‘Toem’ Crams the Joy and Discovery of Open World Games into a Tiny Package

A bite-sized adventure that uses its photography mechanic to smart, perspective-altering effect.
September 17, 2021, 1:00pm
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'Toem' screenshots courtesy of Something We Made

It feels disingenuous writing about photography adventure game Toem, out this week for PC, PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch, without mentioning A Short Hike. The two games share anthropomorphic characters, an isometric perspective, and a short, sweet story that centers on ascending a mountain. But Toem is no monochromatic retread of the 2019 hit. If it’s not quite as formally inventive as A Short Hike, an open world adventure in charming miniature, then the debut from Swedish studio Something We Made is similarly forthright in its design, one which wrings delight from limiting, and then expanding, the player’s perspective. 

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Toem begins in your grandma’s house on what feels like one of those endless summer days. Her home is rendered in unfussy hand-drawn style—thick black lines, bold shapes. She asks you to photograph her, and it’s here that the game’s central mechanic is revealed. By pressing triangle, the zoomed-out viewpoint snaps to first-person. For the first time, you see her bespectacled 2D form in front of you alongside the cozy environment. 

What’s surprising is that this mechanic doesn’t get old. You’ll photograph a lot of stuff in Toem because this is a checklist game at its heart, one filled with cute non-playable characters who need you to take a particular shot—graffiti, skateboarders, a DJing moose. As you explore the game’s diorama environments, there’s always the nagging sense that you’re seeing less than you would like, that you should be able to peer beyond the top of the isometric viewpoint. Each time you pull your old-school camera out, this tension is resolved beautifully. You go from looking down at your character to looking around. Spaces open up in an instant. 

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Like A Short Hike, Toem distills open world video games down to their joyful essence, even as it eschews many of the genre’s hallmarks. It gives you the freedom to approach tasks in any order you like but  lacks the unending horizons and cluttered maps that have come to define it. This compact, deliberate design extends to the levels which whisk you to a summer camp, beach resort, bustling city, and snow-capped mountain. These aren’t single, unbroken spaces but a series of modular environments that fit together like puzzle pieces. Unlike Ubisoft’s blockbuster open worlds, pleasure derives from focusing on the foreground rather than a vista.

This speaks to an experience that’s just tight. Even if you start to tire of tasks, which include basic fetch and find-the-object quests alongside actual photography, you’ll likely barely notice because the game feels so good. Your character glides across the environment, the camera swings seamlessly around them, and when the gentle action is paused, the menu and dialogue options feel similarly satisfying to navigate thanks to each sound effect that chimes on cue. Toem is filled with genuine craft.

As Cameron Kunzelman wrote in his piece on the “shockingly small” skateboarding game The Ramp, there’s been a move within independent games towards miniaturizing the ideas of big games. To this point, I get the same kick from exploring the pretty dioramas of Toem as I do from ostensibly prettier, more expensive games—the same satisfaction of uncovering secrets squirreled away in their hidden corners, of experiencing thoughtful worldbuilding, of just working through a checklist of objectives within a virtual space. Toem shows what can be achieved with modest means rather than, say, the $200 million former PlayStation boss Shawn Layden thinks you need to make a PlayStation 5 title. 

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After two and a half hours, I reached the end, saw the game’s only real panorama (which doesn’t disappoint), and watched some notably brief credits roll. Toem does no more than it needs to, and with a clarity of vision that its photography only serves to highlight further.