Generals always fight the last battle, right? I’ve noticed this is often true of people’s creative work. We sketch out territory in one project and map it further in the next. Or perhaps we fence round the territory we’ve seen and colour in the negative space—the gaps left by the last project’s outline. This is how our individual games connect into bodies of work, dots into lines, and how our central themes begin to emerge.
Cardinal Quest 2 was my reaction to the 15-minute playtime games I’d done before. I wanted to make something players could zone into for hours; something big enough to feel like a real commercial game worth money. That is, a commercial indie game in 2010/2011: the era of Amnesia and Recettear and Desktop Dungeons and the Minecraft alpha. That seemed like a high bar but what the heck, right?
Yesterday, Electronic Arts – an international games publisher with 7,820 employees and annual revenue over three and a half billion dollars – announced an EA Indie Bundle.
Of course, though the whole concept’s self-evidently ludicrous, it’s a bit hard to put your finger on why. So Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun immediately declared we should start stacking the chairs and pulling down the decorations. The word’s completely meaningless now! “Indie” is over!
But it isn’t.
Roguelikes, as a genre, are fairly uncompromising. They’re incredibly focused on emergent gameplay and have led the industry on those terms (inspiring much-loved crossover titles like Diablo, Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac), but that focus has come at a cost. Few have representative artwork of any kind, favouring the convenience of ASCII, and many implement their richness of interactivity via scores of arcane keyboard shortcuts. Dwarf Fortress – which, though not a roguelike as such, shares their values – famously takes hours to learn to play and, to the uninitiated, looks a bit like your PC just crashed.
Even so, the games on the other side of all that are unparalleled in systemic complexity and worth learning from if you tread near their territory. To that end I’ve been looking at modern roguelikes recently, reacquainting myself with the genre, and I figured I’d start with some of the smaller ones.
I got as far as Brogue and I’ve just been playing that since.
Was this my favourite indie game of 2011?
Isaac isn’t particularly complicated. It isn’t particularly deep, either. With some arcade skills and a little practice, you can finish the game in an hour.
Now, finishing the game is quite important. There are fourteen separate achievements for completing the game. Should you want them all, you will have to complete the game a minimum of ten times.
You won’t mind doing this in the slightest.
What’s the latest? Well, Vigilance is sitting on FlashGameLicense for another week. My VVVVVV level, “The Tower of Power”, has made several people frustrated and a few people happy. And I’ve been poking Reels of Steel again!
You’re going to get really bored of screenshots of fish if I post a shot every time I talk about it, so I won’t. 😉
I’m working on pacing and level design at the moment. The original plan was to feature conversations between the fisherman and his tiger after each level. The big problem with that is that it takes control away from the player for twenty seconds, and that feels horrible! It’s a really long time, and that was just for three lines of dialogue after each level.
I’ve cut this feature out entirely for now and I’m focusing on level design – the patterns of fish you’ll encounter as you play. I’ll try to reintegrate dialogue once the game’s feeling fun and reasonably paced without it. That always has to take priority 😀
Now, one last thing. If you decide to waste a few minutes on something funny and strange this weekend, make it offbeat adventure game Murder Dog IV: Trial Of The Murder Dog by thecatamites, who did the equally odd Space Funeral.
Wait. I can put in a screenshot of that instead!
Yup. I’ve spent the past two days writing what amounts to indie game fanfic.
The single best thing about VVVVVV – the thing that made it work, I think – was that it had instant restarts from checkpoints all over the place. You could tackle incredibly hard challenges and failing wasn’t a problem, since you were straight back in there for another go.
Yeah, I’m doing things a bit differently. 😀
The approach I’m taking is totally different from VVVVVV. The levels are a bit easier, I think; you should be able to clear them on your first go, if you sit and think and work out the timings. Likewise, a lot of them have multiple paths through to reward observation as much as timing.
The other thing I’m doing differently is that collecting trinkets (“power cells”) removes gravity lines in an area. This is how your progression through the central tower works, but it also means that once you’ve collected a power cell, the challenges on the way back to the hub are slightly different. Of course, you can just die and walk back to the hub… but where’s the fun in that? That’s the loser way out. 😀
I’ll finish and release this over the weekend and write up a more detailed breakdown (with spoilers!) on Monday.
First, some music! It’s a lovely evening, so I wrote some lovely evening music.
– whales of the west
SO. I’ve been thinking about landmark games recently. That is: games which have introduced new ideas, made a huge impact, and gone on to inform dozens of later games. And you know what? These games I feel comfortable pointing to as influential have shifted over the years.
Focused on contract work for the next few weeks, so updates are going to be a bit quiet. More info on Vigilance when something happens with it.
So. Here are a few quick indie game recommendations:
Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story is a “visual novel” type game about Facebook and privacy, told through high-school drama.
After a possibly ill-advised mid-life career change, your character starts work as an English Literature teacher. He is immediately given full access to his 16-year old students’ social network accounts and private messages and told to monitor them to watch out for bullying. Now, the game forces you to at least open all these messages, but the real question is: how comfortable do you feel doing so, and how comfortable are you acting on or sharing the private information you’ve accessed?
Beyond that, the way the story is told simultaneously in front of you and through social network messages means you’re constantly distracted from the action to keep on top of miscellaneous chatter. I found myself back in a conversation, unable to remember what had just been said, more than once. That hit a bit too close to home. Maybe I should close Twitter more often…
It’s not perfect, but it’s a powerful story that raises a few interesting issues between the 4chan riffs and winking lectures on metafiction.
Once you’ve played that, next up is Scorpion Psychiatrists of Saturn. This game’s a satirical mash-up of the above with Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars (itself a fairly pedestrian arena arcade game). It’s a bit of a fiddle to get it running, but it neatly skewers DTIPBIJAYS’s woollier aspects. GOOD WORK, apparently anonymous yet hilarious developer!
Okay BACK TO TWITTER
Just a quick one today – I’d like to point all of you interested in indie development (that is, making your own games) towards this talk by Jonathan Blow, of Braid fame.
It’s a talk about how Computer Science best practice in programming is, often, harmful to indie games development, and the only way to cut large amounts of robust code fast is to write it as stupidly as you can get away with (with an awareness of best practice for wherever it’s necessary). This resonates strongly with my own experience.
In the AAA sector, games have to be cutting edge to be competitive – code has to be laser fast and highly optimised. In indie games, that simply doesn’t apply; for the most part, games just need to run. That means you can cut a lot of corners and probably save yourself years. My own coding style has independently evolved to be 90% or so in line with the approach Jonathan advocates, and I’m grateful to him for analysing the topic in this depth and sharing the results.
Also of note this week is the trailer for Indie Games: The Movie. It’s shaping up to be an interesting film, and if you haven’t seen the trailer yet, I highly recommend taking a look.
Since Monday I’ve been evaluating beta testing feedback on Vigilance, taking a (necessary) break and focusing on pitching for some contract work. I haven’t got any game work done, but I have had time to play Frozen Synapse!
It genuinely deserves the high review scores it’s getting. It’s a very engaging game, if punishing and a bit fiddly. My experience is that it’s a game about making a plan, running repeated simulations of that plan to see if the enemy can defeat it… and then dying horribly as they do something you completely didn’t think of.
The discrete nature – lack of any health bar (you’re either moving or dead) and no random outcomes – makes the game very different to most tactics games. In a way, it’s more SpaceChem than X-Com.
I recommend it. I’m playing on UK1 under the username “randomnine” (as ever!) and I’m always up for a game if you’re playing. 😀