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A Quick Look at Massive Worlds in Indie Games

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It’s rare to see indie games placed in settings so massive in size for obvious reasons. With small teams of developers working without the massive funding you’d find behind AAA titles, many indie games focus on culminating all of their efforts on specific focal points and loading them with as much enjoyable content as possible. For instance, take Stardew Valley’s loveable main area, Pelican Town.

When you enter the world of Stardew Valley, your farm takes up about 30% of the map’s traversable area (unless we count the hundreds of procedurally generated mine floors) and that’s perfect! What’s left of Pelican Town is a small and dainty place full of friendship, community, and love. Each building serves a unique purpose or houses a member of the town. There are cool quests that require you to befriend characters and unlock their bedrooms like one where you have to get the mayor’s shorts back from Marnie's house and the mayors like “Yo, can you do that discreetly?” And you can even waste fifteen minutes of your life playing the video games in the saloon, and forgetting to water your strawberries before you pass out from exhaustion, messing up your plan for the whole season and missing an entire harvest completely. Stupid little arcade game, piece of s-But there are developers that push themselves the extra mile and create diverse and engaging entire worlds. A good example of this is Subnautica. The subnautica map is roughly two and a half kilometers by two and a half kilometers. That’s over three square miles of traversable area for us normal people that don’t speak Egyptian, and that’s not even counting the dozens of subsurface systems that span for miles in all directions.

That’s an insane amount of space that the developer teams personally created. A fully static world where there are 38 individual and unique biomes to explore teaming with new life that half the time wants to murder you, but still, the most beautiful, colorful, underwater scenes you can imagine, and because of that, you WANT to spend the extra time exploring the world. (Well, that, the solid-plot, and massive leviathans that are just oh so cool.)

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Games that make you explore the map and make you love doing it are the ones that people remember the most. 2017’s Little Nightmares is another good example. The only way to progress in the game is to explore the insides of the absolutely massive Maw, the ship-thing the game takes place on. The setting and scale is the reason Little Nightmares works so well. You’re a tiny little girl in a raincoat about as large as a rat. Literally, you are just a smidgen larger than a rat. The little girl eats one while some demented music plays in the background; it’s amazing.

Being so tiny in such a massive world provides creative mechanics and points of view you don’t commonly see. The main character named “Six” crawls through crevices in the walls and uses the plumbing and tiny ledges as scaffolding. The gameplay is so constructive and the shots, while you transition through areas, are just stunning and showcase the ginormous scale of what you have to traverse. And the deeper you enter the world of Little Nightmares the thicker the shroud of mystery becomes. You’re also introduced to tons of HUGE, creepy, and gluttonous blobs straight out of Florida that live on the massive ship or resort or island; I still don’t know.

Swimming around the caves of the lava in Subnautica is something I’ll never forget. The cave is absolutely massive and walking around in your Prawn suit reminds you that you are tiny. At 1300m below, the only light you see is the deep red illuminations of the lava below. You’re so tiny you can’t make out the walls surrounding you. All the while you pass the bones of creatures that are thousands of times your size and you think. “Welp, I’m dead.” The deep moans of something, something massive, reverberates through the whole cave.

You see that? That sounds epic, and it is epic. Playing that part of the game truly made me appreciate the size and depth of the world. You cannot achieve this level of indie game without pain-staking work on art style, the plot, sound design, and more. Firewatch, OneShot, Subnautica, West of Loathing, all these titles accomplished this and that’s just to name a few.

The point is, when developers put the extra time in to create a massive world and find a way to make you have a good time the whole way through, it pays off. The games you're left with, while not always the best for replayability, are cemented in your mind as some of the best gaming experiences of your life.

That’s it for now. Writing this up is making me realize I might like games that make me anxious too much, and that might be why my hair-line is all fudged up.

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