Over the last several months, Nifflas' new project has been getting a lot of attention. Not that anyone found this to be a surprise, as the independent gaming community is well aware of his reputation. His previous games, most notably Knytt and Within A Deep Forest, are renowned for their unique style and high quality.
Knytt Stories is the next addition to his portfolio, and we have already previewed and praised it at Indygamer. I personally put WADF at number one in my list of art games, and was happy to receive word from Nifflas in regard to that post. Since then, I was given the opportunity to preview the game itself, and I would like to share my thoughts on it with you.
The most prevalent design element which I see in all of Nifflas' games is minimalism. This does tend to come in varying degrees, but each title that he produces seems to follow the old adage of "less is more." Knytt Stories continues in this vein in all aspects as much as its predecessor, and that is in no small part a contributing factor to its success.
The art style of Knytt Stories is certainly the first indicator of its minimalist approach. It is after all the first thing that the player sees. The environments in the game are always clean and effective. Clean because of some good spriting work, often foregoing dithering techniques in favor of simple geometric patterns. This is true of most foreground elements, while background elements will more often utilize a monochromatic pallet.
The backgrounds themselves range from either flat colored monochrome scenes, or more subdued and ethereally soft gradations. In all cases, the graphical elements blend together and create a strong interactive composition.
What is also interesting to note is how much attention was paid to lighting in the construction of the environments. Areas which in reality would have limited natural light tend to exhibit more contrast in their color palette. Indoor areas are a good example of this, with the foreground and background colors being further apart in tonal value. On the other hand, outdoor scenes with unobstructed sky share similar colors and have a much softer appearance, almost as if some natural elements like sunlight or fog were washing over the colors to give them such a quality.
In essence, the artwork of Knytt Stories has impressed me even more than that of its predecessor. The simplicity and clean appearance of this game creates a powerful visual composition that is a delight for my eyes. It gradually undulates between gentle and strong colors that lend it just enough of the appropriate emotional quality in each scene. Yet there is never so much going on at once that it becomes occluded.
There is one danger that I have come upon in the game, which is a direct result of such beautifully crafted artwork. Many times as I ventured into an unexplored area I would be so taken by its new visual attributes that I just got lost in it and forgot where I was going. This is part of Knytt Stories' charm for me as an artist. I suppose many gamers won't have such a reaction to it, but some of you may. And allowing yourself to experience the game's art in this way can only enhance your overall enjoyment of it.
The auditory stimulus of Knytt Stories is further proof of its minimalist design ethic. Naturally, all sound effects and music are in the style of electronica which Nifflas is already known for. I would say that much of the music is ambient, with a few exceptions in some areas which are distinctly different in visual style from the rest of the environments in the game.
When the player transitions from the less unconventional areas, if there is such a thing in Knytt Stories, to something like a snowy mountain top or a lava cavern, the music picks up in accordance with this change. Still electronic, it does at times bring in a little flare of Jazz into the mix. In the end, it always comes back to a more minimal and ambient melody or instrumentation.
One of my favorite audible experiences in Knytt has to be the occasional absence of all background music. A few areas will exhibit this, in which case the only sounds left are the pitter-patter of your Knytt's little feet. This, I have to admit, is quite adorable. Like a little church mouse, the Knytt scurries and pounces across the screen.
The reason for why this in particular has such a strong effect is because of that very absence of sound. When you remove elements from a design, whatever elements that are left gain emphasis, and their effect is that much stronger. This remains true throughout the game, as areas where there is little sound serve as a counterpoint for the areas where music does begin to play. Just as Nifflas accomplished this visually, so too the sounds of Knytt undulate in their intensity as you move through the game world. Ultimately, the auditory experience of this game is thoroughly enjoyable, no matter at which point in it's flow you may find yourself. And again there were times where I simply had to stop and listen to the music for a little while on account of its sheer artistry.
The foundation for gameplay mechanics in Knytt Stories naturally stems from the preceding game, Knytt. At first glance, it behaves much like most platformers. There's running, there's jumping, and there's gravity to make it all work, etc. The primary difference between Knytt's gameplay and that of most of the genre is the ability to climb walls. This sounds very simple, but as I have said already, this is a game of effective simplicity.
This one seemingly minor addition to your available actions changes the way you play the entire game. Unlike a typical platformer, Knytt has you spending about as much time climbing walls and jumping off of them as running on the ground and jumping onto platforms. As such, the games design takes off in this direction with facilitating exploration on both axes. Granted, this is not a novel invention, but it is done in a unique way, because I cannot think of any other 2d platformers which make climbing walls such an integral part of the game (though there may be a few I'm simply not familiar with).
Knytt Stories takes this mechanic a little further by limiting your abilities to perform these actions initially. You start with just being able to walk and jump a little, and you must get powerups that will allow you to run, jump higher, and climb walls. Further additions to your repertoire of skills not present in the original Knytt include a double jump, an umbrella to slow your fall, and an eventual "holographic decoy" generator.
This set of abilities is also not a new invention, but they do complement the traditional gameplay of Knytt wonderfully. Once you obtain these abilities, new dimensions of gameplay become available which you must utilize to explore the game world. As expected, all game mechanics are highly polished and never feel out of place. I think it's easy to take for granted the simplicity of the actions you take in such a game, yet it should be noted that it is because they work so well and are so solid that we do not often notice them.
Each of the artistic parts of Knytt Stories is certainly admirable in its own right. A screenshot of the game's art is appealing enough to me to hang on my wall at ten times its original size. Its music I will undoubtedly be listening to for months to come, and the gameplay itself is good enough to stand on its own.
However, that is not what games are about. Games are about the totality of all these elements which then culminate in the players experience. It is unfortunate that there are different approaches to experience which then result in the experience being more or less amicable, but such is the nature of things. I would like to propose that there is probably a better way to experience Knytt Stories. It's simple and perhaps an obvious way, but it has the potential of enhancing the game.
It is recommended that the game be played with the best possible audio equipment, and the volume turned up to a clear and audible, but comfortable level. Good quality headphones serve this purpose well. In addition, it has to be played fullscreen, of course. A bigger screen is probably better. Finally, it is important to come to the game with an open mind. To elaborate, if you've been playing WoW and Halo for months, you will probably not enjoy Knytt Stories as much.
The fewer preconceptions you can bring with you the better. Not because your expectations will not be fulfilled, but because this game is a different experience than much of your standard gaming fare. Come to Knytt Stories relaxed. Come to it as you would come to an old friend you have not seen for years, and it will treat you well. If you can manage to do all this, it is unlikely that you will be disappointed.