Breath in, breathe out and Expand

Expand was one of the six games featured at PAX Australia as part of the indie showcase and it’s easy to see why. It has a clean, appealing graphic design, serene music and it’s a fresh twist on the simple platformer. Not to mention it’s home grown in Adelaide by developer Chris Johnson and composer/collaborator Chris Larkin. The controls are simple: you just gently push the thumbstick and navigate an expanding, changing concentric maze.So it’s essentially a platform game where you’re shifting from spot to spot, dodging moving hazards and ducking through closing doors while trying to find the exit point. But in abstracting out the platform jumping genre, the experience feels new. Pushing further into the unexplored blackness reveals new surprises, with the walls pulsing out, sucking in or spiraling out of existence. Expand generally does a good job of mixing things up as you go from exploring, to running away to being pushed along. At one point the music synced up with the pulsing movements of the map and the game suddenly took on the feel of a rhythm game. At other times your focus narrows on the shifting shapes to the point of it feeling hypnotic.

There’s no overt tutorial and learning the mechanics of the game feels very natural. You quickly learn the logic of this world; what death and success looks like and what the colours signify. Levels are not always linear and the moments when you find logic in the random movements of the world around you are to be savoured.The game is intended to inspire this relaxed, inspired kind of feel as you figure things out, which it often does thanks to both the gameplay and beautiful soundtrack. But I was surprised to find the demands of the second world ramped up to require some frustrating levels of pixel precision movement. Serenity shattered. The difficulty curve is so vital in a game like this and feels like it needs slowing down in some places to keep the game in that sweet spot. Or perhaps I just have hooves for hands.Comparisons to Thomas Was Alone feels inevitable. Both games are reductionist approaches to the platformer genre and Expand also has some hints at a meta existentialist vibe. “There is no escape.” “Do you always follow?” But like Thomas Was Alone, there’s a danger that the game could become a series of levels of doing essentially the same thing, just with minor iterations upon the same basic challenges. There’s a level editor built in with the game, but I’m not convinced I’d want to play this for more than a few hours, let alone play other people’s levels. But if you enjoy minimalist gameplay and graphics and you have opposable thumbs, Expand can ensnare you if you let it.

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