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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
*Updated, Spring 2013
In the past few years online gaming services like PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, the Apple App Store, and Steam have helped give rise to a number of excellent independent video games (many of which are also highly affordable). It might even be fair to say these services have saved the independent game developer, as development costs have steadily raised into the tens of millions of dollars during the PS3/Wii/Xbox 360 era. It isn’t uncommon for a triple-A or holiday release title to cost perhaps twenty million dollars or so to develop. Additionally, as development cycles become longer and longer (averaging about two years for most Triple-A titles), costs also rise exponentially for developers.
Independent games require fewer developers and studios can bypass standard means of production (including foregoing selling in brick-and-mortar stores altogether), costs can be significantly reduced at the developmental stage. This has helped lead to a boom in independent gaming in the current era. I personally began delving into independent titles about three years back. I discovered a considerable number og great games at relatively low cost, my favorite of which I have decided to assemble here. The following list is by no means a “best of” compilation. It is merely an attempt to help raise awareness of some great independent games I have played over the last few years.
5. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (2011)
Superbrothers looks a ton like an old Atari 2600 adventure game and plays like a PC adventure title from the late 80s. Players point-and-click their way through the game as the Scythian, a female adventurer who must battle demons and solve puzzles to save the forest. The game, as noted, has a highly old-school aesthetic. The music and the story, however, reflect what is currently popular among gamers, including some great work on the soundtrack (composed by Jim Guthrie) and cool gameplay concepts, such as interacting with the game’s environment through touches and taps. One of the coolest features is that real-world time also has an effect on certain moments in the game.
The game also contains some pretty great self-referential humor which is done without being too ironic or winking at the audience too much (which is appreciated). Upon my initial play-through in 2011, I was blown away. I hadn’t been sucked into an adventure game like this in years (maybe not since The Last Express in 1997!). The game is just so unbelievably beautiful to see in motion. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery is available on the App Store and has also been released for the PC. The best way to play this game, however, is on the iPad, due to the excellent touch screen controls (the right mouse button attempts to duplicate the experience somewhat on the PC, but isn’t quite as good). I recommend playing with a nice set of headphones on as well to get completely lost in the experience.
4. Super Stardust HD (2007)
Sometimes I like to just pick up a game and play away. Sometimes I just want to blow things up with the least possible input from a story. Super Stardust HD allows me to do just that, and I am grateful for it. Released onto the PlayStation Network in 2007, developer Housemarque’s twitch action title became a huge hit. SSHD plays a lot like a fantastic combination of classic arcade games Asteroid and Robotron: 2084. The game uses dual analog sticks to both fly around a small planet or planetary object and shoot at asteroids and enemies, alternating between red for fire power and blue for ice power. Bonuses, such as highly-effective bombs, shields, and other power-ups, are also available.
Super Stardust HD is an extremely simple and effective title, and it also looks fantastic on my 46” 3D Bravia television. In Winter 2012, Sony released a port of Super Stardust HD onto the PlayStation Vita system, which also plays extremely well. I actually prefer the handheld version over the console version, as the pick-up-and-play factor is even higher on that platform. This is not a particularly deep or involving game, but SSHD has an old-school charm and I am constantly going back to it time and time again. When I need a few mindless hours of twitch gameplay and space centipedes, I grab my Vita and go for it.
3. Limbo (2010)
Limbo is a black-and-white physics-based puzzle/platformer. Like Super Stardust HD, Limbo was developed by a European independent studio. The game was originally released exclusively for Xbox Live, but later found its way to both Steam and the PlayStation Network. It is also available on the Mac OS platform. Probably the most interest aspect of the game is in its art aesthetic. Limbo has an art style that has been compared favorably to German expressionism, and looks absolutely phenomenal. I never would have though a black-and-white title would be so compelling, but this one has proved so unique that other games have tried somewhat to ape its aesthetic (see: Escape Plan).
Limbo is the story of a boy who journeys into an almost solitary world, encountering very few people in a dark and mysterious forest. He must search the forest in order to find his missing sister, eventually reaching a devastated city. I recommend playing this game for the fantastic art style and for its similarity to classic fairy tales (there are obvious parallels with Hansel and Gretel) and a look that I can only describe as being expressionism meets film noir. I have no preference for platform for playing Limbo, but I have to imagine it is pretty cheap on Steam at the moment. Check it out where ever you can and as soon as you can – you won’t regret it.
2. Bastion (2011)
Considered one of the best games of 2011, Bastion is an independent video game developed by Supergiant games. Bastion is available via Xbox Live and for Windows-based computers through Steam. Interestingly enough, it was also developed for use on the Google Chrome browser, making it one of the first video games to be played on the Chrome platform. Like Limbo before it, Bastion has an incredibly memorable art style. The game’s environments look almost hand-painted. Bastion has also been highly praised for its music and use of voice-over narration.
Bastion is an action/RPG hybrid played from an isometric viewpoint. It is fantasy-themed, and its weapons, enemies, currency, etc. reflect and embrace that. Bastion is the story of “the kid”, who sets off for the Bastion (think of it as a kind of community center/safe zone) after a devastating, destructive event happens, destroying much of the known world. What I find interesting about this game is that its development team consisted of only seven people, which seems ludicrous in hindsight. I would recommend playing Bastion on the Google Chrome browser, just because I think it’s neat that its even on a browser to begin with.
1. Journey (2012)
Released in the spring of 2012, Journey is an adventure game developed by thatgamecompany (who also made Flower) exclusively for the PlayStation 3 system (it first appeared on PSN but was later available in retail as a disc-based title). Highly anticipated for at least two years, upon release Journey quickly became the fastest selling PSN game of all time. The game went on to win several end of year awards and even garnered a Grammy nomination, the first for music in a videogame. Though it is largely a minimalist game experience, Journey has won overwhelming praise from critics and gamers alike.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this game is its unique online multiplayer system. Journey features no voice communication between players, and names are not displayed above player-characters the way they would be in an online game such as Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty. Journey‘s focus on the anonymous works extremely well, adding to the mystery and minimalism of the game’s nature. Players pop in and out of each other’s games almost randomly and totally seamlessly. As for the story, Journey is light except for its main goal: the player must get to the beam of light at the top of a far off mountain. This is a beautiful game, from its brilliantly rendered sand to its unique coloration (the underground segment is absolutely gorgeous) to its fantastic, emotionally riveting soundtrack. I highly recommend checking Journey out. It is a fantastic experience that stands as one of the best games of its generation, independently developed or otherwise.