beginning of each new world ramps up this tension impressively, and encourages speedy exploration with real mastery.

Secondly, the circular nature of each area means it’s like an actual maze.  There’s plenty of criticism floating around about the maze-like nature of many less accomplished level designs, but there are some occasions on which it totally works.  This is one of them.  And that your goal is almost always somewhere near the middle of the circle, it gives you a tangible goal to work towards, even at the earlier stages when you can barely see any of the environment beyond your direct surroundings.

smallworlds2Thirdly, and perhaps most obviously, it just looks tremendous.  It’s pixel art with a difference: each speck of colour is also shaded and patterned, like 8-bit visuals projected onto a canvas.  Zoomed in, the detail is impressive, not despite the increasedblockiness but because of it.  Zoomed out, it starts to form something that resembles a true digital painting.

The A-word will, of course, be thrown about.  It’s a platformer without any danger; an adventure without puzzles.  It’s devoid of much typical gameplay, and heavy on symbolism.  But I think there’s a lot of room for pure exploration in videogames, and too many developers are afraid of – um – exploring this avenue for fear that those demanding a more obvious challenge will rebel.  But really, adding combat or conundrums to Small Worlds would only harm it.  Its purity is what makes it so satisfying.  Whether it’s art or not is kind of irrelevant when a game is so evocative, so pretty and so masterfully tight.

Indeed, it strikes me as being more relevant for its presentation and exploratory elements than it is for any symbolism.  The imagery certainly points towards some sort of terrible apocalypse, and the ending hints at a real tragedy.  There’s definitely food for thought.  But I almost don’t want to think too deeply about it, because it’s what’s on the surface that makes Small World utterly lovely.

At the start of Jonathan Blow’s lauded indie platformer Braid, the player emerges from the darkness to find an entire city burning in the distance.  It’s a gorgeous, eye-widening moment of horribly compelling discovery.

That’s what every second of Small Worlds feels like.  This is a very clever game indeed.  I do hope it wins the competition.

You should totally stop what you’re doing and go play Small Worlds.  It’ll only take you five or ten minutes, and you might just find it as delightful as I did.

1 Comment

    [...] [By the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Kevin McLeod, whose music is also used in the brilliant Small Worlds - Lewis] were the only sounds in that dreadful place, but my knowledge of this didn’t prevent [...]

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