Ever wish you could just get away from it all? Then maybe you should give David Shute's itty-bitty exploration epic Small Worlds a try and discover what's waiting out there for you. Taking top prize in the 6th Casual Gameplay Design Competition, as well as the award for Audience Favourite and a prize from Armor Games is no small feat. Give it just fifteen minutes of your time and it may win you over, too.
"There is too much noise... " complains the otherwise silent protagonist. Perhaps an odd thing to say when you find yourself within the still remains of... a laboratory? A space station? You'll have to take the initiative and explore the area to find out. You can navigate with the [wasd] or [arrow] keys, tapping [up], [w], or [space] to jump. As you go, the map is slowly uncovered and the camera pulls back to reveal more... and more... and more.
There are five worlds to check out, and once you get past the first area, you can go through them in any order you wish. You're not under any constraints, so you can take your time and uncover every nook and cranny. Which you should do, since once you leave a world, you can't go back to it. If you just want to find everything each area has to offer you, avoid the beacons you'll find beckoning you onward until you've uncovered all the secrets you can.
Analysis: David Shute's oddly melancholic little game is a tricky one to discuss, mainly because so many people have different interpretations of the experience. And, in this case, how can you say one is right over all the others? The ability to explore the worlds at your own pace, and in any order, means there's no real cohesive narrative except for what you interpret from the scenery. Is our hero the last of his kind? A madman? A villain? Hard to say given that the worlds may not appear to have much in common with one another. Of course I have my own theories, but I doubt you came here to listen to my crazy tin-foil hat nonsense. (Have I talked to you lately about soylent green?) What I will say is that even if you just think of it as a bit of interactive art, Small Worlds is still one of the most unique and enjoyable gaming experiences I've had in a long time.
It's easy to be underwhelmed by the simplistic look of Small Worlds' visuals upon encountering the first screen, and those who let themselves be put off by it are missing a real treat. As the worlds unfold through your explorations, the detail revealed in them is absolutely top notch. While some are more striking than others, you'll definitely want to explore every nook and cranny to really appreciate them. A big part of the journey is also the music by Kevin MacLeod, with each track helping to buoy your sense of wonder.
What can be frustrating is navigating the often uneven terrain by leaping around. Because the environments are so big and detailed, you'll spend a lot of time trying to navigate your way through them by jumping from place to place. It can be hard to judge distance, especially when the camera has pulled far out, and falling all the way back to the starting point is annoying. You can't die, but having to slowly pick your way back up to where you were happens more often than it should.
Whether or not Small Worlds winds up being a thoughtful experience for you or simply a bit of interactive art depends entirely on you. If you just think it's a clever mechanic, that's fine. If you think there's a deeper meaning behind it, that's fine too. While it doesn't offer much, if anything, in the realm of replay value, Small Worlds still manages to be striking in a short period of time. The perfect size to squeeze a bit of wonder into your day whenever you have time, Small Worlds is fun, beautiful, and definitely one of a kind. Just remember, it's a big world out there. Don't forget to explore it once in a while yourself.