Designed as an entry for Casual Gameplay Design Competition 6, Small Worlds is a browser game that explores the concept of exploration. It took its spelunking attitude seriously, winning both the design competition and the Audience Choice Award. But all of this praise and internet chatter about Small Worlds begs one simple question: just what is Small Worlds? And why does it seem to be so universally loved?
Small Worlds is a game about size. At the beginning of each stage you’ll exist in a small space with darkness all around you. As you explore your surroundings the environment becomes visible. The more you explore, the more you uncover. The more you uncover, the smaller your character seems in the overall world. The camera is constantly zooming out to show more and more of the world you’ve uncovered. Eventually the perspective goes from a giant character in a small environment to a barely visible gnat in a map of epic proportions. There’s a real sense of awe whenever you complete a level.
The controls themselves are very basic. To navigate your terrain you’ll simply use the arrow keys. When you really break it down, everything about this game is incredibly basic – even the objective. The only thing you’re trying to do in each level is explore and uncover enough of your surroundings to reveal an exit portal. In keeping the player end of the experience so shallow, it somehow adds to that sense of scale and helps to emphasize how deep an emotional response it can draw.
The levels all seem to share a theme, showcasing man’s negative impact on the environment. One level starts out as a beautiful wooded area, but eventually grows to show an underground bunker with a missle silo. Another starts out in what seems like a lush jungle environment but quickly turns into a city dumping toxic sludge into the water.
The simple graphics help to foster some of this misdirection. In the toxic water stage you initially see the green and assume its vines or some type of plant life. In keeping things blocky and basic, Small Worlds can play tricks on your perception.
The maps themselves are equally as deceptive. There are so many times in each stage that you think you’re near the end, but it turns out you’ve barely reached the halfway point. Small Worlds may be a short experience – you’ll be able to explore all 5 worlds in under 30 minutes — but there’s nothing small about the impression the game leaves you with.
Each level is accompanied by its own haunting musical score that again serves to echo the theme of size and exploration. The delicate pianos and subdued strings create a sense of simple awe and wonder. What the music adds to the overall package here is staggering. Simple presentations tied with beautiful melodies make Small Worlds a wonder of simplicity.
Small Worlds is less a game and more an argument for games as art. There are no princesses to save, no gems to match or hidden objects to find. Instead Small Worlds presents a simple concept and takes you on a journey that will touch you on a human level. There’s something about the scale of each map that just makes you feel so little. It’s like standing next to a mountain. Consider Small Worlds a lesson in humility – no matter how big you may feel, there’s always something immensely bigger out there.