What do we look for in a game? When we sit down with a cup of tea and really think about playing, what is it we really want to feel? Do we want to blown away by jaw-dropping-to-your-lap realistic graphics? Do we want a deep, sophisticated and intricate control mechanism that allows us to perform every move perfectly? Do we want sound that immerses us so intently into the game that we wonder whether we are in fact living within it? A plot so clever and intense that our mind is overwhelmed by its genius? The truth is, yes we do. But not because they are ends in themselves, rather because they are tools used to drive us to the actual goal of gaming. Enjoyment. Swift☆Stitch, a very indie game by Sophie Houlden, does not present us with any of the above, yet is still exceptionally enjoyable to play. And that makes it a good game. That and colliding into walls.
Let us go back to the beginning. Swift☆Stitch is a one button game. Yes, it is true that there are in fact two buttons that can be used to play, but the whole experience can be theoretically completed with that one binary input. It is also a pastiche of many classic 70s arcade games, looking like it has been pulled straight from a coin-op cabinet , yet at the same time remains remarkably original. That form of originality that you swear must already exist, purely because it should, but yet you cannot put your finger on where or when you could have seen it before. Your hero, for want of any other word, in this saga is a double headed arrow. Like an unsightly lightcycle from Tron, he will fly ever horizontally, with wild reckless disregard, until he hits a deathly end at the hands of a wall. To save him from his untimely fate you may hold down a button to switch his favoured direction to vertical. Releasing the button will return him to his original course. Using this single input you must guide the arrow around each maze until you cross the goal line. And that is Swift☆Stitch, boiled down to its core components. Admittedly described in that fashion this game does not sound particularly enjoyable, but when you throw in crazy lines that switch your directions; shiny collectibles; a hoard of achievements and insane break-neck speeds suddenly something inside you clicks. This game is fun. Even if it is that form of fun that leaves you screaming in fits of rage as you find yourself careering into yet another wall.
Despite its simple mechanics, Swift☆Stitch somehow manages to incorporate puzzle elements into its gameplay. The arrow may only travel in two directions, so to enable it to travel any other course it must collide with lines that flip its momentum, either horizontally or vertically. This means at times you must calculate which barriers to hit, and in which order, to progress to the finish line. Finally, to mix things up a little, there is a third form of barrier that causes your arrow to arc instead of travelling in a straight line. Holding down the button now switches the direction of your circular motion. At first this feels like something a human brain should not have to deal with. Personally I found myself curving directly into the nearest wall as soon as I passed one of these barriers. However, after some practise, the mind adapts and you should soon find yourself forming clever sine waves to travel in a roughly straight line before you smash into another wall.
It is shame that the puzzle mechanics never seem to fully develop. In all of the 42 levels that are on offer, very few make you stop and consider how to approach them. Still the action gets more intense, as the corridors get thinner and the margin for error becomes infinitesimally small. This is where the second button becomes your friend. Hitting the space bar slows down time to a far more agreeable rate for a short period. Suddenly you are able to navigate between the tiny confines of the hideous latter mazes. However you still need to be wary of its usage as it may run out just at that time you need it. There does seem to be a small flaw with the slow time ability, it regenerates incredibly fast, so much so that you can effectively use it constantly throughout the level making the experience almost farcical. I prefer to stay my hand when it comes to its use purely because it seems like unfair abuse. Perhaps the developer wanted it this way to support the droves of the insane as they tearfully smash themselves into yet another wall.
While the production levels on indie games can never match up to a full scale studio production, Swift☆Stitch is still clearly lovingly made. Based on the Unity engine, a 3d development kit that has seen superb growth in recent years due, the game is fluid and responsive. There are a whole host of options that the designer has thrown in, to make the game more entertaining, including rotating camera angles, trails that follow your arrow, even the disturbing WTF mode (which seemingly causes the screen to erupt in colour). It is also filled with loving touches such as, memory evoking arcade sound effects, sparks as you graze along the walls, colourful fireworks that explode in an kaleidoscope of pixels when you finish the level and flowing waves that lie to the side of each maze, beating in time to the music. Speaking of music, the soundtrack by Aeronic is superb. Filled with floating synthesiser lines and relaxing rhythms, it even slows down with the game. Perhaps the lounge style rifts are a little too downbeat for the insane nature of the game, but actually the tunes seem to work as a form anaesthesia for the suffering as you yet again smash into a wall.
With 42 levels, 7 different speeds, two challenge modes, and a wealth of achievements, Swift☆Stitch seems to have a lot to offer. Feasibly an achievement head could spend days whizzing around the mazes, collecting all the shiny coins and claiming all the rewards, however most players will probably spend a couple of hours bashing through the levels and probably feel like they are done. For the price you may expect a little more. Speed runs, time trails, ghost runs from other opponents, high-scores, level editors, perhaps even a multiplayer element, to name just a few, would have stretched the whole experience a little further. As it is though, whether or not you will want to invest in the $7 it is currently priced at, will entirely depend on your position on free games and the indie games market (or indeed any market), but that is a conversation for another day. Until then, to help you make up your mind, you can check out the demo right here, right now. However it is no doubt, if you could go back 40 years and stick this into a cabinet, then we would have an instant classic on our hands.
In which we constantly run head first into walls, for the indie cause...