Video Games as Art: Knytt Stories

Sam Leach
7 min readFeb 23, 2024

Nowadays, indie games are a dime a dozen. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s incredible how many choices there are for people looking to play games that are built off of the passion of small teams. However, like any art form, the video games today are in many ways byproducts of the ones that came before them. Today I write about Knytt Stories, a forward thinking indie game from 2007 that foreshadowed future trends in gaming, and also completely changed the way I view video games.

Juni, the protagonist of Knytt Stories.

The 2000s were an incredibly important time for indie games as a whole. Independent games during this time could have surprisingly large impacts because of the proportionally smaller amount of games being developed outside of AAA Studios. The technology to make game development accessible for entry-level producers was still in its infancy, and as a result there were much fewer games on the market from lone developers or small teams, resulting in a much higher ratio of players:games.

When one thinks of an iconic indie production in games from the 2000s, games such as Yume Nikki or Cave Story come to mind, cult classics that didn’t make a big splash within the mainstream gaming industry, but had a massive pull among the indie landscape and influenced the creation of the next generation of games. Within indie games it was possible to cultivate an experience that was more “passion”-focused compared to mainstream offerings, because they weren’t subject to the same profit goals as the industry giants. As a result, things like atmosphere, mood, story-telling, and other more artistic elements of video games that aren’t often conducive to direct profit were able to be emphasized in ways that expanded the idea of the medium.

One such game is today’s subject, Knytt Stories. Knytt Stories, developed by Nicklas Nygren, better known as “Nifflas”, is a spiritual successor to Knytt, Nifflas’ story-based platforming game. Knytt Stories expands on the ideas of Knytt’s gameplay, with the addition of a level editor to allow players to create and share their own adventures. While not his most famous game (the sequel, Knytt Underground would later debut on the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita) Knytt Stories is the game that reached me at the right place and right time to completely change the way that I looked at video games as a medium.

For the purpose of this article, I will primarily be discussing “The Machine — A Save-the-World Adventure”, the story that comes bundled with the program. While there exists a vast library of custom levels made by other players that is still being added to, even today, the default experience is what I played when I discovered Knytt Stories and serves as a great indicator of the ideologies of the game.

One of the things that immediately sets Nifflas’ approach to game-making apart from his contemporaries is the atmospheric presence of his games.

While gameplay is an integral part of any platformer, there is a heavy degree of detail put into every aspect of the game’s music, sound, backgrounds, and fauna. Nifflas, who has released several albums of his own music, carefully curates the sound and visuals in order to make them seamless and immersive.

One of my favorite songs from the Knytt Stories OST.

The unusual lack of scrolling as a platformer is a deliberate choice, in Knytt Stories each area is a sort of “zone”, usually a small part of a bigger biome, and these biomes mesh with each other for an either gradual or stark change, both utilized to great degrees of efficiency. It isn’t just horizontal either, this same idea exists on the Y-Axis, as players will find themselves meandering into both the sky and under the ground during their journies. While one could argue that this fragmentation of the overworld may reduce the interconnectedness of each separate area, this is actually the opposite, each area feels unique and thought out while also maintaining an incredible flow of both immersion and progression.

Part of the underground area in Knytt Stories.

The focus on atmosphere and ambiance also parallels the thematic material of the game (as well as most of Nifflas’ work), which is the intrusion of technology disrupting the existing natural world. In Knytt Stories, Juni is tasked with shutting down “The Machine”, an almost unseeable force that is altering the natural world. The game starts out in more neutral environments, but drastically begins to shift as one explores. The closer one moves to The Machine, the more greyscale the world becomes, and the further one moves away from it, the more bizarre the natural configurations become, symbolizing the extremes of the natural world.

The closer one gets to the Machine, the more greyscale the world becomes.

The adventure of Juni is a largely solitary one, an epic of massive size that takes the player to many different environments, all unique and charming in their own ways. Other knytt are sparse, and only one actually has dialogue for Juni. The majority of the game’s dialogue is simply the world that it takes place in, the changes of the natural world affected by the invasive forces of technology — a very forward thinking idea, given that this was released in 2007, a scant few years before the omnipresence of the Internet and its services would change the world.

For me, this game ultimately challenged my ideas of what makes a video game. My best friend, who was much more immersed in the world of early internet platformers, recommended Knytt Stories to me offhandedly and mentioned that it was free. I downloaded it despite not being a big platformer fan, thinking it would be a fun way to kill an evening nonetheless. My experience, however, had a lasting effect on my thoughts concerning the medium.

The ambient introduction music floored me right away, as my video game palette at fourteen was mostly limited to Nintendo releases and free MMORPGs. Video game music was not unknown to me, I had grown up with the happy notes of Nintendo fanfare and the MIDI classics of RuneScape, but the more ambient tones of Knytt Stories caught me off guard. Instead of the usual happy-go-lucky tunes meant to harness the dopamine of the player, these introspective, sometimes somber tones keyed me into the presence of the game itself, even down to the sound effects.

The pitter-patter of animals and the sounds of water in the distance made the environment feel less of a backdrop and almost as important as the platforming of the game. This focus on scenery and atmosphere was perplexing to me at first. Why was this very simple platformer putting such a huge focus on something that didn’t even affect the gameplay? Most of the time if the background isn’t interactive in a platformer than it might as well be a flat image. So why, in a game developed entirely by one person, was there so much detail put into the world if it wasn’t necessary?

Juni amongst other knytt.

The more I played, the more I realized that this is what made the game. I wasn’t just hunting for the items that would improve Juni’s mobility, I was actually motivated by the beauty to explore the world. Many times I found myself pushing the boundaries of the world with complicated double-jump and umbrella techs solely to see if there was a new, secret place I could discover. The idea of progression started to fall by the wayside while the desire for exploration grew.

The further into the fringes of this world I found myself, the more appreciation I had for its creation. This entire experience was done without a detail omitted. The player’s journey in Knytt Stories embodied the very idea of the game itself: it felt like a long walk through nature. The reward of Knytt Stories is not winning or losing, it is the things between the goalposts.

When I found myself coming back to replay it a few days later, this drove home the point. If I wanted to experience a platformer, there were numerous options, almost all of which I had never played before. However, what I was coming back for was everything except the gameplay. I wanted to be immersed in the world again. Other games held similar places for me, nostalgic or comfortable environments that were secondary to the actual game itself, but none had ever felt as deliberate and focused as Knytt Stories’ impact on me — nostalgia is something that can grow independently, regardless of artistic intent, impact is instant and breathtaking.

In retrospect, it didn’t have to be Knytt Stories. Eventually, a game would come along that allowed me to separate gameplay into a mere component of games as a larger, artistic whole. But for me, it was. Knytt Stories was the blueprint I measured things against as I delved into the descendants of this style, when games like Yume Nikki, Middens, and Space Funeral would become staples of my tastes in gaming as a medium. And I am forever thankful to Nifflas for his curation, and my best friend for an innocuous MSN message that led to such a journey.



Sam Leach

writer from alabama, currently living in salt lake city. website at