Games seem to be getting shorter and shorter these days, driven by statistical research that revealed how few gamers actually finished the long games they started. With the increase in both casual and episodic gaming in recent years, this trend towards brevity has become even more pronounced. But how short is TOO short? It really depends on the game. Two of the shortest games in recently memory, Stranded and The Moon Sliver, can each be completed in under an hour, and were designed from the ground up to be played as such. If you don't mind measuring your gameplay experience in minutes rather than weeks, these blink-or-you'll-miss-it titles may just be worth your attention and a (very) little bit of your time.
In Stranded, you play an astronaut whose ship has crashed on an uncharted alien planet. Waking up in a cryochamber in the smoking ruins of your craft, you suit up and head out, only to find massive alien creatures standing outside. If that sounds like the set-up for a pretty standard (even clichéd) sci-fi adventure game, be assured that from there on out Stranded is anything but. In fact, even calling it a game at all is misleading: it's more like an interactive art project, describing itself as "both a love letter to classic point & click adventures and an experiment with the fundamentals of the genre." Enigmatic, atmospheric and all too short, you'll be left scratching your head by the time it's done.
Right from the start, Stranded defies convention. Rather than building a sense of panic, urgency or terror, there's an atmosphere of almost Zen-like calm. You won't find yourself frantically tapping controls to find out what's wrong with the ship, or jury-rigging unlikely combinations of spare parts to fix it. Nor will you find yourself running, fighting aliens or trying to make first contact with them. Instead, you'll simply explore this alien world, sometimes with only the wind and the laboured sound of your breathing for company, occasionally interrupted by the grating of what on second glance look not so much like organic creatures as alien robots. Or possibly golems, it's hard to tell.
Exploration really is the key word; you won't find any of the trappings of a traditional point-and-click adventure here. There's no inventory, no objects to examine or manipulate, and only one sequence that could just about qualify as a puzzle. As for dialogue, the aliens never speak, but then what good would it do you if they did? In any case, they're very aloof: occasionally they'll walk away from you, giving the impression that they want you to follow, but for the most part they're content to just stand around and watch. Their architecture is covered with what looks like writing, but without the benefit of a TARDIS or a Star Trek-style universal translator, it doesn't help much.
Indie developers Curve Studios describe the game as minimalist, and they aren't joking: literally all you can do is walk, and even that's limited to a small number of fixed points on each screen. You can click anywhere you like, but you'll merely head to the nearest available point. To leave a location, you have to go to the point nearest the edge of the screen, then click beyond it. That's almost the whole interface. Clicking on yourself brings up a small wrist-mounted tile map that fills in as you explore, and if you head back to the ship you can elect to return to your cryochamber and wait for nightfall/daybreak, but that's it. The only way I found even to quit was to press F to go from fullscreen to a window, then click the close button in the window's title bar. (The game also starts up in a window, so I only knew to do so after randomly poking around trying to find a way to go fullscreen in the first place.)
Even saving your progress is handled differently than normal: you can't explicitly save and restore, but your progress is saved when you leave. More or less. Events in the game play out over several days and nights, but it's up to you when you want to move on to the next day/night. One way to do that is to return to the ship and your cryochamber; the other is to quit. On your return, your character will wake up in the cryochamber again and time will have moved on. This probably isn’t much of an issue – the game is very short, and really best played in one sitting – but if you do need to take a break, make sure you've seen everything you want to before you leave, because the only way to get back to that time and place is to start over.
With all that out of the way, we've covered what the game isn't, but not what it is. Is it even possible to do something worthwhile or interesting within such tight constraints? We've seen exploration-based games before, but they've typically provided information-rich surroundings for you to uncover and a definite story to piece together. Here, you're an outsider who doesn't speak the language and has no cultural reference points to use in order to make sense of what you see. Even when you reach the end, you'll know very little for sure, though you'll probably have all sorts of theories.
Then again, the more time I spent with Stranded, the more I realised that wasn't the point. It's not about the details (many of which don't really stand up to scrutiny if you stare at them too hard) but about the feeling and the broad sweep of the environment you find yourself in. It's more a spiritual quest than scientific exploration. Somewhat ironically (given that you can't breathe the air), it's about atmosphere. Looked at through that lens, the minimalism makes sense: juggling inventory or tinkering with weird machines would just be a distraction.
Fortunately, then, this game has atmosphere in spades. It definitely owes a debt to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, offering up that same sense of awe and loneliness, with a slow, serene tempo that invites you to embrace the otherness of it all. It's a curious world: arid desert, featuring a handful of what might well be stone temples, one featuring a deity that looks oddly human. A small number of aliens that could be made of metal or stone but definitely look artificial, despite no other evidence of advanced technology. Some plants, but no animals. Have you just crashed in the middle of a religious sect that prefers to worship in solitude, or is this world moribund? If so, what has happened to it?
As with 2001, a big part of the game's impact is down to the sound design. The music varies from day to day, starting out with minimal sci-fi synths but then taking a tour through the emotions, from hope and optimism to sadness and loss. We're not talking about simple pre-recorded tracks playing on a loop here, either: instruments and themes fade in and out depending on where you are and what's happening, but they all form part of one continuous mix. The effect is subtle – I didn't notice it at first – but it does a great job of cueing the mood in much the way a film score would. Given that you have so little else to go on, it really helps you to interpret what's happening. Eventually, when you've been everywhere and seen everything there is to see, it fades out to leave you with just ambient sounds and your ever-present breathing.
Breathing is a big deal in this game. Not only do you hear every breath, but your character's shoulders heave up and down in (smoothly-animated) time with each one. Even the aliens join in, leaving you to wonder why. And the tempo of your breathing speeds up and slows down to show how you're feeling. Like the music, this is a subtle but important touch that helps you connect with your faceless spaceman.
Otherwise, the graphics are rendered in distinctly retro 640x480 pixel art, but unlike, say, the painterly feel of Wadjet Eye's recent games, Stranded looks like it could genuinely hail from the early ‘90s. The colour palette is deliberately limited, not quite to the 16 colours of VGA, but the effect is very similar: rather than smooth gradations of colour, it uses stippling effects to create the impression of using more colours than it actually does. This limited shading combines with crisp edges to give an almost comic-book feel. Most scenes have some life to them, from clouds scudding across the sky to the water fountain in an alien temple; it's just enough to make you feel you're in a real place without undermining the sense of isolation.
Another nice surprise is how different the world feels at night: after a first day spent in an arid wasteland of burnt orange desert and dusty red rocks, I wasn't expecting to wake up to a purple-washed world illuminated by glowing yellow plants, with a cave of eerie blue stalactites, buildings lit up in jaunty primary colours and a party atmosphere in the air.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Stranded is that it is very short. My first playthrough, wandering around and trying to see everything, took a little less than an hour. Going back now, I could probably finish it in 5-10 minutes if I had to, and it would only take even that long because the walking pace is so slow and deliberate. (But then, racing to the finish line is pretty much the exact opposite of what this game is about.) That's where all the good work and high concept came unstuck for me: for a game that's all about exploration, there isn't that much to actually explore, and much of what there is consists of desert landscape. And the story (to the extent that I worked it out) is only a sketch; the equivalent of a short story rather than a novel. For all that, it's a good story (I won't spoil the ending, but it too comes straight out of the Kubrick playbook), but that just made me want more of it. Despite the emphasis on the big picture and the atmosphere, I could have done with more details to get my teeth stuck into and fuel my imagination. Then again, perhaps a longer game would just have left me frustrated with my lack of agency, and in that sense maybe an hour is about right.
There also seems to be only one path through, but there's still some replay value, if only to re-evaluate earlier events in the light of your growing understanding, or to pick up on things you missed the first time.
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In the end, Stranded largely succeeds in being the game – if that’s what it is – it wants to be, but whether that's something you'll actually enjoy playing is another matter. It's big on atmosphere but short on detail, limited in scope by its self-imposed minimalism, and it poses many more questions than it answers, but it leaves a much more memorable impression than its short playtime would suggest. If you're in the mood for something different and find open questions more stimulating than frustrating, you could well find that the experience grows on you.