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Tiny Worlds in Games Offer Us an Escape from the Big One

Little worlds and miniatures give us the illusion of control in an out-of-control time.
All Captain Toad images courtesy Nintendo

Tiny is big right now. From Tiny Kitchen and Tiny Hamster, which make miniature versions of food, to the popularity of Instagram accounts that make teeny vignettes (which is one of those excellent rabbit holes that I'm always more than happy to fall into), people love tiny shit.

In an interview with Vice, multiple miniature artists spoke about why they choose to work on such a small scale, but it is diorama artist Thomas Doyle whose answer stuck with me the most:
"working at a small scale invites viewers into a personal, intimate relationship with the piece…[it] gives us the illusion of control."


I've been playing a game called Tap Tap Fish recently. It's one of those finger-bruising tap games in the vein of Cookie Clicker, and for that I am sorry, but it's surprisingly soothing for a game that's constantly trying to get me to spend $4.99 on meaningless currency abstractions. Everything that happens in the game happens on that one tiny phone screen; brightly-colored and occasionally ludicrously holiday-themed fish swim peacefully around a big coral reef in the center. For that one moment, away from the bustle and scale of the world at large, I am in control. I can micro-manage everything on that one screen, from the amount of fish to the hat my volcano is wearing.

Nintendo is notably excellent at this sort of self-contained tiny world thing, too. Almost the entire point of Animal Crossing: New Leaf is to corral an entire town into being exactly to your liking, from the placement of benches to even the villagers who live there (I'm still holding out for Marshal, the tsundere squirrel who stole my heart). Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, although ultimately underwhelming, presented each of its tiny levels as a puzzle-box to twist and turn, unlocking its secrets and finding the hidden coins like a child rattling their grandmother's locked jewelry box.

It's no great surprise that indie developers are also keenly exploring this tiny-world genre, with Gnog and its dollhouse-like levels full of drawers and knobs to play with, and Viridi's sharp and narrow focus on one well-maintained and peaceful garden. Both games are more than just simple distraction; they offer a glimpse into our pasts, not through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, but in a mechanical, muscle-memory way. We remember figuring out what things meant and what they did with our hands, and the times when play was formative and important to our development rather than a method of escape or entertainment.

Tiny worlds are a reflection of our needs. We feel stressed and out of control in our lives, so we buy a bonsai tree and gain satisfaction from being able to care for it and keep it alive. We pick up puzzle boxes and spend hours trying to work out how to open them. Having something small and precious and filled with things to discover not only gives us the sense of control we need, but it helps us remember that childlike curiosity that kept us learning, wondering and hoping about the world rather than knowing enough, and despairing.