Minimalism done right: be Hiiro now.
Every once in a while, a game comes along that foregoes the traditional reward and punishment mechanics of its peers in an attempt to capture something. An ineffable feeling. A tranquil moment. Hiiro is one of these games, and although it might not be suited for gamers seeking to vanquish hordes of enemies and save the proverbial princess, Hiiro has something unique to offer for those who are open to experiencing it.
On its website, Hiiro is described as “a 2D platform game focused on ambient exploration and puzzle solving.”
The game began as a summer camp project in 2009 when designer Jon Tiburzi and some friends signed up for an exploration themed YoYoGames Competition. By the time the competition rolled around, they hadn’t yet completed Hiiro, but Tiburzi and pals didn’t give up. Over the next six years, the game was slowly fleshed out, revised, and added onto. On July 12, what started as a summer camp project will be available as a full game via the Steam Store.
The game’s plot is somewhat open to interpretation. There is no text or audio dialogue; you purely have visuals to go off of to interpret the meaning of everything in Hiiro. The opening sequence depicts the player (a little red figure) witnessing their community (also little red figures) surrounding a dying tree that appears to have an intangible, yet deep, significance. One of the bystanders communicates to you an image of a golden cube, and off you go, presumably to find the cube and heal the sacred tree.
Hiiro’s gameplay is very minimalist, but that isn’t a bad thing. Movement is governed by the arrow keys, while the X key serves a dual purpose as a walk/run toggle and interaction key, and the A key lets you cycle between your map and inventory. Put simply, Hiiro’s “hard” goals are solving puzzles and collecting things. On its face, this doesn’t sound terribly engaging, but that’s because it’s the “soft” goal of exploration which turns this simple premise into an enjoyable experience. The developers doubled down on making exploration the focus of the game by opting to omit combat, enemies, and any kind of death mechanic. This gamble pays off by keeping the player fully immersed in the world.
The world in Hiiro is the game’s selling point.
There are more than a few different environments, each with its own unique charm, and they’re all seamlessly tied together. No loading screens. No wait times. This succeeds in making the game feel bigger than it already is. The best part is that there’s no linearity to the world at all. You aren’t railroaded into one environment after another; the whole map is open for you to explore from the get-go. And there’s more to the map than meets the eye. Hiiro features tons of secret areas to discover which will have you retracing every bit of the map in search of the one false wall you’re sure you must have missed.
The cherry on top of all of this is Hiiro’s dynamic soundtrack. After all, what would an ambient game be without a decent soundtrack? The soundtrack was written by one of the game’s developers while he was taking composition classes in college, and it meshes with the game’s environments to create an ambiance that practically glows. Every time you enter a new environment, the soundtrack subtly changes to match the new area. This, in concert with each environment’s unique visual style, makes for a game-world that feels refreshingly organic and immersive.
Let’s be honest here, ambiance and exploration aren't for everyone. If you’re looking for a game that will let you feel the thrill of victory after vanquishing your foes, then Hiiro isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a game that will challenge you for hours on end until your migraines flare up, then Hiiro probably still isn’t for you (the puzzles, while clever at times, won’t stop a determined player for very long). This isn’t a game that is meant to be played. This is a game that is meant to be experienced. It does this very well, but again, it’s not for everyone.
In a nutshell, Hiiro is a game that achieves more by delivering less. Minimalistic gameplay mechanics take a backseat to exploration and discovery. It’s relaxed ambiance, seamless world, and mildly challenging puzzles make it a title where it doesn’t matter whether you beat the game. If you’re exploring Hiiro’s world, then you’ve already won.