Minute of Islands review
There are few conceits so well worn in western fiction as that of the “Chosen One:” an individual selected by a higher power to combat some great evil and bring the world back from the brink of annihilation. As a plot device it’s driven such modern epoch-defining blockbusters as Star Wars, The Matrix and the Harry Potter series—not to mention their legions of imitators—and as with anything ubiquitous, it’s become more difficult over the years to make new interpretations feel fresh. Personally, it’s a subject that’s never much interested me, and my belief until recently was that the idea had basically been played out. I say “until recently” because Minute of Islands had me re-examining the entire notion from directions I’d never considered. It’s a beautiful, moving game, one that’s not just about a Chosen One but about the weight that idea itself exerts upon the world, and every discrete element of its design works in service to that theme.
Players take on the role of Mo, a girl who lives in an archipelago that’s constantly under threat from an airborne fungal blight. The fungus is merciless, eating up everything it touches and gradually consuming all life in its path. The danger is such that all except Mo and her family evacuated the islands long ago to find a safer haven. Those who remain survive through the efforts of four subterranean giants, who operate complex air-purifying machinery that keeps the fungus at bay. Mo found and awakened these brothers when the blight first arrived, and in return they selected her as their apprentice, granting her a magical tool called the Omni Switch that allows her to use, manipulate and repair their technology. It’s a responsibility that Mo takes deadly seriously, as the ancient machines are constantly breaking down and requiring her attention. Mo is thus the only thing standing between her home and oblivion.
As the game opens, Mo wakes one morning to discover that the machinery has suffered a catastrophic system-wide failure overnight, leaving the giant siblings in a catatonic state and allowing the fungal bloom to creep back over the islands. If she can’t get the system back online soon, the brothers will die, leaving the islands forever defenseless against the fungal spread and forcing her family to either abandon their ancestral home or perish. This means Mo will have to travel from island to island, using the Omni Switch to repair the machines and rouse the giants from their stupor if she’s to have a hope of keeping her loved ones safe.
You guide Mo along a two-dimensional plane, moving left and right with the joystick or arrow keys and jumping or boosting yourself onto ledges with a dedicated button. The game is not a platformer per se, but it’s platformer-adjacent; as such, though both keyboard and gamepad controls are supported, the latter provides a much smoother experience. Hotspots are marked by blinking white starbursts accompanied by an on-screen prompt describing what a button-press will let you do. Mo can variously examine, pick up and manipulate what she sees, depending on the context, as well as converse with those few who are left to listen. Occasionally you’ll find an item to keep, with your inventory displayed on the pause menu. Aside from the Omni Switch, these are mostly keys and assorted items that you’ll be told how to use when you approach the relevant hotspots. There are also areas where a button press will let you “remember,” causing a jellyfish-like orb to materialize and float around you; jumping or running through these will unlock a description of the memory Mo associates with that location. Doing so is entirely optional, but the memories add such depth and poignancy to the story that collecting them is highly recommended.
Gameplay is largely centered on exploration, as you’ll traverse the handful of islands in the archipelago to repair the decrepit air filtration system. You visit each island at a set point in the story, boarding Mo’s ramshackle boat once you’ve done everything you need to in a given location. On most islands your first task is to locate the dormant air filters and reactivate them using the Omni Switch. The islands are all large and rocky, with numerous obstacles to climb, jump over and maneuver around, so the greater part of your task will involve simply making a path for yourself as you go. Depending on the island, you’ll have anywhere from one to four filters to take care of; the game helpfully tracks your progress with a counter that appears on-screen after each filter comes on-line. Once the filters are working, you’ll have to descend into the catacombs below to awaken the giant who operates the local machinery, navigating the cavernous underground landscape as you did the world above.
The heavy focus on exploration gives Minute of Islands ample opportunity to showcase one of its greatest strengths: namely, some of the most gorgeous hand-drawn art of any game I’ve played in the past ten years. Studio Fizbin’s The Inner World and its sequel were rightly praised for their impressive cartoon visuals, but the imagery on display here is in another league entirely. The flowing line work, vivid colors and near-flawless animation all combine to create a fungus-choked world that feels at once familiar and fantastical.
The islands are home to a breathtakingly alien ecosystem, rendered all the more phantasmagorical by the strange, colorful transformations that the fungus inflicts on the surfaces it touches. Fossilized remains of ancient creatures jut out from strangely organic-seeming rock formations, and creatures that appear simultaneously mammal and amphibian are seen scurrying in the cracks. No environmental detail is spared: waves lap against the shore; fungal growths glisten and vent gas in the background; grasses bend and blow in the wind, alternately concealing and revealing the wildlife cavorting in their shadows. The various moving parts of this world fit together and interact so seamlessly that they seem at times not to have been drawn so much as imagined directly onto the screen, helped along by immersive ambient sound design that breathes life into each area.
That level of detail extends everywhere, even—and especially—to the signs of decay and decrepitude that signify the advance of the fungus. The islands, renowned for their beauty, were once a thriving tourist destination; now each is littered with the tumbledown skeletons of the buildings and monuments the fleeing populace left behind, as well as the much more literal remains of those human and animal inhabitants who fell to the blight in times past. There’s wildlife in abundance, but for every scurrying jackalope family or flock of squawking pelicans, you’ll see the decaying corpse of a creature who couldn’t find cover in time. These become grislier and more numerous as the game progresses, driving home the point that, regardless of Mo’s eventual success or failure, a heavy toll has already been exacted for the time it’s taken her. These grim sights are rendered with the same care and skill as the more pleasant ones, making them all the more shocking as they increase in frequency over time. (For all that its visual aesthetic might evoke a storybook, Minute of Islands omits nothing when portraying death and its attendant imagery. A game for children this is not.)
As you explore you’ll encounter numerous obstacles, with most of the game’s “puzzles” centered on manipulating the moving parts of your environment. These include doors, ladders, and climbable ledges as well as numerous objects you can push or pull when prompted. Often your goals will center on using the machines that can interface with the Omni Switch. Sometimes, as with the filters themselves, this is as simple as following the on-screen instructions for which sequence of buttons to press; other equipment, like the large fuses that can only be moved once you’ve Omni Switched them, will simply sputter to life and leave you to figure out what to do with them.
Periodically throughout the game, Mo falls into a trance and awakens in a hallucinatory dreamscape, a side effect of her years of inhaling fungal spores; while there you’ll have to find and gather several memories to snap her out of her fugue. These surreal sequences feature some of the game’s most creative platforming segments, with puzzle solutions that involve paying as much attention to where Mo’s shadow falls or how her reflection moves in water as to her actual position. The imagery here is wonderfully bizarre, usually magnifying innocuous sights from Mo’s waking life through a psychedelic lens. Particularly memorable is a sandy ocean bottom where gigantic garden eels stretch from the ground up toward the heavens.
The puzzles are mostly on the easy side, and partway through the game’s roughly seven hours I felt they ran the risk of becoming overly repetitive. Further on, however, a story development caused Mo’s quest to unexpectedly switch gears, and I suddenly realized how appropriate and well calculated the design choices had been to that point. To say too much would be to diminish some of its power, but it occurred to me how cleverly the game had placed me in Mo’s headspace, and how fully it allowed me to inhabit her role. Had the gameplay been any different, it wouldn’t have been nearly as successful, which marks the game’s other greatest strength: for all its visual beauty and creativity, Minute of Islands isn’t just a lovely exploration-based survey of a fantastical location, but a brilliant piece of interactive storytelling.
In a literal sense its story is told via an omniscient narrator, voiced perfectly by Megan Gay. The narrator delivers all the characters’ dialogue, appending each line with “he/she said” as though reading from a book. In the quieter moments her calm, measured delivery calls to mind a teacher reading a story aloud; when Mo is alone with her darkest thoughts, however, Gay’s voice slides into a bitter, acid-tinged sneer. The moods she creates are enhanced by a haunting instrumental soundtrack that works, paradoxically, through its frequent absence. In a game full of quiet moments accompanied only by the sound of the wind or creaking wood, the sudden re-emergence of ethereal woodwinds or discordant chimes communicates as much about Mo’s emotions as the narrator does.
By granting us this sort of access to Mo’s thoughts, feelings and impulses, the game allows us to understand her at the same time her goals become our own. Her memories, uncovered steadily as we progress, help us to feel what her home has meant to her throughout her life and why she seeks so zealously to protect it. We see that her role as the islands’ protector is important to her, as is her family’s safety, but we’re also shown the myriad stresses it’s placed on her life. Chosen she may be, but she’s hardly gracious, and her importance to the local ecosystem has inflated her ego in a way that’s strained her relationships to the breaking point. Mo continues her work for her family’s sake, but the various relatives she interacts with—her sister Miri, her ancient grandmother, her long-suffering uncle—all make it clear that they’ve stayed behind largely because she refuses to leave. The push and pull between Mo and her family provides one of the game’s central conflicts, and it never lets you feel secure about who’s really in the right.
Minute of Islands is a beautiful game, but it’s also a harsh one. Its storybook presentation belies a mature and complex story about the burden of responsibility and the double-edged sword that is the power to change the world. It does everything it can to place you into the mind of its central character, to make you confront just what it might feel like to be told not only that you can save all you love, but that it’s your task alone. For that reason, it might not be for everyone—it doesn’t shy away from dark or heavy material, nor does it go out of its way to make the journey more fun for the player than for its central character—but that’s also what makes it such a success. This is a story that could only be told effectively through an interactive medium, in exactly the way it is here, and I recommend it to anyone willing to give it a try.