Small Worlds Micro-Review: A Fine 20 Minutes

Why would Kotaku review a game that you could start and finish quicker than dinner? To make sure you play it.

Small games don't often get a lot of critical attention. Nor do free ones. But don't ignore the work of David Shute, who made a game called Small Worlds that is small and free but also spiritually in sync with some of the urges that drive gamers to play much more expensive games.

Small Worlds is his recent browser game, one that, as much as Shadow Complex did or a new Metroid might, scratches the need I and so many other gamers have to explore a 2D video game world. Knowing the unknown doesn't get much purer than this.

Loved
The Magic Of Discovery - I couldn't put it cornier, but, yes, the "magic of discovery" is what makes Small Worlds a wonderful 20 minutes of one's life. You control a small person (?) who is all of a few pixels tall, can run and can jump. The game begins with a zoomed-in view of your character, dabbed in front of a pixelated landscape of equal ambiguity. The surroundings are dark. But as you make this man or woman run and jump, as you explore the nooks and crannies of his or her path-finding possibilities, the camera zooms out and the image of this small world begins to sharpen. It is a science base, perhaps, that we are inside? Or a spaceship? Or, in another level, we're at the foot of waterfalls, walking over to see that we're also at a cliff? There are sites to see and jumps to figure out. But there's nothing to shoot and no powers to gain, no coins to collect and no stats to improve. Failure is reaching a dead end and having to turn around. Progress is discovering that the next gap, just a few pixels wide, is narrow enough for a successful jump. Over there, there's something shiny. Something to walk to. And a new world awaits.

The Power Of Pixels: We live in an era thankfully past the automatic discarding of older video game art styles. Makers of Small Worlds and Pictobits and, I'm sure, other games, have seen a beauty to a world made of square that hints at what it is and can be composed of, block by block. To be back in a pixelated world is to have a part of one's gaming imagination reawakened, the part that could see Mario's personality through a cycling of 8-bit marks. We're back there with Small Worlds or, if you're younger and luckier, maybe this is the first trip for you.

The Ease Of Exploring: This game can be played with just one hand on the arrow keys, making it feel — to use a word in a way it is seldom used in gaming — casual. There is an ease to playing a game that can be manipulated with the twiddle of pointer finger and middle finger, and that ease fits perfectly with a game about the low-stress, enemy-free wandering through an imaginative place.

Small Worlds is a snowglobe of a game, a brief delight that seems to work almost as if by magic. It asks for a little more from the player than a good shake, but not much. It's a game you'd be hard-pressed to lose and one, if you have the curiosity to peek into some darkness, you would be hard-pressed to dislike.

Small Worlds was developed by David Shute in Flash for Internet browsers. Music by Kevin Macleod. Play the game for free here. Played through the whole game. All of it!

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NOTE: Throughout the month of December, Kotaku will review some of the games that we missed earlier in the year. We're catching up.