The IGF article I posted at the beginning of March had a somewhat lengthy preamble which I cut just before publishing. After reading it over again it seems a shame to leave it on the cutting room floor so — after a spot of editing and because I’ve just been given a cup of tea without asking, putting me in a splendid mood, I’ll just quietly post this here and you can make of it what you will.
It was over a few quiet weekends a couple of years ago that I made my first forays into the unpredictable world of independent gaming. My girlfriend had moved from the south of England to live in the grim (but much more affordable) north of England so that there wasn’t such a distance between us. She was renting a suspiciously cheap room in a horrible part of Sheffield which happened to be close to her new job at a cinema. The idea was that if she made the most of her position there she could get a transfer to another cinema closer to where I worked and we’d get a place together.
I frequently visited her at weekends, even if she was going to be at work. Her room was massive but modest, with a certain warm charm about it. It had a humming fridge in one corner with a TV, DVD player and tea making facilities perched on top. Her computer was on a desk that conformed to the shape of the bright bay window adjacent to her double bed and next to that was a tall lamp and a cheap wardrobe. The wallpaper was decidedly old and garish.
While she was at work I had a lot of time on my hands. There was no internet connection and her computer was also an ex-library Research Machine; an untamed beast, ravaging my senses with its faulty speakers and particularly naff screen. In other words, it wasn’t going to be running Bioshock. My DS game list had all but dried up and in truth I’d too many things going on in my head to settle into a good book. Films were out of the question because we’d usually watch them together and I’d no real interest in TV either, never mind daytime TV. After a few visits I started loading my memory stick with games featured on the annual best-of lists hosted by the Indie Games site. Most of these curiosities were relatively small in size and were pretty much guaranteed to run on her abacus computer.
So there I was one evening, girlfriend at work, sat under lamplight in front of an ex-library Research Machine, lazily sifting through the contents of my memory stick. Other than the buzzing fridge beside me, the room was quiet, and the rest of the house still and distant. One by one I went through the games, slowly and unexpectedly discovering ones that surprised and fascinated me. Here were games that had been developed by a few individuals (if that) self-funded and no doubt labours of love –most of which were available for free– and they were captivating me more than their bigger brothers.
There was Dwarf Fortress which actually gave me a few restless nights because of its unbridled vision and rich sandbox gameplay. My imagination conjured up grand designs hewn into mountain sides, swelling with industry, craft, commerce and traps. Lots of traps. And while the primitive and crude ASCII graphics are a necessity due to the games mind boggling complexity, they act as a sort of expressionistic representation much like early computer game graphics did. What seemed like a screen of green commas and full stops was a luscious green meadow whereas a cutting of blue double tildes was a stream that provided my dwarves with water and fresh fish. Everything visual was symbolic and that allowed my imagination to fill in the blanks and paint a more vivid picture. Unbelievably Dwarf Fortress is still in its alpha stages and it already stands as one of the most expansive and complex sandbox games ever made. No explanation here could do the breadth and depth of the game justice; for that you’d have to check out Tarn Adams’s development log which is quite frankly incredible. A quick quote from yesterday: “Fixed a crash related to vermin getting caught in cobwebs”.
If you’re curious about the experience of Dwarf Fortress then I highly recommend the infamous story of Boatmurdered. It’s quite old now, but it’s a classic and hilarious.
…where was I? ah –
Then there was Cave Story, a charming love letter to the platforming greats of the 8-bit era. There was the surgical brutality of turn based beat ’em up Toribash. A game where you relax, hold, extend or contract each joint in a bid to ultimately take down or bloodily dismember your opponent. There was Death Worm, an arcade munch-’em up that satiated the part of me that wanted to destroy tanks and eat everything. There was the free-form high wire experiment, Facade, which casts you as the unwitting friend of a couple who’s relationship appears to be deteriorating before your very eyes. Using the game’s highly advanced text parser it is possible to help, or conversely break up, their relationship in different ways whilst discovering various aspects of the couple’s lives along the way. It was absolutely fascinating and perhaps a rare glimpse into the future of gaming. There was also Tumiki Fighters, a horizontal shooter that introduces a novel twist by requiring the player to ‘catch’ downed foes to clip on to their fighter, incrementally increasing their size, fire power and protection. There was the ambient, minimalistic beauty of Knytt and the incredible existential tower defense game Immortal Defence that reassuringly confirmed that games could still haunt me.
Since then there have been many, many others but I’m still amazed at the ideas and innovations gleaned from seemingly tired genres. Independent game developers are truly free to explore the medium; to pioneer and flee from convention, to meld together and push existing genres and ideas to their limit. Where mass market games typically shuffle cautiously and uneasily forward, skirting well trodden paths, independent games can take bold leaps in any direction they choose unburdened by the pressure of failure. That gets me excited.