Last year, I was honoured to be invited to be a judge in the 2010 Independent Games Festival, and have been beavering away since the winter months began playing and reviewing games – not always as fun as it might sound. The finalists have now been posted, and I thought that while I deliberating on my votes, I might as well share my impressions of some of the games.
The first thing I have to report is that not one of the dozen or so games I reviewed during the first round made it into the final. By far the best of those that I saw was Citremis Games Aztaka, an Aztec-inspired action-RPG which seemed to me heavily influenced by Zelda, yet offering a side-on perspective with play combining platforming and spell-casting mechanics. Although I was doubtful this title would have what it would take to make it to the final round, I still thought this was a fine piece of work, and recommend it to fans of the genre.
Among the titles in line for the Technical Excellence prize, two stand out. Firstly, Hello Games' Joe Danger, an updated version of the 8-bit classic Kickstart, which I doubt the developers have played. I wasn't able to play the game, alas, owing to a lack of keyboard support, but I watched the video and will look for it on the download services. Just watching it reminds me how much fun I had with Kickstart, and I'll bet this is a blast too. It's up for the Seamas McNally Grand Prize, so it clearly has a lot of support. Secondly, Playdead's Limbo was by far the best of the black-and-white games I saw this year in terms of the incredible atmosphere it generated. I was also greatly impressed with the fluidity of its interface – a very compact suite of controls gives amazing environmental access. Mainstream videogame projects could learn a lot from this.
In respect of Closure, which has a really interesting design feature but was up for Technical and Audio awards only, I found myself annoyed by the designer's insistence on making the player figure out what its shtick is – the readme file being quite insistent that reading what is of interest in the game would ruin the experience. This being so, the game needed to be designed in a way that better supported that exploration without it resulting in endless and confusing fatal death while the player gets to grip with the central conceit... this did not endear me to the game, despite the fact the idea that motivates it (which in deference to the developers I will not spoil here) is rather interesting and different.
Strange Loop's Vessel also had its merits, with some very impressive fluid dynamic simulation, but fell down somewhat in the pragmatics of its design choices. It may well have appeal to adventure game fans, though. S2 Games' Heroes of Newerth – a rip off... erm... tribute to the Warcraft 3 mod Defence of the Ancients – is technically impressive but doomed to obscurity on account of its absurdly narrow audience. That takes care of the eclectic nominations for Technical Excellence.
Nothing really grabbed me in the audio category, I must confess, although I have been unable to get hold of a copy of Sidhe's Shatter, which is supposedly available on PSN – I'm not really willing to pay to judge a game, however. Not at all sure why Team Meat's rather distasteful Super Meat Boy! is up for best audio, although there is a solid – if a tad hardcore – 2D platformer buried under its silly gore. As a game which slaughters squirrels needlessly, this was never going to get much support from me, but those of you who do not find this sort of thing unpleasant ay well enjoy this game. Ratloop Asia's Rocketbirds: Revolution! was similarly an exceptionally solid run-and-gun game, but I didn't really find anything that interesting in its audio.
The prize for Excellence in Visual Art gave me great pause... specifically, I had to ask myself: what is Excellence in Visual Art? Am I judging the quality of the visuals, or am I judging the game as visual art, since these two judgements are very different to me. The aforementioned Limbo had incredible presentation of visuals, but as visual art I found it to be too casually brutal (and too Heart of Darkness-eque fatal). Rocketbirds looks great, but didn't exactly rock my world, and neither did the video of Klei Entertainment's Shank. Since this was 360-only and I didn't have the devkit to check it, I suspect (like PS3-only title PixelJunk Eden last year) it will suffer in the voting by not being available on PC. I was more impressed by D-Pad Software's Owlboy, with it's wonderfully loving tribute to 16-bit sprites – it was a shame that this game locked up for me just a few minutes into play. That won't affect whether I vote for it, though, and I am tempted to support it in this category.
terms of games as artistic ventures, however, there was only one game
in the competition which I felt truly makes the grade, and that's
Krystian Majewski's Trauma.
At heart, this is simply a point-and-click adventure, but there are
no lock-and-key object puzzles here. Majewski presents four dreams
(narrated by a crash survivor to her doctor), each comprised of still
photos which are embedded within one another, such that one can click
on features in or at the edge of the current photo in order to move
around and explore. This game, which is nominated for the Seamas
McNally Grand Prize as well as Excellence in Visual Art and
Excellence in Audio, is a definite star of the 2010 IGF and wish it
all the best. It is lacking a clear introduction (currently in
production, I believe), which it desperately needs, and inherits all the flaws of static error messages from earlier point-and-clicks but is otherwise
an outstanding piece of work.
As a game designer myself, I spent the most time on the titles up for Excellence in Design. All five of these games are worth commenting upon. Lazy 8's delightful Cogs is a sliding puzzle at heart, and since I love these I enjoyed this. But it is the incredible contraptions at the heart of each puzzle that makes this so delightful to mess around with, and the charm is irresistible. Loren Schmidt's retro homage Star Guard offers a surprisingly sophisticated piece of design for such a simplistic-looking item, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – up until the point it threw away its interesting use of its checkpointing system. Unusually, this game allows the player to repeat sections with no loss of progress (such that, for instance, you can clear a minefield by just running yourself into the mines repeatedly!), but as the end approaches, alas, old school fail-repeat play takes over, and the game ceased to be as interesting to me. As a free download, though, fans of 2D scrolling platform shooters would be foolish not to check it out – and there's even a Mac version.
Marc ten Bosch's ambitious Miegakure was inspired by Edwin A. Abbott's classic Flatland, and I did greatly enjoy messing around with its dimension shifting exploration mechanic. However, it was slightly let down by the fact that rather than a genuine projection of three dimensional spaces from a four dimensional tesseract (as it seemed to promise) it instead used a static projection mechanic to “weave” separate 3D spaces into composite spaces. Now it may be that anyone who has not studied general relativity will not understand why this is a disappointment to me, but in principle one can construct a 4-polytope in such a way that one can project unique 3 dimensional spaces from it. Miegakure doesn't actually do this, instead interleaving “strips” of worlds into composites. It was still good fun to explore the world, and I loved the idea behind the game, but I felt the designer had inadvertently bitten off more than he could chew. If it did what I felt it had promised to do, it might have been too difficult for anyone to understand, but since it did rather less than it promised, I felt it fell short on its potential. Perhaps this kind of concept presents a no-win situation for designers. It doesn't make the game itself any less interesting to explore, though.
Reckless is the game I have gone back to most often of all of the finalists – it's just plain fun to throw yourself off a building and plummet past concrete as you earn “kisses” and “hugs” in this wild base jumping game, and it lends itself to short play sessions. Unfortunately, Dejobaan Games have let a number of amateur-feeling excesses mar the experience, of which by far the most atrocious is the game's full title*. None of this takes away from the solid programming, art and design in this game – and the design in particular is tight and shrewdly considered. My commercial mind says this would have a bigger audience if you didn't die on impact, but my ethical mind says it's perhaps best that you do! At $9.95, this game is a bargain, and I hope the team convert it to console at some point.
Last, but by no means least, Andy Schatz's Monaco by Pocketwatch Games is a finalist for Grand Prize as well as for Excellence in Design, and a gem of a game. I have had several attempts at making a heist game myself, but alas none of them ever came to fruition. In Monaco, Schatz delivers the game of my dreams – a multiplayer co-operative heist game delivered in deliciously blocky top-down 2D. Everything from the design of the environments, the simplicity of the core mechanics, the balance of the classes, the retro-chic aesthetic – right down to the decision to resist becoming too hard at the end – seriously impressed me. I took to playing it “two player solo”, with a character on both my left and my right hand a la Kuri Kuri Mix, since it was a bit too hard with just a single character. I'm dying to try it in four player co-op! The inclusion of a level editor is merely another sparkle on this diamond of a game. There are a few niggling flaws, but the world needs more co-op top-down games, and Monaco is one of the best so far.
The rules of the judging this year permit me to support more than one title in each category, which means I don't have to agonise about picking a favourite in each case. I haven't finalised my votes yet – I'm still hoping I might be able to give Joe Danger a proper chance before I commit myself – but I can already attest that voting in the IGF this year has been considerably less depressing than voting in the Developer's Choice Awards (although go Flower and PixelJunk Shooter in your respective categories!) Indie developers, I salute you, one and all.
* The game title in full is AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. The team suggests “Aaaaa!” for the short form, although I personally prefer “Reckless”.