Videogames have an obsession with scale. They’re always attempting to impress us with their vastness. This can mean giving us seemingly endless worlds to play in, or casting us as either side of the conflict between David and Goliath. But what about the times when the opposite happens? Where we get to explore something that’s not grand and monolithic, but tiny and intimate? Here are a few games that let us do just that, letting us play from the view of the worm, not the bird.
Okay, maybe this is taking the idea of “worm’s eye view” a little literally. Still, it’s hard to escape the reach of Team17’s decades long franchise of artillery games. There’s been a new entry in the series almost every year since the original Amiga game was released. The scale of the worms themselves varies depending on the game and the battlefield, but there’s plenty of stages that play up the diminutive size of the characters. If nothing else, it’s amusing to imagine the invertebrates launching artillery at each other in someone’s garden.
Cool Spot is definitely a game that’s entirely of its era. An anthropomorphized version of the red circle on the 7 Up logo, Spot featured in ads during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, back when 7 Up was marketing itself as “the uncola”. Somehow this was popular to enough not only to warrant a game, but multiple games across multiple major consoles. Cool Spot in particular was developed by Virgin Interactive (best known for The Lion King and Aladdin on Genesis) and was an average Amiga style platformer that did some amusing things with Spot’s size. My personal favorite is the bonus stages where you end up in a massive bottle of cool, refreshing 7 Up.
With so many games designed to be high fidelity ways to play soldier it’s fun to see something take the opposite approach. Toy Commander has you doing exactly what you’d think, commanding a series of toy military vehicles across the expanses of a young boy’s home. While there’s probably something larger to be said about the social routine of playing soldier, sometimes it’s fun just to focus on the act of play, and a battle on a kitchen countertop will help you accomplish just that.
Final Fantasy XV is a massive game, and even its demos make an effort to show off that scale. Not representative or properly placed within the full game, the Platinum Demo was more a tech demo designed to show off aspects of the main game through a series of surreal vignettes. This naturally includes a big boss battle, but more interesting is the section where you play as a child version of protagonist Noctis, then shrink down to the size of an action figure and explore a small domestic scene. What makes it notable is the sheer detail put into the depiction of an everyday, if lavish, setting. Highlights include magic pads that turn Noctis into a variety of vehicles, and fighting enemies alongside teacups and upon books.
If other games take efforts to appreciate the qualities of everyday objects, Mister Mosquito does the opposite and turns them into towering, grotesque figures. This bizarre game tasks you with sucking blood from unaware humans, darting out of sight and attempting to distract or relax them in order to steal their blood without notice. There’s a voyeuristic and invasive quality to it that’s really unsettling, with you targeting vulnerable, uncovered skin on these titanic humans. It becomes even more terrifying when you’re locked into battle with them, where a dramatic, almost monster movie style soundtrack begins and they start swinging their massive appendages at you. It’s the most alien the human body has ever felt.
Speaking of grotesque human forms, Little Nightmares is full of distorted bodies and proportions. Terrifying, not quite human creatures chase you through environments that are all the wrong size. I’m not sure if you’re really small or everything else is too large. All of it towers above you, with their edges and shapes always bent slightly off, never fitting into place as they should. It turns even mundane objects into unsettling parts of the scenery.
Unravel shrinks you down and tasks you with exploring the threads that bind people together. It’s a sweet, perhaps even saccharine game, depending on your taste, that is about simple interactions. It aims to replicate the same warm feeling of paging through an old photo album, remembering moments you may have forgotten, or revisiting old favorites. That’s evident in the presentation, which has you travel through gardens and homes that are rendered with nostalgic strokes. It’s all very pastoral.
Media Molecule has a certain obsession with materials, which is pretty evident from their most recognizable effort, Little Big Planet. The protagonist, Sackboy, is a knitted plush, and the various environments you play in are all composed of fabrics, felt, buttons and papercraft. It all feels a lot like a diorama, and the various creative tools built into it encourage you to create your own sets to have Sackboy and friends play in. It’s another game that uses size well to encourage you to take a more playful look at our world.
Everything can probably be considered playful in its own right, though there’s always a certain sense of irony and high mindedness that keeps it from being entirely celebratory. As the title suggests, Everything is a game where you play as…well, everything, from herds of animals to galaxies to blades of grass. It’s almost like playing an interactive version of the documentary Powers of Ten. What makes it notable is just how miniscule or massive you can become, and how quickly you can transition between the two, almost accidentally.
Parallel worlds have become a returning trope in Zelda ever since Link to the Past, and Minish Cap provides an interesting take on it. Instead of having a dark world counterpart, it’s the same world, only seen from a different size. Shrink down and tree stumps become the size of houses, and you’ll be introduced to the denizens who live at the world beneath your feet. Not only is it adorable, it adds some interesting interactions between the two levels of the world and results in some fresh ideas for the dungeons.
Like “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” Clockwork Knight is the story of a diminutive toy knight setting out to save his beloved. Well, with a bit less melancholy. There are challenges that can become intimidating, but for the most part it’s about exploring the little worlds that exist within a child’s room, and partying with the other toys. There’s a lot of small touches that make it more impressive in motion, and the set design is full of detail and color. It’s less about representing these settings as a physical place, but more about the way these miniature worlds look through the lens of an active imagination.
Katamari Damacy is full of wonderful, whimsical details. Every world is rendered with a distinct low poly style, flush with color and humor. My favorite stages by far are the ones that place you in domestic spaces, slowly accumulating detritus and growing from pint size to the point where you can roll up entire humans. The best part is the sheer detail of them, with hundreds of unique items in a single stage. Each of them can also be looked up later in the collection, with their own little descriptions. In fact, there’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to tweeting out entries from this collection. Absolutely charming.
An almost slapstick puzzle game, No One Can Stop Mr. Domino involves directing the titular character around puzzle circuits setting up Rube Goldberg style chains of events to accomplish a task. The steps along the way are usually rather ludicrous and surprising, and seeing what jokes they set up is a draw in itself. There’s a good mix of domestic and urban areas, all well detailed with their own unique gags. Curiously, some of the background is also made up of real life licensed Japanese snacks. Nothing like setting off some dominos to the sight of some Pocky.
Nintendo presents a combination of meticulously realized garden environments and surreal fantasy fauna. Its everyday objects, like discarded batteries, become treasures that are picked up and packaged to be sent to a far away planet. Of course this means sending hundreds of tiny plant like creatures to do your bidding and carry them from location to location. Along the way you’ll have to contend with a host of hostile beasts, many with designs that are just familiar enough to feel off. Setting these everyday objects next to this menagerie of alien creatures only accentuates the strangeness of it all. It’s weird, and beautiful, and reframes our world by making it a little bit unfamiliar. If nothing else, Pikmin is worth taking a tour through, simply for its unique perspective on the everyday.
Most robot fighting games attempt to give a sense of massive scale. Robots are depicted as massive entities, knocking down buildings in their way, or collapsing entire districts when they tumble. Plenty of them also fail to really communicate that scale, making those areas seem more like the models on Japanese special effects shows than actual urban centers. So why not play right into that and set these robot fights at actual toy size?
That’s exactly what Gotcha Force does. A combination of simplified Virtual-On style fighting mechanics and gachapon capsule toys, Gotcha Force set its battles on playgrounds and children’s rooms. It’s also full of hundreds of mini robot toys, which can be assembled into a little squad and battled against friends. Like Toy Commander and Clockwork Knight, it captures the whimsy and color of a kid’s imagination, this time filtered through the narrative of a shonen anime. Which of course means that the final confrontations blow you up to city size, then finally have you fight on top of the entire earth.
The smallest and most intimate of all the games here, Chibi-Robo again focuses on the domestic. Here the father of the family has once again spent too much money on something they don’t need—a miniature household robot assistant. Chibi-Robo is more than an overpriced roomba though. Not only will he pick up trash and scrub dirt and grime away, but he also slowly helps others work through their personal issues. Over the course of the game Chibi-Robo will slowly build up the ability to traverse to new areas of the house, and in each of them are toys and people who are in need of his help. Maybe you’ll help a toy find some courage, learn to understand the daughter who talks only in frog noises, or get at the tension between the mother and father of the household. It’s a warm, kind game, that focuses on brightening up a house, not only by doing some chores and cleaning up, but understanding the people who live in it.
Amr Al-Aaser is an Egyptian-Filipino American writer and artist operating out of Chicago. They also co-edit Deorbital and Clickbliss. You can find them rambling about robots on Twitter @siegarettes.