Released as a very small indie title in 2013, boxlife is a first person exploration game. Presented in flat color, minimal texturing, and abstract geometry, you’re thrust into a world with one objective: leave. To do so, you need to collect four orbs and place them atop pedestals.
Starting atop a tower, your only option is to fall to the ground below. Immediately, you’re up against steps you can’t climb, and since there’s no jump, you just have to walk around to see where things go. You quickly come across a hole in the ground, taking you to a small room that contains the jump ability. During your travel, you pass different types of boxes: stony grey ones and jagged white ones that float in thick groups that you cannot pass through. Behind some stone blocks lies an Orb, just out of reach.
Quickly, you begin to explore the rest of the space open to you: a large, somewhat empty room. As you leave the cliff of the starting area, you’re presented with a powerup directly in front of you, but you’re suddenly stopped by an invisible barrier. Climbing the only other objects in the area, several pillars, reveals two paths: one you can continue on and one that has a lip slightly too high for you to jump on.
These moments within the first few minutes of the game prepare you for what’s to come. You’re instantly keen on remembering your failures, so when you encounter a problem that hinders your progress, its location sticks with you. This is the basic loop of the Metroidvania genre: find the problem, search in other directions, come across the new ability that can solve the problem, return, and progress.
boxlife hones in on this loop and trims off all the fat. It’s purely mechanical and does so much with so little. By weaving the elements of the game together so tightly, every moments facilitates the general “Metroidvania” feeling. Two notions, organic exploration and diegetically learning how to use new abilities, play out as straight as possible. Each new powerup immediately brings forth that “where can I use this,” thought, the driver of enthusiasm for any game in the genre. By having everything so cleanly presented, the elegance is that you can easily remember all the blockades you encounter, sprinting back to them as soon as you find the key to their solution.
Along with its presentation, boxlife constantly provides you with a new ability in a way that forces you to utilize it and learn firsthand what it does before turning you back on the rest of the room. For instance, dropping down a small well of stones, you’re given an ability that allows you to fire red balls that dissipate the blocks. From your escape, you instantly understand how this thing works and where.
All this is to get at what can be done with fundamentally elegant design, and that undervaluing simplicity is a pitfall many developers fall into, especially in the amateur circuit of microindies. A clear-cut mapping-out of your systems, how they intermingle and coexist, and how they play against the overall arc and pace of your game, is all the analysis really necessary to identify any excess in the game loop. Reducing the piece down from here results in something cleaner and purer. Superfluous lore or expensive graphics don’t make a game what it is at heart: an interactive experience, embodied in the impact of the player’s moment-to-moment interactions with the world. Don’t mistake simplicity for shallowness.
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.