“I can’t look at them,” says Chris. “I haven’t looked at them yet. I’d probably start crying or something.”
Chris Johnson had a cool idea. At PAX Australia he’d ask everyone who spent time playing his video game to write down, on a post-it note, one single word that defined their experience. One single word to describe the game he’s currently working on: Expand.
At PAX Australia people whispered about Expand. At these type of conventions I’ve gotten into the habit of asking others what to go and see: “what was your favourite thing at PAX?” “What was your favourite game?” People said a lot of things, but almost everyone had one thing in common.
“It’s really trippy,” one person said to me.
“Make sure you put headphones on,” said another.
“You have to play Expand,” said a stranger, who had just introduced himself to me five seconds previously.
I had to play Expand.
Expand was tucked in the corner of the Australian Indie Showcase which was itself tucked in a corner of PAX. There was a perpetual crowd surrounding it. Soon I would find out why.
Development on Expand started at a Game Jam and, since then, Chris has been working to refine the concept. “I’ve been working on this game on and off for four years,” said Chris.
It shows. Expand is a relatively simple game with a unique high concept. On its website, Expand is described as “a single player video game in which players explore a circular labyrinth constructed in a monochromatic geometric landscape”. This is a sentence that sucks the life out of Expand.
Really Expand is a game about exploration. About exploring a space that seemingly shifts, changes and — yes — expands as you traverse it. It looks and feels like moving within an enormous, gloriously complicated wind-up watch. The world tick tocks as you find a path through. The world changes and transforms itself as you move through it. Expand is a wonderfully original experience that defies easy definition, but when you play it, you will know. You will know you’ve played something special.
Expand is a puzzle game and it’s frequently puzzling. It’s seamlessly designed and brilliantly executed. Even its start menu is part of the ‘experience’. It’s a world bursting with ideas that evolve and grow like the game itself. It transforms and reinvents itself at every turn. Expand is fluid. It is simple. It also manages to feel complex. It’s a video game that somehow manages to feel cohesive, ambitious and adventurous all at the same time. It was, undoubtedly, my favourite game at PAX Australia.
Afterwards I spot Chris Johnson’s collection of post-it notes, the post-it notes he can’t bring himself to read. They’re stuck at the back of Expand’s display, next to the game’s stark, black and white logo.
“Can I go over and have a look?” I ask.
“Sure, just try and not trip over any of the cables.”
I manage to avoid the cables. There are dozens and dozens of post-its plastered all over the wall.
“Therapeutic”, “strange”, “challenging”, “fluid”, “refined”, “holy shit!” — that’s two words. I start wondering what word I would put up there. It’s difficult to say.
It could be any number of words I’ve already used in this article: puzzling, circular, stark, complicated, unique, labyrinth, cohesive, adventurous, ambitious, perpetual…
Actually I think I like that word best: perpetual. I walked away from the stand not knowing what to write, but if I could go back there today, that is almost certainly the word I’d be writing on a post-it note.