One of my favorite experiences in gaming is the 10-15 minute game that stands as a single idea done well. Usually these are free. They often serve as a proof of concept or a brief artistic experiment. The mechanics themselves tend to be simple, and the gameplay easy. They’re atmospheric and lend a sense of ease or relaxation that longer experiences can have trouble delivering. “The Old Tree” by developer Red Dwarf Games is one of these.
Most longer games need to present more gameplay complexity, demanding more obstacles for you to overcome and systems to master. A short game doesn’t need to do that. They can instead focus on the mood and art, or sometimes the character and message, standing alone.
“The Old Tree” is a very straightforward 2D puzzler. You play as a…plant? tendril? thing? Kind of an apple with antennae. You crawl from room to room, trying to get to the top of an old tree. Or rather, the character crawls – you don’t control any motion. Instead, your job is to solve light puzzles so that your apple octopus can make it to the next room. The character patiently waits for you to unblock the way and then crawl along.
The art is very good. The creature you play sparks of claymation, while the visuals around them are moodily dim without ever feeling obscured. The music suggests more otherworldly mystery than threat. The experience might be slightly unnerving if it wasn’t all so calm.
I enjoy games like this because you can put your attention into them completely. You’re not dedicating dozens of hours climbing up a skill tree or collecting every icon in an open world. Don’t get me wrong, I can get lost in those games, but this is one I can focus on calmly and where I can complete the experience quickly. I never get distracted from the artistic impulse that drives it, whereas a Gwent addiction in “The Witcher 3” or tracking down every collectible in a “Far Cry” can sometimes start to blunt the beauty and commodify the mystery of those worlds.
There are no distractions in “The Old Tree”, just a delicious looking applctopus on a linear path with 10 minutes of puzzles that serve as a way to exist inside this beautiful art. The ending is relaxing and rewarding, and you can sit with it for a moment if you wish.
It’s both an ideal free game and an ideal short game.
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