Mythic Storytelling in Games: Future Fairytales

It’s time for my third computer game review for Once Upon a Time IX. I started with a mythic-ish “past” (though whose past, and where, I don’t know) in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, then looked at the more-or-less contemporary coming-of-age urban fantasy of Papo & Yo, and now I’d like to take a step into the future…

…with fairies.


Knytt Underground

by Nicklas Nygren

Among a certain subset of the gaming community, the name “Nifflas” is beloved. It is the handle of Swedish indie game designer Nicklas Nygren, creator of a slew of 2D platformers which combined at times fiendishly tricky gameplay with simple but evocative stories. The most popular of these, Knytt, first came out (I think) in 2006 and has given rise to a thriving community of fans, who design and share new levels for the game through the appropriately titled follow-up Knytt Stories – but my focus here is on 2012’s Knytt Underground.

Nifflas initially scandalised his fan base by abandoning the traditional pixel-art visual style of the earlier Knytt titles in favour of a striking combination of silhouetted foreground levels over colourful animated backgrounds, and the chip set tunes make way for a genuinely outstanding soundtrack (largely composed and performed by Nygren as well… this is auteur game creation in a very real sense). The popular hero of previous games, a pixie-like figure named Juni whose animation ran to all of about six frames total, was replaced with the bobble-headed Mi Sprocket, a more detailed avatar who enjoys perhaps merely several times more – but even in this tuned-up incarnation, the Knytt games were at least as much about the exploration as their looks.

Mi is one of many denizens of a vast underground world in a distant post-human future, the surface rendered unliveable by our foolish, destructive ways and long since abandoned. The seemingly endless caverns (really: the game comprises a maze of approaching 2000 screens) are occupied by several distinct fantastical races but in particular “sprites” like Mi and “fairies”, the principle examples being her companions, Cilia and Dora. Fairies are much smaller than sprites and appear in the game as glowing, Tinkerbell-style meandering sparks of light, swirling around in Mi’s wake as she heads off to save (or, possibly, destroy) the world in the traditional Silent Protagonist manner.

The gameplay is an adventure of fantasy speluncking, running, climbing, jumping and bouncing through caves, collecting items ranging from flowers to ancient artefacts to fairies-in-distress to satisfy the usual over-demanding NPCs, or generously help out the needy – so far so familiar to countless games. There is almost no violence in Knytt Underground, by the way. Although some of the personalities Mi encounters are antagonistic, the only actual aggressors in the game are technological remnants of humanity – occasional robots or lasers needing to be evaded or, occasionally, destroyed in order to progress.

I’ll not trouble you with the exact nature of Mi’s quest for a couple of reasons, one being that I don’t want to spoil the story – but, I hear you ask, how much story can a game have when its hero is speechless? Well, Mi may be unable to carry on a conversation, but Dora and Cilia have plenty to say, and a lot of fun is to be had in choosing which of them – universal acceptor Dora or scathing cynic Cilia – will interact with whomever the trio meet.  There’s replay value to be had just to see what the other fairy would have to say in a given situation.

What proves most unexpected is how adult the conversations we thus witness prove to be. The game touches on themes as diverse and weighty as self-harming, sexual identity and the loss of religious faith to name but a few, and at times does so though surprisingly strong language. I was taken aback the first time I played through because it struck me as a misstep in something that otherwise seems child-friendly, but the end result is a game that feels deceptively mature and (strangely, for those in the know) satisfying – while never sacrificing the primary goal, of providing hours of at times crazy-making fun.

Tomorrow, my final game review before I get back to the serious stuff of short stories and the like. Have a nice twenty-four hours…

A Footnote: a lot of Nifflas’s back catalogue is available free from his website, including Knytt, Knytt Stories and Within A Deep Forest (which I deliberately didn’t mention in the above review, for reasons to be discovered…).

There is also The Great Work, a short game created as a tie-in to a Swedish documentary about a modern day alchemist. TGW is based on the same engine as Knytt Underground, and though it has some features not in KU it is a great way to find out if this is the kind of thing you’d like to spend many times longer exploring.



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