The Humble Bundles are a great boon to modern indie gaming: the pay-as-you-like model of distribution for games that are compatible across various PC platforms for games by both larger and smaller indie development houses acts both as a powerful sales-driving tool for developers and as an incentive for consumers to try games that they may not have otherwise made the effort to play, as well as rewarding virtuous in behaviour in offering more games for purchases over the average of all purchases. Given the roster of games in the latest Android Humble Bundle, many will not purchase the bundle for the relatively unknown Osmos, but rather for the better known World of Goo and Uplink. The pull of the mantra of “I’ve paid, so I’ll play” can prove incredibly strong, however, and should this bring more light to the incredible gem that is Osmos, then the virtue of making up for the guilt of not using things paid for must be congratulated.
The best way to describe Osmos would be as a grow-’em-up in the same vein as Solar 2: you begin the game as one of many “motes” – small single-celled organisms – in the area of play, and you will invariably start as one of the smallest. You can gain size by colliding with smaller motes indefinitely. Rather than taking an open-world approach a la Solar 2, the play is rigidly structured, consisting of a “story mode” of sorts in the Odyssey mode – where the player undertakes missions in a predetermined order – and an Arcade mode with varying levels of difficulty and pseudo-randomly generated levels. The gameplay mechanics are unashamedly simple: the underlying theme of all play is “do not let bigger things subsume you; subsume smaller things; deal with environmental hazards. Additional levels of complexity are added in some stages by the inclusion of anti-matter motes, which will shrink the player and other motes on contact irrespective of their relative sizes, and the physics engine of the game is used to good effect in devising fiendish orbit and gravity-based challenges for the player. The short-term nature of each level makes the game perfect for the mobile platforms: it is incredibly easy to pick and play and requires little investment on the part of the player, with the control system also being a good fit for touch screens: a tap propels the mote in the opposite direction of the tap relative to the current location of the mote, with repeated taps leading to an increase in the amount of truth given to the mote. A swipe of a single finger to the left or right will slow down or speed up the passage of time, allowing for greater precision in the control of the player’s mote. This single-finger ethic serves to make the game incredibly accessible, with the mechanics serving to make the gameplay engrossing.
The gameplay is not alone in its simple brilliance in Osmos. The aesthetic chosen in both graphics and sound underscores the minimalist approach of the game as a whole: the game’s action is accompanied by minimalist electronic music; music that keeps pace with the sliding scale of time that underlies a core mechanic of the game’s play. This small touch of consistency adds much more to the game’s immersion than any more timbre added to the score could, and allows the player to easily keep track of the speed at which they are playing. Both as ambience and as a game-monitoring tool, this works excellently. The graphical side of the game’s presentation is equally minimal: there are few types of mote sprites, with pains being made to ensure that the distinction between player mote and non-player mote is a clear one, and again that distinctions between assimilable and non-assimilable motes are apparent. The in-mote nebulae and science-fiction reminiscent font put across the “scientific” feel of single-celled organisms attempting to grow well and add colour to what would otherwise be a drab yet functional palette.
For a game that is essentially free with a purchase of Uplink and World of Goo, much less entertainment could be expected and deemed acceptable for the price point. While saying that Osmos exceeding expectations would be misleading – there were no expectations to be misled – it is a pleasant diversion with the added bonus of being a game fit for indie snobbery – and surely that is worth an hour of one’s time.