[Warning: The following article is extremely long, but filled with some great games. You have been warned.] I would think that the phrase “Indie” is largely attributed to music or movies by now. While they are the more common forms of independent media, they are by no means the only. The indie game community is a huge thriving community, with websites like Newgrounds being one of the largest areas for independent game developers to release their projects.
With the mainstream direct to download services like Steam, iTunes(through iPhone aps), Xbox Live Arcade and Indie arcade, Wiiware, and Playstation Network the community is bigger than ever. IndieCade is an event that presents a small portion of these games in through the many facets of the gaming industry.
Because a lot of independent games are very near and dear to the developer’s heart the messages are more vibrant and thought provoking. During my short time at the Indiecade I often thought to myself about Roger Ebert’s article about video games not being art, or more specifically high art. While intending to entertain the player, many of the games I saw at IndieCade seemed to be aimed more at provoking serious discussion of story and emotions in games.
Perhaps the most profound game I saw at IndieCade was not a video game at all, but a board game. Train is a board game made by Brenda Brathwaite, a video game designer and professor working in the industry for over 26 years having worked on games such as Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes, Jagged Alliance and the Wizardry series.
The board game is one of a kind, and absolutely distinct. A window, with broken glass panes, three train tracks with trains on them, a die, several dozen small wooden people and two sets of cards. The objective is both simple, yet infinitely difficult. Put the people in the train, and get them to the end of the track by rolling the die.
You pick up cards as you progress, that might slow your car or someone else’s. Some might derail the car, or make you loose some people. Ultimately at the end you pick up one last card, the destination. The destination varies from time to time, but all have one core focus, the holocaust, specifically concentration camps during the holocaust. The symbolism of every small detail to the game becomes abundantly clear.
The people represent 100,000 jews as they were shipped off to the concentration camps, made intentionally too large to fit in the train. The rules are intentionally vague, allowing people to ultimately choose what might happen to the passengers. You might choose to play by the rules that are set before you, or take them as a guide. An example given was that one player said a number of the passengers were lost, perhaps fled to Switzerland.
The impact of the cards to impede the travel becomes incredibly significant once this is known, perhaps changing your focus to stop or slow you and fellow players as much as possible to keep you from getting to your destination. Yet perhaps the most disturbing fact is that one player likened it to Halo. How that connection is made I do not know, but it disturbed me deeply.
What struck me the most, beyond the obvious symbolism to the game, was it’s acceptance. Brenda was able to take the game before a rabbi. They discussed the game and every influence and reason behind the symbolism to great length for two hours and eventually blessed by the rabbi.
This was the first game the group and I was in was showed that day. To find a more emotionally significant game after that would have be extremely difficult, and to say I did would be a lie. That’s not to say there wasn’t anything of any significance there, there were some tremendously interesting and exciting games at the IndieCade.
Two iPhone/iPod Touch games were there, both of which are available on iTunes right now. RADIO FLARE is a side scrolling shooter trance music focused arcade shooter. Move the ship with one finger, target enemies with the other. The destruction of these enemies creates music, which lays the foundation for the entire sound track. The game feels and sounds like Rez, and with good reason as the creators were heavily influenced by the game.
The more artistically significant iPhone game to me was Ruben & Lullaby, which was originally going to be an opera. The game is a simple emotion based game focusing on an argument between two lovers. No voices, no text, just the emotions seen on their incredibly detailed hand drawn faces. You influence the argument through touching the screen and using the tilt sensor, all the while jazz plays during the game, done by game creator Erik Loyer.
One of the most surprising things I found during IndieCade was actually two things, or rather two games. Aether is a swinging physics based flash game. Based on Edmund McMillen’s(creator of the awesome indie game Gish) child hood fears, you play a small child riding what I can only be described as a weird round creature.
You fly through the clouds and through space to several planets, each with their own little puzzle. Figure out the puzzle, solve it, and that world is filled with color, then you’re off to another. The game’s art style and light humor is quite refreshing and an enjoyable little romp through a unique world.
Closure takes the typical side scrolling platformer and turns off a light, which isn’t an insult but a description of the game. The entire game is bathed in black and white, with light illuminating certain parts of each level. What makes this game unique is that the light effects the game’s levels entirely. What is lit up you can touch and is real, what is in dark does not exist. A simple element, that so strongly changes a typical genre into an entirely new experience. The game is playable on Newgrounds right now, but will hopefully see a console at some point in the near future.
What was so surprising about these two games? They’re both made by the same person, or rather programmed. Tyler Glaiel worked with two different artists on two different games, and both were shown at IndieCade. Closure itself was shown at PAX, as one of the 10 independent games in the PAX10 showcase.
Gray is a simple game, and intentionally frustration. You start as a character, black in a mob of never ending white characters. You stop one a white character, find a common ground with a reaction based mini-game, and they’re on your side. This is repeated until everyone is black, then your character switches to white. This is repeated until you become gray, unable to find any common ground with the people on the screen. The game’s focus is a message on the frustration and nature of the political landscape. Liberal and Conservative flip flopping in a futile battle.
Akrasia focuses on a simple game mechanic with a strong message on drugs. A small amorphous character tries to capture a creature, while eating little pills in a bright landscape. The more pills you eat, the more health you lose, and at some points little trinkets on a branch. If you don’t take enough pills the game turns into a black and wight landscape and the creature you were searching changes into a grotesque creature intent on killing you.
Developer Daniel Benmergui had three games at IndieCade, all simple, but artistically interesting games. I wish I were a Moon is a simple game with two characters, a boy on the moon and a girl in on a boat. The boy is content, the girl is focused on the boy with doe eyes. You can move the boy, or the girl, or other elements in the window to effect the game. Today I Die is a game with a girl. Three words are available, that you can change with one other word. Each word changes the background. You find new words, which allow you to further change the game. A simple puzzle focused around a poem and simple elements. Storyteller was the third game shown, where you effect a simple three page story by moving or not moving three characters in each panel. Where they are effects the next panel. All three are simple with multiple endings, but have unique elements that justify spending some time tinkering around with them.
Dear Esther is a modded version of Half-life 2 that removes every element that makes Half-life 2 a shooter, and adds a deep and uniquely progressing story. You wander around a well detailed landscape and come across sound bites at random, building the game’s story. These elements to the story and hidden elements in the game make the entirety of an entirely story driven experience.
Everyone Dies is a text-based adventure game focused around Death and a guy working at a Home Depot like store called CostCutters MegaMart. Text-based adventures are a particularly hard to make as they require a great deal of patience and have a typically small following, but what strikes me most about the game is it’s great art. The incredibly detailed monochromatic pictures are gorgeous and give a great deal of emotional depth, almost driving me to play a game in a genre I abhor, almost.
Global Conflicts: Latin America is a sequel to Global Conflict: Palestine, focused primarily on collecting information on the substandard environmental conditions that have resulted in poorer lives of the people in the towns. Played as a point and click adventure the game’s aim is to draw you into these issues by making you experience them through a journalist’s eyes. The game was perhaps the most currently relevant game at IndieCade.
Nanobots is a point and click game utilizing six small robots, all with specific and unique things they can do. These robots were created by a hippy scientist to create love and peace, but they (mostly)all hate each other, so he wishes to destroy them. The nanobots must work together to keep themselves from being destroyed. The game is has a great sense of humor, and an entertaining point and click adventure title.
The Maw was perhaps the most commercial title at IndieCade as it has already been commercially published, albeit on the Xbox Live Arcade game. You play an alien with a small creature who eats things. What he eats can change his body to a degree. A fire enemy sets him ablaze. Made by the creators of ‘Splosion Man, the game has much of the same great sense of humor with some nice adventure/platformer elements.
Spectre is a rather striking game, with it’s distinct art style and unique gameplay. Focused primarily on the memories of an old man, you choose the path from which he recalls the past. Each first memory has it’s own unique tree, with a number of mini-games to them. Depending on which memories you choose depends on which one of the 52 endings you get at the end of the game. Every memory is read with some great emotion, and the sheer astounding number and replayability warrants a play of this game.
Another game that uses light as it’s primary element in gameplay was Shadow Physics. Rather than light dictating what is real or not, the light in Shadow Physics determines how you interact with the the game. A place with no light is a wall, but moving colored blocks or using these areas as stepping tools lets you solve puzzles and progress. Extremely inventive and interesting to say the very least.
The Path, by belgium game developer Tales of Tales, is a dark twist on the Little Red Riding hood fairytale. Six sisters, each with their own personalities, must go to their grandmothers house. The game’s main objective is actually adverse to the gameplay. Following the path to grandmothers house leads to a game over, forcing the player to follow any path, but the given one to your own ending. There are several things to follow, it is up to the player to choose which to follow with each character. Ultimately the six sister’s paths tie together at the ending. The Path has greatly detailed 3D graphics, with a beautiful art style. The first time I saw the graphics I thought it was a pre-rendered video, it wasn’t, it was just that gorgeous.
Zeno Clash is a sort of unique take on a classic in the gaming genre, FPS, without the S. The game takes place in a richly detailed and artistically beautiful world that serve as the setting for a first person fighting game. The game pits you against foes in a fighting game that is both traditional, yet completely not. The game has been out on the PC for a while, but earlier this week was announced to be published on the Xbox Live Arcade March 2010 by Atlus games with a number of new features and extra content such as Coop gameplay during the game’s challenge mode.
While not easily accessible or particularly commercial, Minor Battle was one of the more unique games at IndieCade due to the way it was played. A melee of stick figures in a battle between two castles with bombs and the like. What made the game unique was that it took up a square of screens one next to another. The characters circled around the screens, in an attempt to destroy the enemy’s castle. This allows for both competition within the game as well as out, almost forcing players to push their way past friend/enemies to complete their objective. An entertaining notion, but perhaps not one we’re likely to see many places.
The last game I saw was one that was shown for the first time anywhere at IndieCade, Papermint. The game is a mixture of social networking websites and MMOs. You control paperdolls that you can can make your own. These paperdolls can fold into new shapes, like boats, or soccer balls to play games and travel around. Perhaps most uniquely, and likely a controversial point, your characters age, and can get pregnant. Meet other players on the game, and have children, and those children become new players. New players are mentored by their in game mothers and fathers. The game has a great art style, and has certainly drawn my attention
These are just the games that I saw during my one day introduction. There were more games, such as Sowlar, Osmos, ClassicNight, Cogs, Mightier, Tuning and Eliss that I didn’t see or didn’t have the time to get a good introduction with. A few ARGs, like You Get Me, and Deep Sleep Initiative were also shown at IndieCade. There were a great number of games you might see in a while, or see as part of a larger title, or are available now.
What I took from IndieCade is that video games are more artistic now than they have ever been in the past. A great number of these games were thought provoking, or deeply touching, be it through their messages or distinct style. They can be small or large, deep or shallow, but one of the best places to get a good taste of these great leaps in artistic games is at the IndieCade.
For more information, please visit the event’s website for more events in the future.