I’m so indie, only I can understand my art

I have to stop buying those indie games that get rave reviews from “New Games Journalism” sites and are promoted on the front page of Steam and included in “mid-week madness” packages. I mean, I like indie games, and I like the idea of a cottage industry of game designers who risk everything on a crazy idea that no major studio (except Valve) would touch with a ten-foot pole simply because they have nothing to lose anyway, but seriously, you may think of yourself as the next Peter Molyneux or John Romero or Gabe Newell or David Cage, but you see, Molyneux, Romero, Newell and Cage know something you still haven’t learned: it doesn’t matter how innovative your game is, it still has to be playable.

Random list of “innovative” indie games that are actually complete crap:

  • Can’t-remember-the-title that was heralded as the indie game that would revolutionize the game industry: tried the demo. I got a scrolling blue screen that was supposed to evoke the idea of sinking further and further into the deep blue sea and a thingy in the middle of it that I could move around with the mouse. The thingy sank further and further into the deep blue sea. Nothing happened. I failed to suspend my disbelief in the sanity of gaming journalists. Last I heard, it was slated to be reworked into a full-blown PlayStation game.
  • Brainpipe: huh? It only qualifies as innovative if you’ve never played any of a zillion games, including early 1980s arcade games, that are exactly the same except the thingy you move around with your mouse is a spaceship instead of an iris. I got to level 5 (out of 10) on my first and only try, even though the screen went black for most of level 3 and I was too busy trying to apparate the task manager to even move the mouse.
  • ProtoGalaxy: pretty graphics, annoying physics and crappy controls. So bad that I played it for only ten minutes including the tutorial before uninstalling it. Basically a botched clone of PixelJunk Shooter, which itself is a fantastic remake of Fort Apocalypse). If you want PixelJunk Shooter, you know where to find it.
  • Galcon Fusion: OK, doesn’t actually pretend to be cutting edge, just a new and extended take on an old theme. Reasonably good-looking with simple mechanics that are easy to learn. The trouble is that I played for less than an hour (57 minutes, to be exact), and in that time, I figured out how to beat two of the game modes in less than half a minute per round, nine times out of ten, at “Grand Admiral” level (maximum difficulty). I got to “Admiral” in a third mode and “Commander” in a fourth before I decided that I had better things to do with my time. Still, not bad if your only other options are Freecell, Minesweeper and watching paint dry. Actually, this is the only game on the list that ranks higher than watching paint dry. Except maybe Brainpipe.

Just so you won’t think I hate all indie games, here are a couple that I do enjoy:

  • Oasis: the first indie game I ever bought. A bit like minesweeper except with more varied gameplay, an actual story, progression and an element of strategy. All in all a great casual game. Not quite sure it qualifies as independent, though.
  • Mole Control: childish—in a good way—but not as simple as it appears at first glance, especially if you’re gunning for perfect on every level. It’s basically minesweeper, except you can only uncover tiles that are adjacent to already-uncovered tiles, and you have a few extra tricks up your sleeve.
  • Chime: need I say more? If you don’t have it already, buy it. Now. A tip, though: Chime is not Tetris. Chime is Chime. It’ll confuse the hell out of you until you stop trying to play Tetris.

Yes, all three are casual games—but most indie games are either casual or arcade games, with a few notable exceptions such as Darwinia. With a little talent, imagination and perseverance, two guys and a dog can write a game engine, but it takes a lot of resources to create assets (script, levels, graphics, music, sound effects etc.) for a decent adventure, RPG or RTS game.

I’d also like to list some non-indie games which were nonetheless marketed as indie and which, despite (I assume) multi-million-dollar development budgets and rave reviews were, in my humble opinion, fundamentally crap:

  • Psychonauts: the graphics and mechanics hurt my brain. The story was so far out it could have been written by Neil Gaiman if Neil Gaiman wrote for the love of money and not for the love of a good story and he was on crack. The characters were either wet rags or total assholes. The gameplay was a mish-mash of various been-there-done-thats. I gave up after two levels because I simply couldn’t suspend my disbelief or identify with any of the characters. Strangely, Psychonauts was the brainchild of Tim Schafer, author or co-author of such classics as the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and, more recently, Brütal Legend.
  • Lucidity: ummm… it’s a platformer… except the controls are crap and so are the physics. Yeah, the story is cute and the graphics are pretty. So what? It’s still unplayable.

One indie-except-not-really game (or, to be precise, game series) that most definitely does not suck is the Sam & Max series. By the way, how did they manage to make a third series after Sam & Max basically destroyed the world in the final episode of the second series? Oh, and I guess I should also mention the Penny Arcade games.

1 I use the term “indie” in the sense of a small game developer, possibly even just one or two people, who design, develop, publish and market their games with little or no assistance. By some definitions, studios like Funcom (300+ employees) are also independent developers, but I call bullshit on that; they are independent simply because they have the resources to do for themselves what publishers do for other developers. Besides, Funcom made plenty of games for big-name publishers such as Sony, Sega and Disney in their infancy, including the infamous Pocahontas.

2 thoughts on “I’m so indie, only I can understand my art

  1. The game whose name I couldn’t remember is flOw.

    A few weeks after I wrote this, the Humble Indie Bundle 2 came out. I haven’t played all the games in the bundle, but I’ve played Amanita Design‘s Samorost and Machinarium, and they are absolutely fantastic. Go get them!

    I also played Aquaria (which was included in HIB1) a long time ago, and while I liked it, I was very disappointed when I bought the gamepad the developers recommended and the game turned out to be almost completely unplayable with it. I never played past the first two or three maps.

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