The shortlist for the Independent Games Festival has been revealed. The good news is that our entry FATALE was not selected and so we don’t have to go through Homeland Security Fun ParkSan Francisco in Spring. The bad news is that the selection is rather… boring? Only a few noteworthy games were selected. I guess this confirms Derek Yu’s observation that 2009 was a slow year for indie games. Good thing my New Year’s Resolution includes a goodbye to games (*). Otherwise, I think I’d be sort of… upset?
Our invitation to judge in the Independent Games Festival was withdrawn when we said we were submitting an entry ourselves. As it turns out, that was probably a smart move. Because when I had a look at each of the 301 entries in the festival, I couldn’t resist the urge to compare them with our own. And, frankly, FATALE beats them all, in every category. This is why I have only selected 4 games for each prize in the festival. The fifth game -and clear winner- of each category is our own FATALE. I’m sorry, I just can’t be objective about this.
I have based my selection on the information available on the IGF website, the game developers’ own websites, videos and screenshots. I have played demos and games when they were publicly available. But I must admit that some of my choices were based on very little data. So I reserve a margin of error. I could have missed a really great project. And I could have included a rather lousy one. Apologies ahead of time.
Apart from simply choosing the most interesting projects in each category, I have tried to limit the amount of overlap between the different categories. Which wasn’t always easy because interesting entries tend to be good in several categories simultaneously. such as our own wonderful FATALE, for instance
Despite of the high quality of some, I have rejected games created by DigiPen students because I don’t consider them serious contenders. The IGF has a separate competition for student work. I hope they use this category in the future.
I make no secret about the fact that the thing I like most about the games industry is its girlfriend its potential. There are many videogames that are fine games as such, even on the independent scene. If you want to play a game, there’s an enormous amount on offer. But I know this computer of ours can do a lot more. I even believe that it can bring us a new medium, a medium as relevant and important to our times as cinema was to the previous century and printing to the centuries before. But the developers who strive for such greatness are few and far between. Even on the independent scene, where one would expect them in larger numbers than in the so-called mainstream industry.
If I had to make an absolute judgment, I’d probably send each and every game in the IGF back to the drawing board (including our own amazing FATALE). Luckily I can suffice with a relative selection. So I have chosen games that give me hope for the future of the medium. Games that are ambitious, that try to explore interesting terrain and/or allow us to do so while playing.
Windosill brings back fond memories of computer-based entertainment’s early days, when an interactive piece could just be called a “CD Rom” instead of getting labeled “GAME”. I think we could do much worse than reconnect with that time and pick up what was so rudely interrupted: playful interaction without the need to compete or achieve. Fig. 8 is equally whimsical but more challenging. But its challenge reminds of the real-world challenge of trying to ride a bicycle as a child, so it feels a lot more natural than in most games. It’s also a wonderful illustration of how a videogame can simply be a journey. Amnesia: The dark descent is probably the most ambitious game in the festival. Its scope and aesthetic rival -and exceed- many of the productions in the commercial industry, even. This is the kind of game I would like to see more of on the independent scene: uncompromising exploration of the narrative potential of high tech. Trauma re-invents the idea of an interactive movie in a spectacular and exciting way. It combines an intuitive and beautiful control system with an intimate engaging story (expressed by means of superb voice acting).
I was pleasantly surprised by the care that independent developers are starting to put in the aesthetic presentation of their games. The “faux amateur” style seems to no longer be a badge of honour. Good riddance, too. Because there’s a lot of work to be done.
I was also glad to see that, next to some excellent examples of traditional 3D aesthetics, several developers are starting to explore real-time 3D aesthetics in an experimental way. In A New Zero all shapes are reduced to their bare minimum covered with a seductive colour palette, that can almost make you forget you’re playing a relatively banal war game. Doppelscope adds to its simplification of shapes a new kind of sensory experience that affects the entire environment and doesn’t shy away from a bit of glossy spectacle here and there. Many entries in this year’s festival feature silhouettes as their main graphical element. But aesthetically, Limbo, is the superior game of the entire lot. Saturated Dreamers surprised me. The characters that seem to carry the story are naive art at best, and actual typography has been carefully avoided, but the playing reveals an interesting generative canvas of unlikely combinations of shapes and colours. I like the aesthetic connection it suggests between computer-based geometry and walllpaper and textile patterns.
I was not very impressed with the sound in most entries this year. Sound still seems to be very much an afterthought for most independent developers. Which is a real shame, considering how powerful its effect can be on the player.
There’s a lot of music games out there. Many use the music to structure simple gameplay (last year’s audio category winner Audio Surf seems to have influenced a lot of designers) and others allow you to create some kind of music-like soundscape through interaction. Microsia stands out by successfully combining amusing interaction with actual composition. Broken Brothers didn’t fall into the tired trap of adding soft piano music to a war game but opted for a menacing oppressive soundtrack through minimal and almost humoristic means on top of melancholic music that actually helps you concentrate on your strategies of destruction rather than making you feel oh so bad about killing the enemy. Demonica‘s musical wall of sound is probably the most atmospheric entry in the festival. Doppelscope confronts electronic sounds with human interaction in analogy with how it expresses its theme of nature preservation through a very synthetic stylized look. Makes playing with computers feel hip again, without the need to resort to retro aesthetics.
I don’t think videogames need to be games as such. But for this category, I selected videogames that I find well designed as games in the strict sense of the word. The fact that two of them are dressed up as space conquest games only illustrates how irrelevant story and meaning are when it comes to pure game design. Both Galcon and Constellation are wonderfully simple-yet-complex systems that are fascinating to interact with. Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! does have a story. Quite an extensive one, even. But it feels so much like a board game that I couldn’t resist putting it in this category. Windosill is probably the only game I selected for this category that is undisputedly at home on the computer. And in an irresistibly charming way at that. Games this playful are too rare.
I’m considering this category as the place for art works. Not necessarily “art games” but simply artistic pieces that use game concepts or technology. Lose/Lose reminds me a lot of the some of the net.art of the 90s we used to be involved in, especially the work of Jodi. I may not be the world’s greatest fan of modern art, but I like seeing it become part of independent game development. If only because game distribution would offer media artists an alternative venue for showing their work. A venue that is more appropriate for the digital medium, in my opinion. The other games are more interesting as experiences, rather than simple conceptual statements. There’s something very melancholic about playing with people who have been playing before you but are not at the moment (hell is other people). Wait may be ugly but it has a very inspiring game mechanic (which is rare in indie games). And A Slow Year simply appeals to me because of its references to traditional painting and the link that it makes between nature and machines.
All videogames are small miracles. Contrary to popular belief, computer hardware is still incredibly slow, unwieldy and inaccessible. But of all software that one can make with a computer, real-time 3D games must be the most complicated and technically impressive. There’s a tendency on the independent developers scene to look down on 3D games. But I think that’s just a self defense reflex that should not impair our judgment.
With the exception of Amnesia: The dark descent, none of the games I selected in this category are games that I would play myself. But I want to pay tribute to the effort that the developers are doing to, independently, create such technically ambitious projects. Hopefully their work encourages other indie developers and artists not to shy away in their comfortable flat platformer and shooter zones.
We still need to go through all 306 (!) entries but some immediately stood out, like A Slow Year, Lose/Lose, TRAUMA and Wait but there seems to be a lot more where that came from. The overall polish of the games this year seems much higher. And 2D platformers (still) reign supreme. Though I also noticed a much higher amount of 3D games than in previous years. And less (pseudo) self mocking games.
Looks like that Wii version is going to be BIG 😉 The game is currently available for Mac and PC. See more details of their contest here!
They seem to be making it a special challenge for the occasion, you can only win by not walking but rotating to navigate! o.0 sounds difficult!
So, I bought an iPod touch.
Which prompted one of my friends to say “Welcome to the 21st century! :p”
The implication of which being that he couldn’t believe I didn’t have one already.
Yeah, here at (ToT) we’re a *little* slow to accept new technology. Not dripping with ready cash, are we.
Anyway, I got it day before yesterday and have now spent some time figuring it out. And downloading some apps. And games, of course!
Here’s what I’m starting out with:
Top of my list was ZenBound. A good friend of mine, I stayed with in San Francisco during the last GDC, was OBSESSED with this game. She kept showing it to me and even made me get autographs from the team that made it when she found out I was going to be at the conference with them! With such a glowing reccomendation I knew it had to be the first game on my iPod.
ZenBound is indeed a very beautiful thing to look at and interact with. I’m finding it quite inspiring so far.
I guess i like the idea of slow contemplative games (go figure ;)) because I also picked up Ian Bogost’s Guru Meditation. A good deal at €0.79 and while I have not spent enough time with it to see what “happens”… I am willing to bet, based on its theme, that *nothing* happens and that is just exactly the point.
I wouldn’t dream of not having a paint program on the iPod touch. I chose Colors! from Jens Andersson because I had become addicted to his homebrew version on Nintendo DS. I am only too happy to finally be able to give him some money for this. It is a step up for sure from the DS version with the online gallery integrated into the app and several new options for the brush behaviour. Most interesting of which is the use of tilt controls to change the width and opacity in lieu of pressure sensitivity on the screen (which unlike the DS the iPod lacks). Brushes and PaintBook also look interesting. But I like how in Colors! you can calibrate an offset of the brush from your finger so you’re not right on top of where you’re painting. Still, it is going to take some getting used to.
MYST. I am playing MYST. I played it last in 1994, or something. I am surprised to say that I still really really enjoy playing MYST. I think this touch adaptation is very well done. I had forgotten how much of an open world the game is. Somehow even the “slideshow” presentation of it still feels immersive. Is that because of the small screen? I like how perplexing it is to be walking about in this world alone… not knowing exactly what I should do, and then figuring it out; No tutorial necessary, no intro movie. Maybe this game was more of an influence on me as a game designer than I imagined.
Lastly, finally Eliss. I love its graphical representation and its sound. I am a bit annoyed at its traditional GAME OVER type gameplay but I enjoy it while it lasts. I would recommend at least trying it (there is a free demo version available.) Because its fun to interact with and very well done of indie developer Stef Thirion.
ADDENDUM: Maybe the next version of the iPod touch, coming in September according to some sources, will have the camera and digital compass feature from the iPhone. Sure, I’ll upgrade for that.
Ah, it’s sunday. Nothing better to do than surf the web and look at screenshots and videos of upcoming games. Sitting here I was struck by a few games that I am actually looking forward to and decided to make an addendum to my previous post of games I am looking forward to playing, so here it is…
Top of the list is Bayonetta, of all things.
Yeah, I know, I’m as surprised as you are. Why?
Well… back in the day I had a thing for Devil May Cry 1. Just the first one. I thought the sequels didn’t really take advantage of what a cool character Dante was so with each new DMC game I was bitterly dissapointed. Platinum Games seems to have carried the vision of that game into Bayonetta. SO I am *hoping* it will be finally an action game I can enjoy again. They recently created blog and the character designer and modeler come forth with some of their process. I love it when character artists do that!
Bayonetta’s long hair is the source of her power, and she normally wears it around her body as a means of adornment and protection. However, once she enters battle, she can use her hair to summon incredibly powerful demons from hell. When she summons these Infernal Demons, she is using all of her power, so she has no time to control the hair wrapped around her body and thus she ends up in more “comfortable” attire. The exciting way she looks in this state is one of the parts of Bayonetta that I love.
Winner of the grand prize during the IGF. An indie game by Erik Svedäng of the amazing hair and an all around sweet guy.
Cruising through Steam channels this morning I noticed Blueberry Garden will soon be for sale. I had a chance to play the game during the IGF and it’s quite a charming platform game… though not exactly a platformer as it seemed the goal was more whimsy than winning. I love the drawn style and how while playing I was always kept curious to figure out what was going on. I think anyone who reads this blog will really enjoy Blueberry Garden, so once it’s out you should all give it a try!
One game I forgot to mention in my first ‘looking forward’ post is actually a game I’ve been waiting on for years. And that’s Heavy Rain.
When is this game gonna be finished? And why won’t the developers, Quantic Dream, answer our repeated emails requesting an interview with them? hah? We’d love to talk to them about their design philosophy more in depth! I think this game could end up being a big budget example of new ways to tell stories through interaction. Not sure… but maybe… I like that they are at least trying to get out of old forms of gameplay and put the emphasis on the narrative content. Of course, until theres more released about the game, we don’t really know what its gonna be, do we…? :/ Still, given the version of it I make up in my mind, based on what has been released so far, this game is one to look forward to!
I am very excited about Noby Noby Boy multiplayer and getting Girl to Mars!!!
Lastly, there is our own The Path for the Mac… because we’ve been working hard to get the game released on this platform! It’s been received wonderfully on the PC but as a Mac user I think it is going to be a great fit for the game loving Mac audience! Trust me, you guys have never played anything like this!
I find myself strangely fascinated by the recent trend of Achievements in games. For the uninitiated, achievements are a sort of titles that you get when you have done a particular thing in a videogame for the first time (like collect the Six Sacred Stones or run very fast into a wall, etc). So you don’t get a power-up or gold or points or extra lives or anything that influences the gameplay at all. Only the title. The reason for my fascination is that it seems like achievements can turn anything into a game!
We’re playing a bit with the concept in the design of The Path, and, depending on how we end up publishing the game, we might add more. Achievements are a very simple mechanic. They require hardly any design, are easy to implement and instantly provide the player with motivation and goals. These two, of course, being the Big Problem that needs to be solved in order to allow videogames to evolve from the toy-like things that they are today into the full-blown mature medium that we all know they can become.
Assassin’s Creed, at least the way I play it, seems to be largely structured around the concept of Achievements. It offers you a fully explorable living world which is a joy to simply walk around in. But, typically, as such, it runs the risk of becoming too ambient to keep the player motivated. Setting your own goals and having the discipline and patience to explore is not an easy thing to continue doing for the many hours that games like these take. But just before you get in trouble, you almost accidentally collect a flag. And the game tells you that it’s flag number 1 out of a hundred. Or you climb a large tower to enjoy the view and the game tells you there’s nine of these. Instant motivation. Simple. There’s more to Assassin’s Creed than this. It includes the traditional missions and combat and narrative progress. But I find these far less interesting.
Achievements can turn everything into a game. At least everything that is interactive. I’ve tried to imagine a way to add achievements to reading a novel or listening to music but I couldn’t get there. Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Suggestions are welcome in the comments!
The absolutely wonderful thing about Achievements to me is that they don’t interfere with the narrative experience much. They are extremely lightweight in terms of meaning. So now we can concentrate on making our interaction design express the story rather than forcing the rigid challenge-effort-reward game structure to do so, or -possibly worse- forcing the narrative to comply with the demands of such a structure. Achievements offer designers an opportunity to finally start exploring the non-linear nature of the medium without losing the players.
For instance: would it hurt The Graveyard to add Achievements to it? Hardly. Achievement: you have walked to the bench without limping! Achievement: you have sat on the bench without getting up before the song ends! Achievement: you have turned around three times before sitting down! Achievement: 10 birds have greeted you while sitting on the bench. Etcetera. You would still get the atmosphere. You would still feel the protagonist’s melancholy. You’d still feel the weak Belgian sun on your shriveled skin. You wouldn’t be distracted from the narrative content at all. And your protagonist doesn’t need to become a hero who defeats the monster or solves the mystery. Achievements can open the door for games about all sorts of content.
I have played American McGee’s Grimm Episode 2 (Little Red Ridinghood -research, you know). And finished it in one go! This may not be big news to you but it’s a remarkable mile stone event for me. It’s been years since I have played a game all the way through. In fact, in most games I tend to not make it past the first puzzle. Because of a combination of lack of skill and lack of patience or tolerance. Call me weird, but I play games for amusement, for relaxation, for making my brain play around with ideas. I don’t play games to become frustrated or caught in the intricate spreadsheet that some clever game designer came up with.
American McGee gets the prize for having made a game that I can actually play. It’s not the greatest game in the world, but it is filled with smart design ideas to help not-so-skilled and not-so-patient players -like me- move on with the fun. It was an exhilarating experience to just be able to play all the way to the end of a game without being interrupted by some O B S T A C L E. I’m too old for that. And frankly, I think videogames as a medium are too old for that.
Take Little Big Planet: a wonderfully amusing experience. Especially when you play with multiple people. Very forgiving and fun. Losing isn’t all that sad and doesn’t happen often. You just play in and with the game. Until you hit the h a r d c o r e levels. Suddenly the game designer forgets about this whole idea of the player finally being able to have some whimsical fun in a videogame and the entire thing turns into a typical try-fail-repeat hardcore fiero trip. Totally misplaced in such a droll environment. What a disappointment!
[Initially] I didn’t feel like I was trying to figure out what Blow “meant” by the storyline. The written exposition ahead of each world, while overwrought and ponderous, acted as a tone-poem, setting a contemplative stage for the mechanics.
But I was forced to turn my attention from the game itself because of its difficulty.
When I hit the inevitable wall in Braid, I discovered that, despite being allowed to run roughshod through the game in order to experience and appreciate the narrative, such gameplay would keep me from reaching the story’s end. I was furious. Unlike most video games, Braid requires literal perfection. Every last jump must be made. Every single obstacle overcome.