Stripping a video game down to its nuts and bolts can often reveal nasty surprises; no personality, a lack originality or other more critical problems. Yet, some developers choose to embrace the “less is more” mantra, crafting games that are on a technical front, quite simple, but often with more sophisticated behaviours lurking beneath the surface. Expand, from Australian duo Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin, is described as a “meditative video game in which you explore a circular labyrinth”, and it lives up to that unambitious description in rather spectacular style.
Expand has you control a small pink square in a series of ever-shifting, ever-expanding labyrinths. Your ultimate goal is to retrieve four pink artifacts, placed in opposing corners of the labyrinth. Each new area twists, shuffles and unfolds in front of you, and sometimes from behind you as well. A keen eye for patterns, as well as solid timing and observation skills, are mandatory if you want to find your way through Expand‘s five different areas.
New challenges await you throughout the game, but, generally, you’ll rely on those timing skills to weave your way through silhouetted scenery. Expand puts me in mind of several other games, each of which share a similar, elementary design. Whether it’s the flawless weaving, and entrancing soundtrack inspired by Duet, or the sophisticated, blacked out levels that are reminiscent of Thomas Was Alone, it’s quite clear that the game’s developers have spent some time studying their contemporaries.
There’s something hypnotic about the way the game unfolds, only for the entire level to be swept away from behind you – often with a menacing red vortex following close behind. Each area has a monochrome canvas unveil itself in front of you, as you move, meanwhile throwing up a flurry of objects for you to dodge. You’ll rarely have a moment to stop and admire just how intricate Expand‘s design is. Well you will, but only as it is being destroyed behind you to make way for the next labyrinth. This is one of the few games that has left me in utter bemusement, scratching my head and muttering “how did they do that?”.
Although the game can be challenging at times, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “difficult”. The developers have somehow managed to balance tight timing and tricky movements, without detracting from their desired “meditative” experience. You won’t reach enlightenment like the Dalai Lama, but you may find Expand to be a soothing experience to lose yourself in for a short while.
Even if less is more, it doesn’t make a game any easier to develop, and for that reason Expand is a game both Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin should be proud of. It’s a short journey of constant delight that manages to convey its individuality, in spite of its meagre appearance.