13 October 2011

Knytt Stories: Dream Weaver

Knytt Stories is perhaps the most beautiful game I've ever played.  There's nothing flashy about it, but its beauty, both in atmosphere and gameplay, lies in its simplicity.

Its command of form and colour is second to none, evoking curiosity and wonder at every turn.  Every screen is earmarked by little intricacies - birds, insects, snowfall, and glistening crystals - forming the impression of a living, breathing world that exists even when the player isn't there.

By its creator's own admission, there's nothing particularly original about Knytt Stories - it's essentially a Metroid clone in design - but it distills each element into its purest form.  Like Metroid, the game is set in a foreign land and fosters that sense of isolation and "other-ness".

Again like Metroid, the entire game is one large "circuit breaker" puzzle.  The game world consists of a single sprawling level, which opens up as the player gains new skills.  Most platformers use items as breadcrumbs to encourage player exploration.  The only items in Knytt Stories are significant and skill-expanding - the floating jump, the double-jump, the hologram - and yet they are merely tools for further exploration.  Beauty is the sole motivator for progression and the reward is getting to see more of that beauty.

Knytt Stories is so confident in this design that it refuses to fall back on combat; not as a motivator, not as a solution to problems.  This is in-keeping with the game's story: the game world is corrupted by a strange machine, so if a creature attacks you, it's only because its nature has been corrupted by the machine.  Violence clearly doesn't solve anything in this scenario, and so evasion becomes a key maneuver in the game, aided by clever item use.  The umbrella, for instance, can be used to glide across ravines, but it can also be used to shelter the player from falling projectiles.  This keeps the focus firmly on pure platforming.

There's no separation between areas of the game, no loading times, nothing to disturb the flow of play.  Save portals are inconspicuously built into the floor (preventing distraction), and littered conveniently throughout the environment (preventing frustration).  The player need only tap the 'down' button while running past and the game is saved without so much as a menu or pop-up.  Knytt Stories is a one hit, one kill affair, which goes hand in hand with its efficient design.  If you don't have combat, you don't need to stand around getting killed, you don't need a health gauge, and you don't need to kleptomaniacally collect doodads to refill health or ammunition.  First person games have been moving towards this efficiency for years now - regenerative health takes at least one element of item collection out of the equation - but few if any have been brave enough to go the whole hog (even Mirror's Edge chickened out to its own detriment).  If you do die in Knytt Stories (and you will, often), the player immediately respawns at their last save portal, which is never far away.  In this way, the flow of the game is never placed in jeopardy.

The sound design of Knytt Stories stays true to its mantra of beauty in simplicity.  The ambient noises of waterfalls and singing birds punctuates the constant rhythm laid down by the protagonist's footsteps.  The sparseness of these sounds creates a nice envelope for the music when it bubbles to the surface.  The soundtrack runs the gamut of Eno-like ambiance during to apocalyptic techno, emerging only to mark set-pieces of awe and dread.

Knytt Stories is a breath-taking game that filled me with awe.  What I found amazing was the efficiency and restraint it took to produce this effect.  By trimming the fat, Nifflas cut straight to the heart of what made Metroid so great in the first place.  The result is a game dripping with atmosphere that plays as smooth as silk.

Knytt Stories is a freeware game for the PC, developed and designed by Nifflas.  Nifflas' games are available for download and for purchase on his website.

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