An absolute triumph
In Expand, you are a square. Your sole objective is to navigate a fluctuating, dynamic labyrinth. That labyrinth surrounds, and is seemingly created by, a central circle. As you make your way around, the labyrinth is created in front of you, and wiped away behind you to pave the way for mazes anew. There is no defined story. There are no conventional characters. It speaks to the overall design, then, when I say that this is nonetheless one of the most evocative and moving games I have ever played.
It’s a bold statement, and one which I hope to explain over the course of this review. The fact of the matter is, the combination of a square, circle, and maze left me closer to tears than moving shapes have any right to do. This isn’t a perfect game, but to achieve that means it’s certainly something special.
Now that we’ve got the mushiness out of the way, let’s move on to the actual review and leave my tear ducts far behind. Expand describes itself as ‘meditative,’ which, for the first hour or so at least, is true. The game begins with quiet, slightly morose piano music accompanying a slow-paced section which acts as an abstract sort of tutorial. As you navigate your way around the black and white maze, hints like “Follow me”, “Against the tide” and “Be aware” will appear. They sufficiently describe what it is you should be doing at any given moment (Move down paths to make further paths appear, dodge oncoming walls to progress, and don’t get crushed, respectively). But, for me, they also set up a relationship – or at least some form of connection – between our square and the mysterious central circle.
That may sound like the inane waffle of a pretentious artsy critic, but hear me out. See, the comparison that’s been made by a lot of people so far has been Super Hexagon. This is understandable as that’s also a game about moving your character through a relentlessly twisting and evolving maze, albeit with everything moving at a million miles an hour. Thematically, however, I think a more apt comparison is Mike Bithell’s 2012 masterpiece Thomas Was Alone. That game proved how attached we could become to polygons, and how invested we could become in their trials and tribulations. Admittedly there’s no Thomas, Laura or Claire, and no wonderful Danny Wallace narration, but nonetheless there’s that same sense that I took out for more than I expected.
Enough of all that, though. An important question still has to be answered: Is there anything of value here for the people who don’t want to read into a simple maze game? Yes, yes, and thrice yes.The gameplay begins fairly simplistically, but as you progress you begin to see how fiendish this labyrinth’s design is. It’s completely seamless, and you’ll often be so focused on the hurdles ahead that you’ll not even notice the path you’d taken previously is being wiped away only to be replaced with a future challenge. Obstacles move, bend, and twist in interesting ways, forcing you to take a second to see how best to approach. You quickly learn that touching anything red results in instant death, meaning that when you’re chased by a screen-filling wave of red pixels, well, suffice to say, it’s a fairly tense moment. This game could’ve gone the way of being an ‘art game’ that has zero challenge, but I’m very glad that it didn’t.
Complexity is added not only by increasing the difficulty of the maze, but also by inherently changing how it moves. Sometimes, by moving your square, you also move each and every obstacle. This prompts using a completely different thought process to get through unscathed. Other times, obstacles will collide with one another in such a way to create ‘safe areas,’ which the player must quickly navigate between. This could have become a simple thing, a proof of concept, but for me, Expand is every bit the complete experience.
To answer the question of why the gameplay is so compelling, however, we have to recognize that Expand‘s soundtrack is absolutely, unconditionally wonderful. Everything I’ve praised so far – the moving segments, the seamless gameplay, the ratcheting of the tension – none of it would have been possible without Chris Larkin’s tremendous score underlying it all. At times sombre and understated, at others swelling to a glorious crescendo, and all in complete synchronicity with the pacing and mood of the level.
In fact, were I to have one main criticism of the game, it would be that there is only one level where the soundtrack seems to have a direct impact on obstacle movement. As a fan of rhythm games, I’d have loved to see more levels utilizing this. It’s certainly evident that the soundtrack is well-designed enough to be able to cope with a deeper gameplay integration.
Overall, this is a game that won me over, and I’m more than happy to put my own spin on the (quite possibly complete lack of) story. However, for those of you not interested in reading between the lines of a square’s infatuation with, or depending on how you see it, escape from, a circle (Personally, I’m Team Infatuation; #TeamInfatuation) then you may well find this an interesting two hour diversion, but not a lot more. There’s little in the way of replayability, but the experience lingered, making that a non-issue.
I think you’ll know whether this is a game you’d be inclined to play. All I can give you is my heartiest recommendation. Expand is quite obviously designed with great care and attention to detail from the maze design, to the soundtrack, and to the pacing that had me on tenterhooks. I loved every minute of it.