Promised GDC Post #1: Indie Game Inspirations

Now that I have the energy to chew food and stand in the same day, I figure let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about GDC. One of the great unexpected experiences I had was getting to play and talk about some truly innovative, interesting and inspiring independent games (x4 alliteration multiplier). So in the interests of sharing the wealth, here are some names and descriptions of games I heard about or got to play:

#1 – Fez

Fez was a game featured on the IGF show floor that I had read about previously in an interview but forgotten. The premise is that you are a little pixel dude living in a 2d subset of a 3d world. You can rotate the world ninety degrees along a vertical axis and interact with the world as if the depth dimension was completely ignored. I’m doing a horrible job explaining it, so you can check out some of their stuff regarding Fez on their site.It is definitely as fun to play as it looks, but there is bad news. One of the creators that I talked with at the show said that the version of Fez I and everyone else had played was more of a tech demo that wouldn’t be released to the public as they are interested in creating something salable with the tech. So the odds of you actually getting your hands on it are slim.Secondly, while the core game design is rock-solid and the game has the base to turn into something really beautiful, it suffers from some pedagogical issues. It’s very difficult for a new player to sit down with this game and make the abstract leap as to what the world needs to look like to meet one’s goals. This resulted in the creator I was talking with giving me a lot of advice: “Jump up to that ledge and rotate twice”, etc. The Kokoromi folks can really learn volumes from the Portal devs on this issue. There needs to be visual cues to teach the player what is useful information and what is background noise. I assumed that there was some signficance to a patch of grass blowing in the breeze in a particularly hard spot. My game designer mind said “that grass is moving because it is a visual cue that something important is happening here so I’ll let myself be drawn there”. After fiddling about at that patch from every angle, I asked the creator who basically said “No, it’s just there as decoration.” Frustrating. Considering I was shown a number of “hidden” areas in the demo that one simply wouldn’t know existed on the first go, some sort of visual cuing would certainly help.Also, there is no reason to be collecting Fezs (what is the plural of Fez?). If there is no reason to collect them besides high score, I’ll probably just try and take the quickest route to the top and miss a lot of clever level design.So tons of potential for a great game is here as long as someone else doesn’t get there before they release something. Crush and Super Paper Mario already have similar hooks on the retail shelves, so time really is of the essence for these guys.

#2 – Polarity

So here is one I hadn’t heard of before seeing it on the show floor. Polarity is an innovative little 2d platformer from a team at my alma mater. The hook is that you wear a magnetic suit that either attracts or repels you (or other objects) depending on your suit’s color which is hot-swappable. Very simple premise, but the team turned it around into a very satisfying puzzle-platformer. I felt guilty because I was hogging the controller because once I solved a puzzle, I wanted to keep going. Luckily for me (unlucky for the team), the game lacks the theoretic panache of other entries, which meant there wasn’t a huge queue for the game. But if you discarded it because you thought it looked like a standard platformer, you’d be missing out on a fantastic game.I completed the whole thing on the show floor. I couldn’t have spent more than fifteen minutes on the whole thing, but the execution was absolutely flawless. Right before becoming stuck, text pops up on the screen giving you hints on how to use your powers in a new way. There was never a point where I didn’t know what I needed to do. The game gave me the satisfaction of solving puzzles and completing challenges without the rote repetition or scaling of difficulty that most 2d platformer game designers take as given.The bonus is that the game is downloadable and free on the team’s website. So play it and enjoy (use a 360 controller if you have the luxury).


#3 – The Path

The Path totally looks like my kind of game – a horror game that doesn’t need chainsaws or grenade launchers. So I stood at the PC on the show floor and played it for about ten minutes. The note near the console said: “There is only one rule and it must be broken.” Since the game told me to follow the path, I didn’t. This caused me to meander in woods with controls that simply didn’t work. I really wanted to find something as cool as the pictures on the website, but I didn’t. The guy who played before me found a sorta-creepy house, but I wasn’t nearly as lucky.As there were disclaimers all over the place that this was an in-progress build, I cut it some slack. It’s clear that the creators have a keen artistic sense, but whether that artistic sense translates over to game mechanics has yet to be proven. As such though, the game lays out a very creepy sounding aesthetic, so I’ll keep my eye on it with high hopes.


#4 – The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
#5 – Xtor Prime Retribution in the Invisible Wars: Wrath of Transperator: Part II: The Prototype

A time-manipulation game that spoofs Chaplin-era farces? Sign me up! I wish I had some hands-on time with this one, but the designer showed off some great stuff including a mechanic where your main adversary is your actions that led up to your confrontation with your doppelganger. For instance, there is a level where you have to touch a pie and then reach an exit. But once you touch the pie, you start a doppelganger who takes the same exact actions that you did from the start of the level and if you touch him, you break the time-space continuum. So traveling in a straight line isn’t always the best patch to take, especially when you have three sets of stacked doppelgangers. That is fucking innovative stuff. I thought that this would be a student project ripping off the mindspace of Braid (Apparently Blow is one of their external advisors or some such), but this looks so much more interesting than Braid, that I have to give them the utmost kudos and hope that I get to play a full and final version sometime soon.The designer also showed off another student project his team did. The idea was to remake a game in the style of B-grade monster movies of the 50s (complete with UFOs on strings), but with the catch that your monster’s mutant power was that he was invisible. Not that enemies couldn’t see him, but that the player couldn’t either. The player could only judge where his avatar was by the effects he left behind (rubble, footprints, shadows for some reason). This makes for a wonderfully surreal-looking experience that is unique to a smaller student project (simply couldn’t be done in a full-budget game). The capstone of the whole experience is fighting the final boss who is also invisible, having to use the environmental cues to see where you are AND where your foe is.

Others: The following games also look awesome but for some reason or another I didn’t get to play them or see enough about them to provide any reasonable comment: Audiosurf, Gesundheit, Crayon Physics Deluxe, World of Goo, Bernie the Pyromancer, Yin Yang

I also got to meet Cactus on the show floor, author of such games as Clean Asia and the aforeblogged Mondo Medicals and Psychosomnium. He recognized who I was when I introduced myself, but our conversation was kind of awkward. Either he didn’t know what to say, was completely tired from a few days of demoing or both. Seemed like a nice guy though. I read on his blog that he trying to start up a business as an indie game developer and so I wish him the best, but I hope it doesn’t destroy that unique spark of his that I find makes his games so enjoyable. Making games for business is so radically different than making games for yourself that I can’t even begin to compare the two.

When I was a TA in a game design class back in CMU (and funnily enough when I look back on my own designs in my student phase), I wanted to just take people by the shoulders and shake them and say “You don’t have to make something palatable! This is the only chance you will get to do something that breaks all the rules! Don’t saddle yourself with the burden of making the next Warcraft/Grand Theft Auto/Final Fantasy, there are bigger ideas out there that haven’t been explored and you are the ones who can do that!” This is what I mean. These games are largely done by students are a peek into daring new mechanics and maybe even new genres that the industry might actually pick up on in five years if it listens. Some will turn out to be gimmicks, but the spark of originality will always be best cared for by the students.

3 thoughts on “Promised GDC Post #1: Indie Game Inspirations

  1. I hadn’t heard of The Path, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom or Xtor, but they all sound like really great concepts. I’ll be looking out for Polarity as well, but it’s a shame that it isn’t more visually distinct. Your summary sounded very interesting, but the screenshot wouldn’t have sold me it alone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Human? * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.