(Short game spoiler disclaimer: Small Worlds takes about 15 minutes to play.)

Small Worlds is the first in what I hope will be an irregular ongoing series of short game posts. And, as such, it leaves me nervous: while I imagine many of y’all will be just fine with me not writing 1500 words every time I post here, I am worried about going in the opposite extreme with these games. And I’m dipping into a vibrant culture, as an outsider who is only faintly aware of that culture’s history and discussions.

For an example of the latter, take the view that confronted me when I started the game: pixels, and very large ones at that. I hear that big pixels are all the rage in the indie scene, to the extent that some people feel that they’re rather overdone these days. Am I supposed to be viewing the game through such a lens, as commentary, as part of a conversation, as (given their excessive size) satire? Beats me; I shrug and start moving around.

At which point I get my first delightful surprise: the pixels shrink, and rather than being a ridiculously oversized yet ill-definied avatar only able to see a small portion of the map at any given moment, the map instead resizes so that the parts that you’ve uncovered are all visible on the screen.

Indeed, the word ‘avatar’ proves to be rather inappropriate. Formally, the game acts like a platformer, but its feel is different. You’re not a character trying to make it through hostile terrain, to overcome hostile enemies (in fact, there are no enemies in this game): instead, you are a player trying to uncover more and more of the map.

This dual role of actor / mapper has a long history in games, of course, from the maps that every player of Colossal Cave Adventure drew to 2007’s Etrian Odyssey. As somebody who enjoys the mapping at least as much as the other aspects of gameplay in such games, it’s refreshing for the mapping to be front and center; and, as you play, you find that the map as an object is much more aesthetically appealing than it is in dungeon crawlers. It becomes clear as the map gets more detailed that you’re traveling through some sort of ruins, largely underground but with domes on the to; the expansion of the map is always giving you glimpses of adjacent rooms, but you have to take a spiral route to be able to get to their interiors. (And the pixels turn from large blocks into something much closer to their traditional usage of points on a monitor.)

And the map’s ruined nature naturally lends itself to forks and dead-ends. But there’s never significant branching; as with the main game I’m playing now, Mass Effect 2, you never have to go too far before figuring out which direction is the main path forward and which are the side areas. Which makes my brain happy: I like exploring, I like having nooks and crannies to stick my nose into, but I don’t want to either miss any or waste my time with lengthy backtracking / uncertainty.

So I happily explore, making sure to do all the side routes. And then I go to the back of one room with a particularly shiny bit, and all of a sudden everything changes.

My first reaction: annoyance, I didn’t get to see all the nooks and crannies! My second reaction: oh, I’m back to big pixels; looks like another map to explore, neat! My third reaction: this music is really rather lovely. Was there even any music in the hub world? (Not really, as it turns out: ambient noises / sounds that served more to emphasize the “exploring ruined station” theme than as a real soundtrack.)

And that second world was delightful in a rather different way. I can’t actually remember which world was the next world: it turned out that there are four worlds off of the original world (so phew, I got a chance to make up my missed exploring in that first world), but they’re all much more organic, much more embedded in nature than the original spooky space station world. One has a spring feel with water, one has a winter feel, with snow; one feels like the ruins of an egg, one is perhaps a cavern but with more of an earthy feel than a ruined feel. And each world’s soundtrack complements it nicely.

The details of the gameplay expand a bit, too. You’re frequently spiraling, but not always, and in one case you’re spiraling in rather than out. Alternate routes occasionally appear as well. And the goal has a different flavor: the game plays with flickering lights even in the original world, but, in the other four worlds, the gate is a pulsing, glowing ball. Sometimes, the glow coming off of it is visible from the start, pulling you in as you revolve around it; sometimes, you go through almost the entire level before catching a glimpse of it.

And then you go through all of the levels, and you end up in an escape pod in the original station, blasting off. (So I guess it was a space station, despite the trees at the top?) Which raises the question: what to make of these levels? The title of the game suggests that they’re different worlds, and they’re all quite different from each other; but they all share a wistful, ruined aesthetic, making me wonder how to put them together. The post-distaster aesthetic of the original level and the rockets present in one of the later one hint, to me, at a post-nuclear-war environment, but who knows; maybe the different but related world that goes by in the background of the title screen would help me figure this out if I were to stare at it longer.

A delightful mechanic, and a lovely aesthetic. Not, perhaps, a deep mechanic (though, perhaps, a deep aesthetic); it, like the Grow games, makes me wonder whether or not the mechanic has been copied elsewhere? I imagine so; I also imagine that copies of either game’s mechanic would lead to much less satisfying experiences, but I’d like to see other people prove me wrong.

Playing through this game has certainly given me confidence in the virtues of this experiment: I’ve been wanting denser game experiences more recently, and a game that shows me a couple of new things and finishes after 15 minutes (while having me still thinking about it weeks after I first experienced it), is a great example of that. Much better a game like this than dozens of hours of repetitive grind.

(Many thanks to The Game Critique for pointing out this game to me; I’m sure I would have eventually reached it going through Chris Hyde’s list, too.)

Post Revisions:

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