In 1968 The Beatles released an animated movie called Yellow Submarine. Today of course, “adult cartoons” abound, but at that time they were quite the novelty. The film is more or less a wild trip of musical interludes sprinkled with an even wilder story. During one particular song, a series of rectangular shapes appear on screen, folding in on itself again and again to form an ever-changing square (or perhaps a cube?) It’s mesmerizing, and it wasn’t until I played Expand, and I was reminded of that cult classic scene.
Introducing Expand, by Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin. It’s an indie puzzle game where the object is to maneuver a small pink sprite through a shifting maze of obstacles. Not only is the labyrinth in constant motion, but the map is also shrouded in the fog of war. Moving your sprite doesn’t always clear the fog entirely. Often the game proceeds with a “spotlight” effect, with only your immediate position lit up.
The first few levels of the game are easy enough. You’ll face twists and turns around a circular hub. Moving parts are to be avoided in general, as they can crush you or otherwise block your progress. If you do become trapped, fear not. You are penalized only slightly, by having your sprite moved back a bit on the maze track. Later the levels become harder and require additional tactics. There are grey buttons to press, for instance. Also, there are red blocks and walls with which you must avoid contact. The game continues in this way; a rotating track around a central hub, with your little pink sprite, meandering through various passages and openings.
What struck me most in Expand however was the soundtrack, which is available in the “soundtrack edition” of the game. It’s extremely moody. If you’re in a happy frame of mind already, the music will neutralize that. If you’re in a somber state, the music will neutralize that, too! It’s almost as if you’re a robot, performing duties befitting a robot. It’s not until you exit the game that you’re returned to your prior condition; simply amazing. What’s more, the game automatically saves your position, so you can enter and leave at your pleasure.
Of course, the main attraction of puzzle games is the discovery of new antics, as well as the tactics necessary to overcome them. Does Expand deliver? Indeed it does on both fronts. There are surprises every time you lift the fog of war, and players need to re-evaluate their actions at every turn. Some solutions are on a timer for an extra dose of stres…er…challenge. Not to worry; the auto-save ensures your eventual success and completion. The question is, do you want it to end?
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