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Looking forward: the snug pleasure of small worlds

Hello! We’re going to start the year off with a handful of pieces looking forward to 2022. Sometimes we’ll be looking at trends we’ve spotted or themes that will probably be continuing to define things in games for a while. Sometimes we’ll just be thinking about things we’ve enjoyed and where they could lead. Have a lovely new year all!

I don’t know if you’ve ever used one of those run tracking apps, but then left it going by accident for a really long time in your pocket and only discovered it days later after it’s recorded hours and hours of your aimless wombling around? It can be quietly illuminating. A lot of us, I suspect, live daily lives that unfold in quite a limited space. Covid has only drawn things in closer, of course, but I know that I live a lot of my life these days in my house, and then in an outdoor space bounded by two parks, a local Tesco, and the sea.

Maybe that’s just me. But anyway, it certainly helps explain why I love a huge open-world game so much. All that space! All that horizon! Steep, a favourite over here between the car parks, the Tesco and the sea, gives me an entire mountain range. I never tire of going from a peak and pulling straight out to the map. Look at that! A panoramic experience. I could never see it all, surely! I love this stuff.

But it also maybe explains an opposite trend I’ve noticed only recently. That on the other end of things I am equally drawn to games that are very small. Sometimes very, very small. A Short Hike is an open-world game, but the world is deeply snug. You can fly around it in a few minutes. Toem isn’t an open-world, but its linked spaces are hardly expansive. You can get from any A to any B in a matter of seconds. Why am I so drawn in? Why have I spent longer in A Short Hike and Toem than I have in many other, larger games? Are small games – games with small worlds – on the rise? I hope so. I hope the trend continues.

A Short Hike is a beautiful game.

I can still remember the first time I played A Short Hike. I maybe sat at the PC for three hours or so, completing the main storyline and getting an idea of the place. Going back over that territory as the months passed allowed me to switch from exploration to something more like understanding: I started to get a sense of what places were, what they were doing in their specific spots and how the world broke up organically into natural territories. This is possible in all open-world games, of course – one of the fascinating things about GTA 5 is how the city seems to get smaller the more you play it, the more you understand it – but it’s a particular richness of the snug open-worlder.

With a Short Hike, and with Toem, and Alba, come to think of it, all this time spent in the game means I start to feel something far better than ownership – almost the opposite of ownership really. I play A Short Hike now and I feel like I am visiting some place that is unownable, and that’s the pleasure of it. I spend so long there, that I end up thinking about the place as I wander around, I see it as a place that is entirely separate to me and what I’m doing there in that moment. I suspect I do this less in bigger games, because there’s always something new to see, some new quest or mission or unlock I should be aiming for, some icon I should wipe off the map. But in small worlds you can quickly get to a point where all that is done, so if you’re still playing, you’re playing for the pleasure of just being.

I read something great recently about postcards – about how people should send them more, especially if they aren’t on holiday. I think a small open world can be a bit like that, a bit like a postcard. It says that everything within this view can be known, really known. There is a richness here in living within a snug space – you know, between two parks, a local Tesco, and the sea.

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