I had a more thorough look at all the entries to the main competition of the Independent Games Festival. The diversity is impressive. I have tried to select some entries that I feel are worthy of attention and/or likely finalists in my opinion. I have done this based on the information available, which ranged from screenshots to playable demos. Entries that didn’t have more than one screenshot were ignored.
I also did not include games that were decidedly hobbyist projects or games that fit a very specific market (and will probably find it without the help of the IGF). Obviously, given the high number of entires, I may have failed to recognize some really good titles. I hope the jury picks them up for me.
As it turns out, the games I selected can be divided in three categories. I call them pinball games, simulators and games with content. The first are the most likely to be noticed by the IGF jury, in my opinion, and the last make the least chance. As it happens, my personal favourites are in the last category. I hope I’m being too pessimistic because there’s some very remarkable titles there.
These are not actually pinball games, but games with a similar feel and intent. They contain no narrative content and the main character is often little more than a ball that is flung from obstacle to obstacle. This category contains the ultra-popular indie genre of the “clever platform game”, an apparently infinite source of inspiration. Mostly 2D games, though I found two 3D variations as well.
“Eduardo The Samurai Toaster” by Semnat Studios
I didn’t find any video footage of this game but I’m quite impressed with the still graphics. It’s a pretty combination of handdrawn elements that are collaged together to simulate an environment. I especially like that, despite it being a 2D platformer, they try to make the environment feel natural and not completely stylized as in most games in this genre.
“Fez” by Kokoromi
An instant indie classic: stylish graphics, old school pixel art and a clever gimmick to add some dimension to the 2D platform genre (their own slogan is “Let’s get awesome!” so don’t blame me). It’s hard to resist the seduction of the game’s blue sky and puffy clouds. An it’s nice to see a genuinely cute game for a change (as opposed to all the commercial anime-inspired trash these days).
“The Fancy Pants Adventure: World 1” by Borne Games
Another typical well-made indie game: standard platform game with original graphics and physics effects. A lot of fun indeed.
“World of Goo” by 2D Boy
One of several “blob” game entries (Gish 2 and Gumboy Tournament two others that I removed from my list because they are sequels to games that are already popular). Again: looks like a whole lot of fun to me…
“ThreadSpace: Hyperbol” by iocaine studios
This game is so glossy and professional that it doesn’t seem indie at first sight. But when you start playing and realize that every key of the keyboard is required to operate this apparatus, you know that this is hardcore. My 11 year old son would love this. It’s glow in the dark little space ships skating over a play field that quite literally resembles a pinball machine surface.
(The game was already a finalist in 2005, apparently. Don’t know how that works.)
“Undertow” by Chair Entertainment Group
Another very slick looking product. And also a LAN-based multiplayer shooter game. And also predominantly blue. This one because it plays under the water. It looks like it would feel like a 2D shooter game (popular with the indie audience) while being rendered in 3D (perhaps attractive to the game maninstream). And it’s got girls in metal bikinis!
Somehow the simulation games in the IGF caught my eye. Possibly because they offer an alternative way of playing. Less hurried, less “fun”. More suitable for someone of my age perhaps? The narratives and characters in these games are largely in the player’s head. But at least they stimulate imagination.
“Get a Life Show” by Artisticsoft
It would be hard not to at least notice this game. If only out of wonder why anyone bothered to make such an elaborate production out of a simulation of “ordinary life”. Chris Crawford famously paraphrased Hitchcock when decribing The Sims as “life without the drama”. Missing the point to some extent that Will Wright’s product is not about people’s lives but about playing with dolls. Enter the Get a Life Show, in which you can finally be a Sim. Now you can get an education, find a job, eat food, earn money, do all the mundane things of life in a game!
The premise of a reality tv show is clever. But I am still baffled by the question as to why people would want to play a life that is even more tedious than real life? Because it’s more controllable, perhaps? Not sure.
“Venture Arctic” by Pocketwatch Games
Venture Arctic’s subject matter is more ambitious as it deals with an entire ecosystem. Luckily it does this in an accessible and friendly way without being excessively realistic or punitive. It even has some room for spiritual concepts. It’s still very much a carrot-and-stick kind of game of earning points to unlock items. But it’s a pleasant place to be in.
“Plant Tycoon” by Last Day of Work
Now I know I’m not the only person with strange game ideas. I want to make an MMORPG where you play a plant. So I’m happy to see that someone had the courage to make a plant breeding simulation game. This is great: all the fun of gardening without getting dirty fingers or smelling stinky things. I know it’s silly. And in an ideal world, I probably would ignore this title completely. But in the current context, Plant Tycoon is a breath of fresh air!
“Virtual Villagers – The Lost Children” by Last Day of Work
Now we’re getting to the meat of things: a game that my 10-year old daughter likes! Made by the same couple that made Plant Tycoon (for obvious reasons, I have a soft spot for couples creating games together). Virtual Villagers is a simulation of a small primitive village. Granted, this has been done much better in Black & White, but isolating just this aspect as a game onto its own has its merits. It’s as much a challenge of balancing resources as the next game, but the peaceful atmosphere and gentle humour are all the reward that somebody like me really needs.
Games with content
As far as I am concerned, this is the category where the first steps toward the future of interactive entertainment are made. All of these games deal with narrative as the primary driving force behind the game’s design. It’s not always a simple linear story. Sometimes the narrative is more poetic and vague. But they all share a focus on a certain narrative theme: they are about something.
“Fatal Hearts” by Hanako Games
Fatal Hearts is like an illustrated book. You click through text boxes to learn about the story. Once in a while you make a choice or solve a puzzle. Most puzzles are fairly easy. In terms of interaction design, Fatal Hearts is trivial. But sometimes that feels just right. In terms of graphics, it’s mixed at best: the characters are well done though standard anime fare, the backgrounds feel a bit unfinished. There are no animations. It’s all about the story. And I can’t help but respect a designer who is brave enough to talk about girls wondering if their lack of make up might be the reason why they don’t have a boyfriend. Chapeau!
“Masq” by AlterAction
Masq is another game on the more light-hearted side of the narrative spectrum. In fact, this is as close to a soap opera as any game I’ve seen. The American comic style suits the content perfectly, though the graphic design feels a bit clunky. This is most certainly a game with content, even if that content is not very intellectually or emotionally challenging. It’s a soap opera. The concept of a short but infinitely replayable game is very interesting, however.
“Global Conflicts: Palestine” by Serious Games Interactive
Serious doesn’t get a lot more serious than the Israeli/Palestine conflict. Not in any medium. This is a “serious game” about a serious problem. The confrontation of the game interface with actual photographs when composing your newspaper article’s layout is simply chilling. Global Conflicts is a courageous attempt to deal with real subject matter in a game. I’m still left wondering if this doesn’t trivialize the real-world issue too much? Are games ready to be a medium for such seriousness?
“Penumbra: Overture” by Frictional Games
Penumbra may be an exception in this category. I think it has a good chance of being selected as a finalist. It features top-notch technology and realistic physics. What more do you want?
Well, there is the story. And even though there is not an ounce of emotion in the telling itself (though that may be for effect), there is most certainly story here, and it’s very compelling. For a 3D physics based game, the interaction feels very nice. I like that it is presented as a first episode of a trilogy. And I love the perversion/appropriation of the FPS interface to make an adventure game.
“The Path” by Tale of Tales
This is our own entry. For us, The Path constitutes a very important step in the development of a form of play that is driven by its content. There’s no puzzles in The Path, no challenges, nothing. No game-like things. We ripped them all out. We’re extremely happy with the result. But the demo may not be strong enough to convince the jury.
“The Night Journey” by USC Game Innovation Lab
The Night Journey is the crown on this year’s IGF, perhaps even on its entire history so far. I’m almost proud of IGF for having become a competition in which a game like The Night Journey would be entered. Made in collaboration with Bill Viola, certainly one of the most interesting video artists and perhaps even one of the most important artists of our time tout court. As to be expected from such a source, The Night Journey leaves all other games far behind. It doesn’t even pretend to be a game anymore. It just goes there. Creating an experience that will probably turn most gamers into pillars of salt.
A recently discovered telltale sign of great works of interaction is that the gameplay video footage is boring to look at. This should be taken as a sign that says that you need to play the piece to truly know what it is about. There’s no way that The Night Journey is even going to get through the first round of selections. But the fact that it was entered will remain a historical occasion in my book. And perhaps a first step in the medium’s “journey towards enlightenment”.