Animal Well – beautifully wrought indie underground adventure

The dark aperture of a well has always been an alluring focus of human fascination. Giver of life-sustaining water, it is also seen as a portal to a warren of risky secrets; our fables are littered with wailing children whose curiosity got the better of them, consigned to an eternity of damp gazing up toward the distant, unreachable circle of light. Animal Wellan indie game seven years in the making, sends us down into one of these twilight labyrinths, a cave system of incessant dripping and darting creatures whose fur is tinged with luminescence. The goals are unstated but obvious: explore, map, emerge. It is a quest that soon becomes an obsession.

You play as an amorphous blob – hardly the most aspirational cipher – but what you lack in, say, limbs, you make up for in pluck and inventiveness. To begin with you can only bravely leap between rocks and platforms. But in time you gain new tools, gadgets and abilities that enable you to access previously unreachable passageways and tunnels. As you quest deeper into the cave system, your map fills in, inch by inch.

Dangling bulbs which sway in the subterranean breeze provide the light to describe your surroundings, but you’ll need to peer closely at each scene to notice the semi-submerged gears, pulleys and levers that open the world. As much as Animal Well is about exploration, it’s a game built from puzzles and secrets, in which your ingenuity is called to match that of its designer. And it’s in those moments when you happen upon the solution, and everything clicks into place, and the world creaks open a little wider, letting you dive a little deeper, that Animal Well excels.

At a time when the big video game companies are focused on building video games designed to function like sport, with seasons and passes and never-ending fixtures designed to dominate your leisure time, what a joy to be presented with a game that is so intricate and contained. This is a perfectly made contraption, with a start, a middle and an end, intended to inspire joy and build culture, and not, mercifully, shareholder value.

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