Very few games have an art style that feels personal. Most major games strive for “realism”—the closest consoles and gaming computers can come at any given time to producing a digital landscape that looks the way we imagine the real world looks. But precious few attempt to approach the way the world feels.
Small Talk, my favorite game that appeared at last month’s Game Developers Conference, is one of those few. Its hand-drawn art suffuses the world with color and imagination, an elegant and whimsical sense of place. The look feels like a coloring-book take on Doom; like that first-person classic, the character art consists of sprites that subtly turn to face you as you move, offering the winking illusion of depth. But here, the creators have used the effect for a purpose that feels perfectly in line with how the effect works: to give you a chance to talk to cartoons.
These cartoons are monsters, invariably, or just odd-looking people. You find them in a room, an awkward party poised at the precipice of the end of the world. At least, that’s what the host says—everyone kind of thinks he’s lying. Either way, it’s put a damper on the party, which has the sort of reflectiveness to it that you don’t usually get until everyone’s about four drinks in.
The point of the game, as the name implies, is to just, well, chat. What does that djinn in the corner with the froofy drink have on his mind? How’s the lady made up of amalgamated fish heads doing at work? What are we all thinking, in this hand-drawn world, as it slows to a crawl?
The 20 minutes I spent with the game, at GDC’s Mild Rumpus independent game showcase, were mesmerizing. I wandered the room, having strange conversations, getting tastes of people. I’m a shy person in real life, but this game feels in line with the rare moments I get up the energy to be outgoing.
Certain conversations open up dream spaces, glimpses into the speaker’s psyche. In one moment, I wandered a looping bookstore maze, ruminating over the speaker’s insistence that he fell in love with people while watching them buy books. I explored a Greek palace of avian hedonism, and sipped my wine as the birds flew.
At the end of these dreams, the demo ended, and the game asked me if I wanted to play again. Which, in this context, is an interesting question. Do you want to keep talking? I really do.
Small Talk, created by a small team called Pale Room, is in development for the PC, Mac, and Linux. It doesn’t currently have a release date. But I’m looking forward to it.