There’s a tendency among some gamers who’ve been pursuing their hobby for decades to measure the worth of a game by its length. I myself remember many a week and month spent playing single games, and there’s definitely something to be said for roleplaying games that deliver a huge world and an epic plot to match – but I’m also coming to appreciate the beauty that can come with brevity. Especially indie developers often benefit from providing a short but focused burst of gameplay, creating encapsulated experiences that, like short stories and short films, can succeed in ways that are essentially different from their longer – and at times too long – brethren.
So, in lieu of a regular Variety Pack, I want to introduce three short titles that I’ve recently played and that both occasional gamers and more old-school, hardcore (read: nerdy) gamers may have ignored. All three games excel at imagining fascinating, evocative worlds without the extensive, often tedious expository worldbuilding that game designers sometimes indulge in… and that some gamers mistake for deft storytelling.
How to describe this one? It’s as if Ingmar Bergman were to reimagine The Blair Witch Project by way of a puzzle box. Taking up the motif of the Nordic year walk, during which travellers encounter mystical creatures as they try to get to their village church in search of visions of the future, the game is one of the visually most unique miniatures I’ve ever played. It is exquisitely atmospheric, creepy and redolent of sorrow and guilt.
In general, puzzle-heavy games tend to lend themselves to a shorter format; even the most ingenious puzzle design gets old if repeated for hours upon hours. The Swapper is a perfect example of this, using its simple premise to great effect: the player guides an astronaut through a derelict space station. Using a swapper device, this astronaut can be cloned up to four times, their consciousness transferred from body to body. This allows the player to stand on buttons, pull boxes and do similarly banal things to progress through the station – but it also tells a subtle yet effective story of identity and the ephemerality of the soul. There are echoes of Moon, but also of Michel Gondry’s more melancholy dreamscapes in the game’s clay-moulded space scapes.
When I was a child, I watched the samey Saturday morning cartoons from America and Japan that were on TV, but there were also Eastern European children’s series that were both much more mundane, set in a world I recognised as being similar to my own (I probably missed all the subtext about living in a Communist system), and more surreal, even subversive. The heroes and sidekicks especially of the US cartoons all pretty much followed the same visual and character templates, while the series from Czechoslovakia were often much more unique, as if the oppressive systems they were created under forced them to find other creative outlets.
The Czech developer Amanita Design may not be working under the shadow of Soviet rule, but they have clearly inherited the creative drive of their forebears. Amanita’s games are gorgeous, unique toyboxes filled to the brim with personality, and Botanicula is a perfect example of this. Some of its puzzles may be annoying, but it is always a joy to inhabit an Amanita world, and this one is no exception.