Expand – Preview
I cannot for the life of me figure out how someone could engage with Expand for more than 15 minutes and conclusively write on a post-it note that the game is “soothing”.
A core component of Expand is to encourage the player to engage with the evolving shapes on the screen. It is completely mesmerising in its stark lack of complexity – the black and white environment is divisive, and the “protagonist” (a small pink square) is a welcome softer element to the design. However, despite its abstract design, it is not a purely meditative, reactionary game, and hardly comparable with a gentle cup of camomile tea on a Sunday afternoon.
Expand, bless its little red square socks, makes you think. If you get beyond the fifteen-minute mark, it may even make you panic. It expresses itself through small moments where your choices of movement are taken away from you. Expand is in a dialogue with the player – it may allow you instances to stand still, but it will also tell you when you do not have the opportunity for that lazy breath. You will have moments where you are required to make a run for it and hope like hell that you make it to the next part of the puzzle.
So how could someone play this game and interpret it as a “soothing” game? This is still such an intriguing statement to me, and I believe that some of the other design elements may have contributed to this impression.
The choice of controller interface is a very important complement to the sense of fluid, soothing movement through the game environment. I could see how keyboard or even mouse control options would have lacked the level of intimacy that is part of Expand’s charm – a keyboard would not be able to achieve the same intricate movement in a circular map, and the response of the mouse would be too quick, depriving the player the opportunity to dwell in the environment. Holding an X-Box controller close to me, guiding my sharp pink protagonist through an environment that twisted around me, was a cozy experience.
Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin can also be credited for the importance of music to the environment – both as a descriptive and as a reactive element of the design. Like the setting, the music begins with a punctuating piano melody and an atmospheric string harmony, but are eventually linked with the string accompaniment responding to the piano with its own counter melody to develop a further sense of immersion. Larkin is a fitting finalist of a Sibelius Award in 2007 – while the award was named after the Sibelius composition development software, it is also worth noting that Sibelius himself was a strong composer of chamber music and quite enamoured with the notion of music as evolving cells that synthesised into grander statements.
Despite this, Expand provides more indicators that prompts can be considered in a variety of contexts. Questions about our desire to follow, escape, or fit in can be viewed as uplifting or authoritative, and the latter interpretation is definitely the more confronting one. It is the fear that you are never entirely traversing the terrain, and that some other omnipotent being is challenging your sense of safety and your idea of self. When you are suffocated in your little white hidey hole or accidentally brush against a red wall, the game does not reflect disappointment or failure, but simply exhales and forces you to continue from another perspective until you learn to do it correctly. And, in that blessed moment when you are reunited with your centre, your core, you are forced away again to endure further trials.
Are we being asked whether we are followers or leaders, or are we being told that we must follow or never move forward?
Is the notion of fitting in presented as a hopeful ideal of acceptance, or an expression of conformity?
And through all of these questions and tests that push us to our core, that provide that small adrenaline of achievement or anxiety, and that make Expand a beautifully intimate game … how on earth could anyone find that “soothing”?