You need to go watch some gameplay footage of this.

Like, straight up. I'm gonna review it, and I'm gonna try to describe it, but...This is one of those games that's playing with some stuff that's a lot harder to explain than to just see.

But let's talk the basic facts. Expand is an indie game, published by Ukiyo Publishing Limited and developed by the duo (or very oddly named dev house) Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin. It's already been available on Steam, and came out on PS4 earlier this year, unfortunately having slipped through the cracks of my proper attention until this very moment.

I say unfortunately not just because I always dislike when I'm slow to get onto something, but because this game seriously deserved my notice sooner. Expand is creative, interesting, an exploration of the very roots of gaming in a way that...You know what it reminds me of, actually? Like, in terms of context?

It feels like what I see for end-of-semester projects in art school. And I mean that in a good way. End-of-semester art projects have a lot of limits on them; you're low on cash by that point, so they can't be super expensive. You have a hard due date, and unless you're a lot better at time management than I am, you're not going to be working on the project that far ahead, so you've got to work quick. And you'll only have so long, so much space (physical, temporal, conceptual, etc.) to present your work in, so you've got to focus really tightly.

But then once all those barriers get laid down, you usually have a ton of freedom within them. Some of the most interesting, experimental and yet resonant work I've seen, has come from someone having to grab something that spoke to them and dig into it hard and fast for one of these projects. And Expand feels like that. It feels like the duo grabbed onto a mechanic and an aesthetic, dug into them deep, and pushed as far as they could without having to bring more in.

That's a lot of words without a lot of explanation, though. So the story of Expand premise is...

So you're playing a square. Let's start there. Your square, ultimately, revolves around a central point. All actions taken are in relation to this point in the center of the screen. At the baseline, aside from the color of your square, there are only two other relevant considerations. White areas are traversible, open space. Black areas are solid mass, blocked off. That's it. That's the core. You're here, you need to navigate to there.

But everything in the game then is build upon this premise, and complicating it in fascinating ways. The environment warps and shifts around you. Other colors, such as the deadly red, get introduced into the mix. Getting to there, wherever there is, often doesn't so much complete the goal as simply put you into position to start a new, more complicated effort of navigation.

Oh, and did I mention that the entire thing is wrapped around some gorgeous music, to the point that the game's soundtrack is available not only on the usual platforms for such things, but on the same ones as the game itself, to be damn sure you can listen to it? Because yeah, that's a thing too.

The whole game is...I keep coming back to the word experimental. It feels like an experiment, like an attempt to just see how far the creators can push themselves within some strict boundaries. And by staying in those boundaries, despite how simple and lean the game is, it ends up being able to have some real emotional connection. Trying to help this little square finish their mission feels important, in a way that a hell of a lot of much bigger, more epically-scoped games have not even come close to managing.

Were I to stretch past my mere goal of reviewing a game, to trying to analyze it, I'd argue that the simple focus of the game helps that a lot. Because you have so little to work with and focus on, it lets the parts that are there resonate stronger. The music is able to have full impact because it's not competing with anything else. There's no sound effects, no battle tune, no dialogue barks, it's just you, the square, and the music.

In many ways, I could even argue this incredibly tight focus actually makes my job harder. Because, the thing is...Expand doesn't actually have any flaws I can find, in the traditional sense. I haven't had the square bug out and start flipping around the screen. There's no loot box scheme to get me to pay tons of money to try and unlock a rare red square, immune to its same-colored environmental brethren.

But at the same time, one has to fully acknowledge that flaws are not the only reason we decide something isn't for us. Concept, pitch, gameplay loop, tone, structure, all of these things matter. Expand is an experiment and an experience. It's a short game, too, by the looks of it.

All of that's okay, of course. Hell, I'd say it's more than okay. In the case of Expand, that tight focus, that narrow concept of what it's meant to be and how it's going to be expressed, means it can take all that it is and push those to their limits. I know I've said that in different ways a few different times in this review, but it's true.

And the beauty of it is, the game's only $6 in the US, and its soundtrack 4 beyond that. As a design and theory nerd, I'd have absolutely spent twice that on the game, and I'm pretty damn sure I'm going to be buying the soundtrack as soon as the holidays stop eating my wallet alive.

So, yes. Expand is not a game for everyone. But it is a game that I would urge many people to play, if only once, because it tries to do some really cool things. And that sort of passion and creativity deserves to be rewarded in and of itself, let alone when it has this kind of execution backing it up. This is not one of those times where hype guides my hand; no, it's a more careful, measured thing for me to say, you've got to try this game.