Release Date: September 2, 2016
Publisher: Maschinen-Mensch
Primary Developers: Riad Djemili (code) and Johannes Kristmann (art)
Everything old is new again.

Over the past 10+ years, there has been a resurgence in pixel art in video games. Whether it’s Minecraft, Shovel Knight, or Hotline Miami, all aim for a simpler, lower-resolution aesthetic. Some have written-off this trend as empty retro-ism, but I, for one, am a fan. There is something about painting an incomplete picture that stimulates my imagination to fill-in the gaps. Being a child of the ’80s, it’s impossible to disentangle whether my affinity for pixel art stems from nostalgia for the games I played growing up, or whether the imagination-based argument holds greater sway. Probably, it’s a combination of both.

Something seems a bit off…

Modern, 3D video game graphics have evolved to the point where hyper-realism is possible. And yet, there are times when that realism comes up against the constraints of the medium. Characters may look real, but don’t quite move naturally or end up glitching through the wall, clashing with the rules of a game’s constructed reality. These discontinuities are things that I relish–they make me laugh–but they also short-circuit immersion. Whereas, pixel graphics, with their obvious limitations, don’t call attention to themselves in the same way–my brain has formed a set of rules for a particular world and things generally align with those. All of this is to say that photo-realistic graphics are not a prerequisite for my enjoyment of a game.

This preamble is relevant for the game at hand: Curious Expedition–a pixel art game set in the great age of western exploration. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were still areas of our maps that were not fully sketched-in. (Admittedly, the idea of “discovery” is all dependent upon perspective–the native populations already know what is there.) The player starts by choosing a party leader from a list of explorers and historical figures. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as starting supplies. Isabella Bird starts with a Scottish soldier, a native shaman, a donkey, and a variety of supplies, whereas Alasdair Crowley starts with a few cultist companions, some dynamite, and a handful of coca leaves. Naturally then, each character leads toward certain play-styles and strategies. But more on that later. With your character chosen, you set out on your first adventure.

The HMS Hopelessly Lost before her maiden voyage.

Your ship pulls alongside a procedurally-generated landscape and you disembark, tasked with finding the hidden golden pyramid. Time to live the explorer’s life! Well then, you should know that many of your challenges are quotidian in nature. You’re faced with basic questions of logistics like: How much chocolate and whiskey should I bring? Are rope and torches really that important? Should I use that velociraptor as a mount or a pack-animal?

A man and his trusty velociraptor.

“Wait… did you say ‘velociraptor’?” As a matter of fact, yes. From its real-world historic origins, Curious Expedition expands the palate to include all of the possibilities that were swirling in the minds of people at the time. The game’s blend of the whimsical and mystical with the real (both in location and NPCs) is a welcome one: the Necronomicon, prehistoric lands, lizardpeople, spirits, alternate dimensions, and more all have the potential to make an appearance. This makes the fact that you’re looting sacred artifacts and (potentially) exploiting native cultures more palatable. But that’s what people did back then, right?

Players are free to develop their own moral code within the game (Should I steal these ritual offerings and offend the natives, or should I leave them be?; Should I free the slaves from the slaver camp even though it could be dangerous?). These tradeoffs have clear implications for the adventurer. Take too much and you will lose standing, making it much more difficult to get assistance when you’re in a pinch. Take too little and you likely won’t earn enough fame to win (winners earn a statue at the explorers’ society). The push and pull between your obligations to your fellow man and your quest for fame add some nice cognitive dissonance that players have to sort through.

But that all makes Curious Expedition sound more ponderous than it is. Rather than being some sort of serious inquiry into colonial oppression, the game takes a more lighthearted approach to the travails of the explorer. Players wander the map, avoiding danger and collecting treasures all in the hope of making it home alive again. A task which can be more daunting than you’d expect. “I know I shouldn’t have taken that golden idol from the temple, but did they really need to send hordes of giant spiders after me?” And should those giant spiders catch you, you will be embroiled in a battle. Party members are represented by different dice types according to their character class: attack dice, defense dice, knowledge dice, and special dice. If your party is only full of sailors and pacifists, good luck–you’ll be able to defend yourself, but not attack. (And I thought sailors had an ornery, rambunctious reputation.) You roll the dice and alternate with your assailants in deploying combinations of them. The further you go in the game, the harder it gets.

I ordered soft shell!

Maps get bigger, potential dangers get more deadly, and the golden pyramids become increasingly difficult to unlock. Just completing four of the six adventures that constitute a single campaign can feel like an achievement at times.

In its conception as a game, Curious Expedition is something that trades heavily on nostalgia. First is the aforementioned setting. Tales of exploration have long been romanticized. Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth. Percy Fawcett and the Lost City of Z. Shackelton locked in the Antarctic ice. Building on ideas like these, the game further plays on archetypes like Indiana Jones (particularly in the temple screens). In utilizing these nostalgia-laden concepts, the game celebrates the amazing stories of survival that surround exploration, discovery, and the unknown, more so than the act of discovery itself. Curious Expedition even creates an adventure log after each game that details the highlights of the player’s story that time through. No two adventures unfold exactly the same way.

Booby traps? Ha–those are just an invention of yellow journalists!

Also nostalgic are the game design, the graphics, music, branching narrative, and party management systems which all evoke something from the Commodore/Amiga-era. The artwork is beautiful, pixelated, and multi-hued. Though the story events in the branching narrative are limited in number–you’ll start to encounter the same quests and events as you play through multiple times–it’s not necessarily a detractor. They appear in different combinations and orders such that it never feels entirely predictable.

Other design choices enhance the game’s longevity. For instance, additional explorer characters can be unlocked through various achievements, cleverly baiting the completionists among us. I’ve only managed to make it through with a couple of the characters and I still feel like I have plenty more exploring left to do. What’s more, designers Riad Djemili and Johannes Kristmann have continued an admirable pace of free updates since Curious Expedition’s official release on September 2, 2016. Most recently, they added a whole slew of characters, events, and landscapes in “the Arctic Expanse.”

Quick-hit strategy games like Curious Expedition are perfect for this stage in my life where I don’t often have large blocks of time to devote to a game. Instead, in the space of about two hours, I can have a complete adventure and be sated. In the end, I don’t even care whether it’s nostalgia or imagination that drives my enjoyment of a game–so long as it creates a memorable experience, that’s all that matters.