Made for Isolation Jam 2019 in Iceland, Svartkolla from Joon Van Hove & Marín Björt Valtýsdóttir is a very small, modest game about returning your lost sheep to their pasture. By interacting with specific items wherever you find yourself — in your house, your shed, your boat — you manufacture a way to get the poor sheep, Svartkolla, back where they belong. It’s very straightforward in its design, not necessarily a head-scratcher in terms of figuring out puzzle solutions, but more so an exercise in form.
It’s not often you see many games focused entirely on a single location, especially ones that diverge from the traditional design mantra of “an inch wide, a mile deep.” Svartkolla sets out to do exactly that, breaking expected form and delivering an experience that is charming in its small stature, with no need or desire to try and overreach for something it is not. It’s comfortable in being minute, a “lunch-break game.” Its papercraft looks and lighthearted atmosphere are a comfort, at once easy to simply slip into and back out of, with a brighter spot now remaining in your day because of it.
Many are put off by these shorter-form games, especially in the mainstream, but I think it’s a trend well worth embracing. Not necessarily for a desire to have time to play more games or experience and go through different things quickly, but for the reason that a tightly-edited film moving at a quick pace can feel like a relief as opposed to a bloated, 3-hour epic: editing to your strengths, and keeping just the most important parts, makes for a stronger whole.
Length is not the dictator of quality, nor is fidelity or even agency. These things can make for a rich experience, memorable play-by-play moments or heart-wrenching stories, but they aren’t a prescriptive way in which games must be or how we have to engage with them. Games can be literally anything, so why not small? Hone in on the core of what makes your game good, what drives it forward, and identify what elements drag it down. Push for them to either elevate or get them out. Developers shouldn’t be afraid of excising the bad, regardless of time spent on it. Kill your darlings, or they might just do the same to your project.
Whether you’re playing something for 60 hours or 60 minutes, the essential core of what you’re engaging with needs to be cohesive and aware of its goals. Otherwise, you end up with a messy experience that can ultimately lead to boredom or unwarranted frustration. Never be afraid to cut, cut, cut. When it comes to a solid play loop, there’s nothing “too lean” to be enjoyed.
If you’re interested in five minutes of a light-hearted romp, I highly recommended giving Svartkolla a go. It’s not like there’s much of an investment.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.