Maxim Schoemaker is a game designer from the Netherlands, and his latest piece, Narrow, is wonderfully depressing. Narrow is a high-precision platformer about a man named Albert who can’t stop going into a mine to look for gold. It is also, according to an explanatory Tweet by Schoemaker himself, an examination of “the subjects greed and obsession”.
Albert’s first trip down into the mine – a dark, threatening space, filled with spike pits and dead ends – is in order to collect the gold he needs to buy medicine for his son. Once he’s found a safe way out, though, he keeps finding other reasons to return – and these other reasons are rarely as convincing. Rather than creating new mines and new levels, however, Schoemaker simply makes the existing mine a bit harder each time, removing save points and narrowing your field of vision as Albert’s eyes are gradually damaged by the soot. Eventually, you’re moving through the game almost blind, and it’s the brave – or patient – player indeed who doesn’t open up a second session in another tab to give themselves a little extra orientation.
Visibility is an interesting means of extending the challenge of a game, especially when it can be made to dovetail so nicely with theme. Although Narrow’s not a long game, it can be pretty difficult, and I’m guessing a lot of people will make it through to the end just to see how far Schoemaker’s willing to go with his experiment.
Luckily, Narrow’s filled with other smart touches, too. The pure ringing tones of the save points and the gold bars blend perfectly with the minimalist menace of the sound track, while the mine is riddled with funny little obstacles that only reveal their true purpose – to confuse – when you’re nearing your final playthrough. The game’s rather sudden ending comes with a welcome sense of impact to it, and while the plaudits throughout must go to Schoemaker, the thrifty designer, the final word belongs to an anonymous poster on the Indie Games blog where I first encountered the game: “My only question is why he never bothers just to go in and out through the one entrance.”