2017 was the year of a lot of games that I did not play. It feels almost cliché to say my 2017 was bad, so instead I’ll say it was unenjoyable, because I know I missed out on some gems that I did not have the energy to explore. But if there’s one genre that can pull me out of a funk, it’s the joys of losing over and over in a roguelike, and Terry Cavanagh’s game Tiny Heist was exactly the game I needed.
As a stealth roguelike, the point of the game is to climb a tower, stealing gems along the way, until you reach the very top and escape with your treasure. The player controls the thief as they traverse through a tower filled with guards, dogs and security cameras. In typical roguelike fashion, the premise is small and compact. The game feels like a return to the basic roguelike genre; even its main character looks like an “@,” which was typically used to represent humans in older games in the genre, including the game that gave it its name, 1980’s Rogue. Despite its simplicity, Tiny Heist left me with wonder. It gave me a simple objective and encouraged me to explore beyond it.
Tiny Heist is actually very difficult! The game is technically turn based, meaning the enemies won’t move unless the thief does. Enemy routes can always change as well, so it’s difficult to anticipate where a guard may go next. There was a point where I could consistently make it to the top of the tower, but taking a break from the game means I’m back where I started, trying out new strategies, and playing a little less recklessly. But I don’t really mind starting over because I know when I do see my character finally reach the top, gems in hand, I will probably feel the same excitement I felt the first time I did it. And then I will probably feel the need to beat my high score, because I can always do better.
I never grew tired of playing as the gem-hungry thief. The game doesn’t count how many hours played, but I would guess I’ve played somewhere in the hundreds. I’ve played it obsessively for months, trying to beat my own score or complete personal objectives. It’s so sparse that it encourages me to challenge myself. Sometimes I tried to make it up the tower without buying a new item or without ever getting hit. When I discovered a way to explore outside of the tower, I felt a sense of satisfaction and revelation in a way that I did not in more expansive games like Breath of the Wild. The exhilaration when a game breaks from its form—in this case, a tower—is exactly why I enjoy playing small games. Even games confined to narrow spaces can say a lot, or demand a lot from the player.
I’m thankful for the small surprises in Tiny Heist that left me inquisitive about what world lived beyond the giant tower. But I’m also happy to stay within that building, hunting for gems all day until I’m finally caught.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.