I was privileged enough to be allowed to be an Independent Games Festival Judge this year. For those who don’t know, the IGF is one of the premier games competitions in the world and always has new and interesting ideas in the mix. How judging works is that judges are randomly assigned games based on the listed platforms that they own (for instance, a judge would not be assigned an Ouya game if they don’t own an Ouya). Judges then download and play the game and then can choose either to not nominate the game for any awards or nominate a game for one of the awards. After the judging period is over, the totals of nominations go to the juries who then play the nominated games and choose a winner. As for my role, I got to play about 100 new games. Some were broken and/or uninspired and you would wonder why a person would spend the registration fee on submitting. Others were weird quirky ideas that wouldn’t find a home anywhere else. Some were bona fide achievements that compare with any “AAA” game at retail.
The juries got it mostly right! The submissions were an embarrassment of riches, so it was hard not to. Let me tell you about some of the games you might not have heard of or played. I don’t think these are the top 5 or anything nor do these represent what I voted for. I gave thumbs up to lots of things. These are just the ones I want to talk about.
Hand of Fate
Hand of Fate got totally snubbed. No nominations, no honorable mentions. Nada. Which is a shame because it does so many fun, interesting things. Hand of Fate mixes a deck-builder with a dungeon crawler and a 3rd-person brawler. It’s the sloppy kind of mix that I honestly enjoy. None of the parts really shine on their own, but taken together as a whole they are wonderfully compelling.
The best part of Hand of Fate arguably is your antagonist. He sits across the table from you as you play his game and narrates all the action. Given that the very design of the game necessitates the repetition of encounters, you would think that the game would shy away from particularly interesting or in-depth audio cues as their repetition would be grating and pull the player out of the story. That much is true. So the narrator has multiple lines per encounter that seem to draw on not just what he has said before, but also context within the game and within previous games.
This is the kind of polish that most AAA games eschew as unnecessary and most indie games cannot afford to consider. Kudos to the folks that are responsible for this.
Side note: the antagonist’s hands bother me. They are way too big for him and since he is always pointing to things and moving them around, you always notice. I don’t know if that is supposed to be on purpose, but it uncanny valley’s me out. I know they gave him the face covering so they wouldn’t have to animate the facial features, so clearly they understand the importance of the visual fidelity of the character.
This War of Mine
This War of Mine is the most depressing game of The Sims you will ever play. You control three survivors in an active war zone modeled after Serbia in the Balkans War. By digging around, trading, scavenging, and creative utilization of resources, you need to attempt to keep them from being hungry, sick, wounded, tired, or from an overwhelming weltschmerz.
On one overnight raid, I broke into a home with two elderly residents. They got angry, but once I realized they posed no threat to me, I pilfered all the food I could carry from that house back to my hideout. In any other game, the designers would guilt you at the scene and leave it at that. This War of Mine not only strains the mental health of the characters when they do something antisocial, but the world itself reacts. In the previous example, my character became distraught at what he had done and had to lay down for a while. Other characters at the house talked about it. I truly felt like an asshole. These people are just trying to survive too. What right did I have taking their food? In a later incident, I chatted with a priest at a church and decided looting his area would not be the best idea. I came back later to find squatters who mention that they had to clear the priest out. This immediately changed my temperament towards otherwise cardboard NPCs.
These kinds of details create not only a rich, believable world but also serve to inform meaningful decisions for the players that go beyond min-maxing and affect the aesthetic. Here is a war game where you don’t control the powerful and you don’t fight for God and Country. It’s bleak, but it is beautiful and was one of the great surprises of the contest.
It got a Grand Prize and Narrative nomination, but not a Design nomination.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
This game was made by eight people. I find that so hard to believe, even partially understanding photogrametry. It’s a beautiful game and my new PC was built just in time to take advantage of it. It takes place in a rural setting where every tree and rock feels authentically made for just that position. I was less impressed with the game itself, although it is worth playing. If you are going to make a game where you mostly just wander around though, the scenery should have to be as beautiful as this.
It didn’t get nominated for Visual Arts, though. Look at that screenshot!
Pry is the story of an ex-Iraq War soldier. I don’t even know what else to say about the story because how the interaction with the app plays out is so central to understanding the story.
There is largely one mechanic in the game that is manifested in two ways. First, you can spread your fingers to “pry” your eyes open or expand an element. You can pinch to condense an element or shut something. The game is played with a large amount of well-produced full-motion video. As you begin to understand more and more about the main character and his two comrades, you feel a growing sense of discomfort at the images you see.
I’m torn here because I really want to explain why this is excellent, but doing so would partially ruin the experience for new players. So I won’t. Pry is unfinished currently (it is missing chapters), but I will say that Chapter 6 is a postmodern masterpiece in slow revelation of details. It isn’t a perfect game by any stretch, but it does something new and interesting and has a hard time falling into any genre position. You can get it on the App Store now.
The Talos Principle
One of the problems of puzzle games in the new millennium is that the answer to any puzzle is just a YouTube search away. One of the privileges of getting to play this before its release is that I had no ability to Google the answer to any puzzle. However, that has bitten me as I am just completely stuck on a critical path puzzle.
The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game much in the style of Portal. I don’t want to explain much about the premise of the game as it unfolds in a compelling way, but you play a robot that needs to complete puzzles in order to satisfy a voice in the sky that claims to be your creator. There’s fun Philosophy of Mind stuff going on here, but other games have done that before just as well.
Talos Principle puzzles do not exist in a vacuum. First, there are the puzzles themselves. Complete them and get a little tchotchke that helps you unlock further puzzles. But there are secrets upon secrets that really open up the worlds. There are stars which are unlockable by solving puzzles in alternate ways. There are world-level puzzles that require the player to use materials across different puzzles in each environment. Then there are the weird pseudo-discoveries that are certainly secrets (I won’t spoil any), but are hidden throughout the environments. There’s so much clever content here.
Quantity is one thing. I’ve played hundreds of (mostly mobile) games that brag about their quantity and then just give you some procedurally generated crap where one element is just a permutation of another. The puzzles in The Talos Principle are tight and carefully crafted. I’ve seen forum postings that want this game to be co-op and I want to smack those kids silly. If you want a master class on design, here it is. You start with what you think is the obvious solution to a puzzle only to understand its limitations. Then you test edge cases and find all the edge cases to be wanting. Then you end up twisting your thinking around to get the pieces to do something new in order to solve the puzzle. You end up feeling like a genius, but it was all carefully crafted.
This game has impeccable design, an interesting narrative, a beautiful visual style, and thanks to an 11th hour change of Elohim’s voice actor, a well-rounded audio set. While other games are surely worth mentioning, no game captivated me this year in this contest or in the larger world of games like The Talos Principle.
There are so many more games I would talk about had I the energy that got no nominations: Roundabout (Loved everything about this. It’s silly, novel, and fun). Goat Simulator (Same aesthetic as Katamari Damacy. I watched judges who didn’t get it complain about it, so I guess it is not for everyone but I just keep going back to it. It’s something a normal studio would never try and that’s what makes indie games valuable). Apotheon (The most visually appealing Metroidvania in a crowded market.)
Anyway, I feel blessed and thankful to have had the opportunity. Support indie games!