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The Big Joys of Little Games

If you're looking for something to do as you wind down for the night, you might want to play a video game. But, if your life is anything like mine, that may not always be a viable option. Between long hours spent finishing grad school, the emotional weight of living through multiple concurrent national and global crises, and starting a new job, time and energy have been in short supply over the last several months. Inversely, modern games have continued to push toward bigger worlds, longer stories, and more hours needed to enjoy the experience to the fullest. This can make playing a video game feel more like an overwhelming task than an enjoyable pastime. Faced with this conflict of energy, one might fall back on lower impact activities with preordained timeboxes like watching TV or a movie. I've begun to wonder, how can we make sure that gaming stays a part of our lives as our responsibilities begin to outweigh our free time?


The mobile game market has begun to answer this; while the App and Google Play stores are saturated with titles designed to keep players coming back to experiences that are well suited for both bite-sized breaks and hours long binges, there are also games that have contained narratives and finite replayability. Some of the most notable mobile games of this type include Monument Valley and Florence. I played both of these games while waiting in airports and of all the days spent in those liminal spaces while flying back and forth between California and South Carolina for the last three years, those short hours are practically the only ones that I remember. While it felt gratifying to spend this time immersing myself in these small games' deep worlds of fantastical shapes and young love, they are not the original inspiration for this post: that honor lies with Donut County.


I was instantly enamored by the dry humor and delightful characters the first time I saw a snippet of Donut County's gameplay. It isn't available on Android so I wound up purchasing it on PS4. Playing this game on a console turned out to be exactly what I needed to begin considering the larger role that short games could play in our daily lives. While I usually turn to mobile games when I'm killing time out in the world or lounging in bed, I engage with console games similarly to how I prefer to watch movies and TV: sitting on a couch devoting my attention to a large screen. Normally when I play games this way I do so to enjoy the spectacle of them to their fullest extent, whether I'm tending to my island in Animal Crossing, busting heads in Yakuza, or exploring the apocalyptic wastelands of Fallout.


Donut County is not a game of spectacle; its low poly art style is highly stylized for simplicity that translates well to the many platforms that the game is available on. This simplicity is matched by its mechanics; if you enjoyed Katamari Damacy, Donut County operates on the same principle, but with a reversed force of environmental destruction. Basically all you do in Donut County is use a gradually enlarging hole to swallow "trash" including trees, snakes, watchtowers, and townsfolk. And honestly, it's fantastic. Watching a small hole in the ground grow large enough to consume a restaurant is immensely satisfying as you destroy the neighborhood in an oddly relaxing progression of chaotic puzzles. The whole experience takes about an hour (longer if you read every entry in the trashopedia which I did my first playthrough, earning myself the "Nerd" trophy), and it doesn't need to be any longer than that. While I definitely could have spent several more hours terrorizing birds with fireworks and helping rabbits find love (it's a very versatile hole), there was something magical about sitting down after a long day of work and being able to finish a game in the time it would have taken me to watch an episode of an HBO series.


I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention A Short Hike in this discussion. This game was recommended to me as a "bite-sized Breath of the Wild" and this weekend I finally got around to playing it on my Switch. At first it didn't feel so bite-sized as I noticed where the game wanted me to go at the beginning, immediately went the other way, and got hopelessly lost. It didn't help that I have a terrible sense of direction and this game does not feature a map. However, by the end of the game I was able to navigate with reasonable exactitude and felt like I had successfully discovered most of the world on my own, something I've always loved doing but that has become increasingly difficult as games have gotten so much bigger in my lifetime. This game is longer than Donut County, taking me about three hours while doing all of the sidequests I was able to find, but it was worth every moment to explore joyfully, fearlessly, and calmly. With the familiar core mechanics of climbing and gliding that excited gamers old and new, A Short Hike has that sense of novelty and freedom that made the first stages of Breath of the Wild so exhilarating. However its compact environment and completion time mitigate the diminishing returns of sinking too many hours into a vast but empty world, proving that a virtual journey does not need to be massive to be fulfilling.


For decades people have been asking, how can we make film interactive? From the 1967 film Kinoautomat to the 2018 Black Mirror film Bandersnatch, the choose your own adventure format, a basic unspoken element of most video games, has been the hallmark answer to this question and has even influenced an entire subgenre of literature. While media that centers the CYOA element of interactivity can be captivating, there is a lot more to interactivity that, at this point, I believe only games have the true potential to explore. Let's face it: it's a lot more fun to constantly zoom around a field looking for the next largest item to devour than it would be to select "swallow rock" or "swallow tire" on a screen and watch what happened. Rather than asking how to make film more game-like, I prefer to ask how can we make games more film-like? I don't mean every game should be a dramatic piece of cinematic action in the sense of something like Uncharted; rather I would like to see more games that have the accessibility of movies. To date, Donut County is the game I've played that most closely fits this bill: the story is charming, the input is easy, and it can be completed in a concise session that feels well spent. While A Short Hike slightly misses this particular mark by relying on players' prior knowledge of gaming conventions, it compresses the benefits of much larger games into an inviting experience that encourages you to take as little or as much time as you need.


Something that A Short Hike and Donut County have in common is that I played them both for the first time when I was feeling weighed down. By the end of each, my spirits were lifted to heights I didn't think I'd see for at least another day or two. While Donut County accomplished this with comedic wit, A Short Hike was a heartwarming adventure. While vastly different in everything from tone to art style, I attribute a great deal of their success as "feel good" games to the fact that they can both be completed relatively quickly. The feeling of accomplishment after finishing a game is an increasingly rare experience as I get deeper into adult life, and frankly I usually don't get the same satisfaction or emotional release from movies and TV as I do from playing video games. But as I get older, it sometimes feels like my favorite hobby is evolving away from me. Games like Donut County and A Short Hike are worthwhile not simply because they're easy or low stakes or short; they are important because they keep gaming within reach and help us feel like growing up doesn't have to mean growing out of the things we love.