Remember the Little Things

Inspired by a recent post from a friend of mine, I’ve been thinking about the little things I’ve enjoyed in gaming over the past few years. Over the past decade or so, we’ve been positively spoiled with a plethora of huge, big-budget AAA titles. However, it’s not necessarily the 100+ hour story, the beautiful true to life graphics, or the harrowing performances that stick with us. Sometimes, its the little things – the mechanics, the concepts, the idiosyncrasies that leave a smile on our face.

In a world so focused on the “Next best thing”, there’s no harm in sitting back to remember the little things that have stood out over the past few years. Here’s a couple of mine;

Soundtrack: Hollow Knight

I’ve made it no secret that I positively adore Indie games.

They can bring something to a genre that you never thought you needed, especially in an industry that often suffers from repetition. Hollow Knight has been likened to the best of dungeon crawlers and Metroidvanias alike – no small compliment – but it was the soundtrack that kept this title in my memory long after my time with it was at an end.

The soundtrack, which includes melodies like Dirtmouth and City of Tears, is nothing short of hauntingly beautiful. What made this stand out for me was that quite often, I didn’t notice it was there at all. There’s something comforting about coming to a branching path or a new area, only to realize that by the time the music as reached a crescendo, it had been there all along. The soundtrack in Hollow Knight can be a welcome companion in the darkness of those tunnels and long-forgotten cities. I can only hope that more titles follow suit in the future.

Ambient Noise: Death Stranding

Much like a good soundtrack, there are few things I love more than a game world that feels lived in. Games often accomplish this through sprawling cities and towns filled with dozens of characters going about their daily lives. Getting the same feeling from a world almost entirely devoid of life is another feat entirely.

My time in Death Stranding, like most people, was primarily spent gazing over a precipice or up at a mountainous monolith, while slowly panning the camera around Sam Porter Bridges of course. In a game this beautiful, there are definitely worse ways to spend your time. However, it was in doing this that I realized just how alive the world of Death Stranding actually felt.

There was something in the ambient noise of BT-addles America that felt all too real to me. Whether it was the biting wind, the sound of water trickling through calm streams, or the roaring rapids of a dangerous river, not once did the world of Death Stranding feel anything other than lived in. Not by people of course, but by Nature itself; reclaiming the world as its own.

It wasn’t just the sound of this world that made it feel like a living thing, but also the silence. Standing on top of a mountain, looking down at lush valleys and barren landscapes, I often felt a profound sense of loneliness come over me, something that I couldn’t quite explain. There was something missing in this world. The hustle and bustle of our day to day lives. The sound of traffic. Millions of people clamoring for their place in the world. It was a feeling that up until Death Stranding, I hadn’t quite felt before. And it’s one I surely won’t be forgetting for a long time to come.

Freedom of Exploration: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

For years, freedom of exploration has been a recurring theme in open-world games. Not a day goes by where somebody doesn’t say “You see that mountain over there? You can climb that Mountain.”. Like many, I first experienced this in Skyrim. Most of us still have distant memories of spamming the jump button all the way to the top of the Throat of the World, only to run straight off the edge and respawn again at the bottom.

It wasn’t until March 3rd, 2017 that this dream became a reality for me. Breath of the Wild was utterly ground-breaking in terms of open-world exploration. Link, with the help of a bright new stamina bar, could climb almost every vertical surface within Hyrule. Booting up Breath of the Wild for the first time, I remember thinking “This World is truly mine to explore.”.

I can’t help but feel that the idea of open-world gaming was perfected with the addition of this simple mechanic. Go here, and if you’re lucky enough to have enough stamina, climb that. I would argue that this even affected the development of titles such as Death Stranding, another game where that level of vertical exploration was paramount to the believability of the world as a living, breathing organism.

Art Style: GRIS

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that art style is a small or secondary detail in games. In some games, the art style is often the most recognizable and unique part of the game itself. But for titles like Gris, Indie gems that come around once in a lifetime, the art style really makes you sit back and appreciate the simpler things in life.

At the risk of sounding obnoxious, games like Gris are more of an experience than anything else. Trust me, I mean it in the absolute best way possible. It’s refreshing to sit down and play a title that focuses on environmental storytelling, instead of overly action-heavy set pieces. Much like the titular Gris, the world around her has lost its voice and is desperately struggling to find it. How this is mirrored in the art style is nothing short of beautiful, moving, and inspiring. And that’s just it, Gris is a stunning game that requires shockingly little input from the player themselves.

For me, its also this lack of player input that makes Gris so impactful. Rather than frustrating players with intricate controls/mechanics, Gris is a simple platformer with an ever-evolving art style. It grows and matures the longer you standing in the shoes of the titular protagonist. Much like a drawing or a painting, Gris’s own art style evolves over time. Initially, a smooth, hand-painted experience shown in light watercolours, Gris evolves into vivid colours and complex patterns layered on top of one another. Gris herself evolves from somebody who can barely put one foot in front of another, to someone who can move gracefully and fearlessly through a complex and ever-changing world.

Many who’ve played Gris know that its a metaphor for concepts like fear, mental health, depression, and anxiety. Whether its fear of life itself, fear of making the wrong decision, or the fear that comes with growing up and moving into a whole new world, Gris is all about showing us that this fear can be overcome. This game shows us that we are powerful enough, strong enough, and most importantly, capable of overcoming whatever life throws at us.

The Blood: Bloodborne

This one is extremely personal for me, and it’s something that gives my OCD-riddled brain respite from the chaos of daily life. It really annoys me when extremely violent games with overblown action sequences don’t have a single drop of blood. None whatsoever. Nada.

Bloodborne? Bloodborne went that extra step.

There’s an interesting mechanic in Bloodborne, where the more blood you can spill, the more blood-soaked you become. A bit on the nose, but there’s something so simplistic at play here, and more than a little sobering.

There’s no denying that the world of Bloodborne is a bleak and unforgiving place. But at the same time its a hauntingly beautiful in almost every aspect. Especially with From Software game, it’s so easy to get caught up in all the bloodshed. Reaching the end of an area, or finally beating that (insanely) tough boss should be a feeling of pure joy. There’s a certain release of frustration that builds up after dying to an enemy or Boss more times than you’d care to say. In Bloodborne, however, there’s something bittersweet in coming out the other end of something so violent, wearing a crimson reminder of that experience. To me, this was more than worth a moment of reflection.

Learning the backstories of characters such as Vicar Amelia and Father Gascoigne made this design choice all the more sobering. The “Big bad monster” wasn’t always a monster at all. Often, the Boss in question was just another living being turned into something else entirely by this Lovecraftian inspired world. At times, I even felt I was there to put a tormented creature out of its misery. It’s that sense of compassion in such a tormented world that keeps bringing me back to Bloodborne’s Yharnam after all these years.

Honourable Mentions: The Last of Us Part 2 (Spoiler-Free)

When I was editing this, I just knew that I couldn’t leave it go without adding an honourable mention in. There are just so many amazing little details in games these days. So here you have it, my honourable mention for this entry of my favourite little things in games is the positively impeccable sound design in The Last of Us Part 2.

As you probably know by now, one of the aspects of Game design I pay an unreasonable amount of attention to is how it sounds. Whether its an explosive action sequence, a calmer scene walking through tall grass and gorgeous scenery, or even seeing how good the water looks and sounds (Expect more of this), I just can’t get enough.

This past week I’ve been playing boat-loads of TLOU2, as I’m sure a lot of you have as-well. Whatever your opinion on the game, it’s received a ton of hate, and to be completely honest, it isn’t deserved. Naughty Dog have created something beautiful here, a story I think is so important in this day and age. A story I think everybody should, no, needs to play for themselves. Aside from the impeccable storytelling on show here, something that stood out to me was the sound design.

I’ve been using the Sony Gold Headset for years now, and it’s only now that I’ve come to fully appreciate the built-in Virtual Surround Sound. While playing TLOU2, at times, I completely forgot that I was even sitting down playing a game. At times, I felt so caught up in this terrifying and beautiful world that I needed to stop just to process what I had just seen or heard. No spoilers, but the Clickers make a big return here, and this time around they’re more terrifying than ever. More than that, the sound design here just makes the world feel that much more real. There are birds (That sound suspiciously like smaller Clickers), and the squelching of your boots running through mud and streams? Absolutely impeccable.

I implore everyone reading this to go out and pick this game up if you have even a speck of interest in the setting. This game is so, so important and I cannot stress this enough. Don’t listen to the hate, experience it for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it. Oh, and maybe leave a lamp on. I still can’t get the sound of those damned Clickers screeching out of my head…

So that’s it. Some of my favourite things from games over the past few years. A lot of these games are very important to me, and more than a few of them have gotten me through some tough times. I still regularly listen to Hollow Knight’s soundtrack when I’m walking, or check into Death Stranding or Bloodborne for some much-needed comfort. Id really love to hear some of your own favourite little things below in the comments! What’s one little detail you always look for in games? Please, give me a shout!

Enjoyed what you’ve read? Check out the first entry in our new series “The Neuroscience of Gaming” and our review of Indie Game “Alien Scumbags

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