Indie game news, reviews, previews and everything else concerning indie game development.

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David Shute’s Entanglement (tentative)

screens1 Small Worlds is one of the best indie games of last year, and one of the simplest. It’s won some, been nominated some. Been discussed much.

With the appropriate praise in hand, David Shute has set himself to a couple of different follow-up projects: one a much larger, more ambitious piece; the other, a simpler project that might be taken as more of a direct follow-up, or a spiritual successor to Small Worlds. For a while, to avoid repeating himself, he meant to focus on the larger project, but then in late February or early March he had a revelation:

I was sitting on the 9:30 from Stratford a few weeks ago staring out the window at some lovely chunky blocky office buildings and suddenly the game leapt back into the front of my mind along with a whole bunch of really interesting game mechanic ideas, and I haven’t been able to banish it since.

So I figured, what the heck.

For now the game is called Entanglement, though that may change. All we know about the game is that it’s about a black dude in a business suit, exploring uncanny lonely spaces; that it’s got a sumptuous pixel art presentation; and that compared to Small Worlds, the game has more of a focus on “interaction and puzzles”, including “a cunning twist that for the moment must remain a tantalising secret.”

definitelynotsmallworlds2

The ETA is up in the air; roughly, Shute predicts “weeks rather than months.” Keep an eye on this space, then.


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Jason Rohrer’s Primrose: New DSiWare Trailer

primrose As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Argentinian studio Sabarasa is porting several of Jason Rohrer’s games to DSiWare. Although the bigger announcement is probably a compilation of his higher-profile Passage, Between, and Gravitation, Sabarasa later revealed it was also porting Rohrer’s 2009 iPhone-based puzzle game, Primrose. Well, here’s a new trailer for that port.

Dramatic, isn’t it. Perhaps not surprisingly, coming as it does from the socially conscious Rohrer, the game has a colorblind mode where the tiles each contain symbols. Either way, the game is pretty simple. As the developer’s copy reads:

Primrose is a new puzzle game for Nintendo DSi, available soon on Nintendo DSiWare.

Take your time, set your own pace, establish your own goals and adapt your play style to whatever you feel is more fun.

Primrose rules are easy: There are no time limits, no levels or arbitrary objectives and no constrains. You must place pairs of tiles on a game grid and attempt to corral groups of tiles with pieces of a different colour. When that happens, surrounded tiles disappear and surrounding tiles change colours, allowing chain effects to trigger combos for massive points. You can play for long matches, surviving against the increasing difficulty, or just go all out on a huge single move combo for millions of points.

Relax, enjoy and welcome to Primrose.

Indeed.


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Smaller Every Day… Hero Core [Review]

herocore-start Somewhere in the early 1990s, the console-style adventure game got sort of codified, with Super Metroid as the main reference point. The ideal form, as wisdom had it, gradually opened up the world to the player as the player gathered new and usually tactile abilities, the better to traverse the world’s obstacles. Basically it’s a lock-and-key system, except instead of the green doors requiring green keys they demand super missiles and instead of unlocking the next section you climb or swing or blast your way there, once you’ve the right abilities.

This system is valid enough, and when done well it can be fairly invisible. You notice somewhere that you can’t go, and after trying everything in your power you remember your failure. So when you get a power that might let you past that obstacle, you race back to put it to use. The clever thing is that usually this new ability generally improves the player’s character, and slots into the existing move set naturally enough that soon the player kind of forgets that ability hadn’t been there the whole time.

This design’s appeal rests in an illusion of problem solving that makes the player feel clever and involved, when in fact the game is manipulating the whole situation, blocking off whole areas of its world until it figures the player may be growing bored of his current situation and powers.

This system — walling the player off until the game, or rather the designer, feels the player is ready, doling the game out in parcels measured both to prevent confusion and to manage enthusiasm and flow — has always bothered me. Mostly it feels transparent and mechanical. Its worst offenders, like Wind Waker with its inventory full of nearly identical items that each only is useful in one part of the game, raise too many questions. Why can’t I go down here? Because the game doesn’t want me to. Why can’t I open this? Because the game doesn’t want me to. Why can’t I just use the grapple instead of the hookshot? Because the game wasn’t designed that way.

A better way to limit progress is to put most of the onus on the player. Let the player decide when he’s ready to progress, and then be it on his own head. If he gets lost, or injured, or killed, or confused, that’s his decision. Let the player form his own rules: “Okay, the forest is too dangerous and is kind of scary; keep away for now.” And then later “Hey, I’m stronger and I have more resources; maybe I can risk the forest now.”

This is the system that you find in the original Zelda, and in Dragon Warrior. It’s what you get in Lost in Blue, and to an extent in Riven. And it’s more or less how Daniel Remar organized Hero Core.

Gameplay

herocore-map The game feels great to play. As in Capcom’s Section-Z, there are just two action buttons: shoot left, and shoot right. The tiny character has a jetpack, so the directionals move him slowly in any direction. Later on, holding in a button will charge up a defensive move. Hold in both buttons to warp back to any save point you’ve passed.

The gameworld is organized in screens, rather like a Zelda dungeon. Also as in that game, often you have to kill all the monsters in a screen to progress. From a broader view, the map is a bit of a maze. The player is pretty much free to wander at will, though to lower barriers there’s the occasional power core to destroy.

The game eases the player in with the odd bit of expository or tutorial text, explaining the mechanics and the objects at hand. At first the game does wall off a few paths with special blocks, that require upgrades to bypass. The first such upgrade comes about ten or fifteen minutes in, and opens up nearly the entire map for exploration.

Although the game has an upgrade cycle, none of the enhancements are very dramatic. Shots become a bit more powerful, the player can take a bit more damage, and a defensive move becomes available. From start to end, the player’s arsenal and relationship to the gameworld is rather humble.

The effect is similar to the original Zelda, where from the start you have access to nearly all the overworld and most of the dungeons; the question is just how brave and how skilled you are. Until you gain a bit more life, and a stronger shot, maybe it’s not worth venturing into that scary new sector. Or maybe that challenge is just what you’re looking for.

Either way, death and loss are handled unusually well. When you die, anything you’ve done stays done; you just warp back to your latest save point. Likewise, the game cuts down on a bunch of backtracking. If you know where you’re going, or if you just realize you’re out of your depth, you can warp back to any point. This warping, skipping around the map, becomes a major element of the game’s design, particularly toward the end.

The end effect is a shorter, denser, more satisfying experience. All of the padding and backtracking and frustration you get in, say, a post-1997 Castlevania is gone. You can start and stop playing at will, and the moment you get a new idea you can hop to where you need to be. The game only lasts about an hour, and for its complexity that seems a little short — but really, it’s perfect in that there’s not a boring moment in there. Then when you’re done, and the Zelda-like credit and monster scroll passes by, the game presents a suite of new modes, giving you some excuse to play through again.

Style

herocore-enemies This is one atmospheric game, full of the scratchy, grainy, crackly nervous energy that you get in Metroid II. Part of that comes from the minimalistic visuals, part of it from the ambient .XM musical score, part from the crunchy, squelchy sound effects.

The game uses just two colors — black and white — and not much in the way of dithering between the two. The character and most of the monsters are tiny. Most of the map is constructed of solid white blocks against a blank, dark background. The occasional bit of sand or water or mechanical design lends the environments a bit of spice and vibrancy.

In their movement and sounds, minor enemies call to mind Blaster Master and, sometimes, Zelda. The tougher enemies, especially bosses, seem to display a bit of a Gradius influence, particularly in the hit sounds and the “shoot the core” design. For as incidental as they seem, I’m impressed at the thought and character put into the monsters. Each has a name and unique behavior, and when placed side by side it becomes clear how few, and how distinctive, the monsters are.

The overall impression is of a nearly analog experience, a game practically patched together with wires and transistors. The game feels the way that my mind wants to remember Colecovision games, though I imagine that doesn’t really pan out in reality.

Story

herocore-cinema There is, actually, a story, though I didn’t pay it much attention. I’m not sure that I was particularly meant to. It’s painted in a few elegant, unobtrusive cutscenes and the odd bit of incidental text along the edge of the screen.

The game is a sequel to Remar’s earlier Hero, and to the best I can tell the villain of that piece, a malevolent artificial intelligence has come back for another crack at conquering the universe. He means to accomplish this through a stable of oft rather organic-looking robotic fiends and a few powerful boss creatures. When you beat the game, it appears that the bad guy is gone for good. Nothing really important here, though it does set the scene and it otherwise keeps to its place.

Everything Else

I did once encounter a bug where I tried to warp, and then canceled the maneuver; when I returned to the main view, the hero had just… vanished. No character to be had. Not sure what happened there, but I only hit the problem the once.

As demonstrated by the offhanded premise, there’s nothing really personal or deep about Hero Core. It’s just cathartic, attractive, well-considered and well-made. It does a grand job of remixing familiar elements into a satisfying, ever so slightly exotic blend. Probably the most important and interesting thing about the game is how much it concentrates its basic experience. By cutting out or minimizing many of the time-consuming, patronizing, or otherwise annoying elements of your typical, “Miyamoto-correct” adventure game, the game offers the player a chance to soak in and appreciate everything rewarding about the form. And it does so in with such a stark presentation that it seems pretty clear where Remar’s head was.

As the best indie games do, Hero Core revels in, and demonstrates the power of, minimalism. And the best thing is, it’s free. Go on over to Daniel Remar’s site and download it. It takes only token resources, and weighs in at only about four megs. I’m guessing most of that is the music. It’s totally worth an hour of your life.


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Digging up the Dirt on Life+

359igq1 Life+ is a rather adorable little exploration platformer by Pastel. The game is long in development, and the development blog is updated only infrequently. The game is coming along well, though, is smooth and gorgeous, and incorporates several interesting ideas.

The main mechanic is a digging/pluck-and-throw mechanism rather like Super Mario Bros. 2, FiNCK, or Rescue Rangers — the difference being, you can rip up a clump of floor nearly anywhere. Some objects are heavier than others, and you’ll need to power-up before you can seize them. Once you’re holding something, you can toss it, bowl it, or lock onto an enemy and sling from anywhere.

The levels are saturated with detail to examine, files and documents to uncover, and secret areas to dig and explore. Each area (plains, mountains, industrial areas) focuses on different mechanics and design conceits (“platform jumping, combat, puzzle solving, item hunting and so on”). There’s a day/night cycle, five minutes to an in-game hour; often the lights are out, and maps aren’t always located in obvious places.

The character’s expressions and behavior try to hint at current events and potential actions. Each enemy and each area seems to have its own little story, explaining its presence in the game.

From the looks of it, Pastel has also included several mock 1980s arcade games as a mysterious bonus.

Work is progressing steadily, and a new (silent) trailer is available. You might subscribe to the game’s RSS feed, to keep abreast of updates.


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Preview: Super Mission Extreme

screenshot168 Blastforce and Sword of Legends developer Deadheat has begun to leak information about his Mission Extreme sequel, Super Mission Extreme.

The original Mission Extreme is a crunchy platform shooter that manages to find its own style in favor of simply aping Contra or Metal Slug. There’s a certain exploration element, and death is no kind of a setback. The (well-composed) music doesn’t even skip, and the action doesn’t pause. You just start up again at the last checkpoint, and all your accomplishments remain accomplished.

The sequel has a more stylized, retro presentation, and a handful of new mechanics. You can now hang from ledges, and slash up-close enemies. You can power-up your weapons, increase your rate of fire, and spend experience points to selectively upgrade your stats. There is a new reloading system, which Deadheat promises to add an extra strategic element; a ranking system, rewarding thorough playthroughs with extra features; and custom controls. Current plans include five stages and two bosses, tricker hidden areas, and, as Deadheat puts it, “more shit to blow up”.

The original composer, Nimm One, was originally slated to reprise his role, though it looks like that has fallen through. Deadheat is now receiving offers to fill the position.

Check out the game’s progress at its development blog.


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The Game-Maker Archive: Eclypse Games

eclypse Over the last couple of weeks we’ve given you a brief overview of Recreational Software Designs’ Game-Maker, a boxed game design suite from the early 1990s, and we’ve talked about one of the more prominent artists from the Game-Maker development scene. In our continuing series, we turn the looking glass to one of the most innovative Game-Maker artists, whose techniques may overshadow his actual games. Given that he rarely finished a game before moving on to new ideas, this is probably warranted. Yet those ideas were advanced enough that his contribution to the development community is hard to ignore.

Eclypse Games

Eclypse Games was basically a guy named James Faux, aka OmegAkira. He lived and attended high school in New Jersey, and he ran a Game-Maker dial-up BBS called SiNiSTRY, which I think was also the name of his personal rock band. The board was only available irregularly, as he ran it off his primary phone line. I can’t quite remember where I first found his work; perhaps on the official RSD BBS in Rockport. Eventually I found myself calling his BBS at all weird hours, to cut down on long-distance charges.

Significantly, Jim was a musician and he was one of the few individuals outside of Epic Megagames to figure out what to do with the .CMF music format that Game-Maker relied on. So if nothing else, his games tended to be all original: new ideas, new techniques, new graphical elements, new sound effects, new music. A few of his earlier games do use the familiar stock tracks, though that tendency soon diminished.

Ego Force

egoforce1 I’m just going to jump in here. Although this game has just two levels, and in many senses seems more like a tech demo, it’s one of the more advanced games to come out of the Game-Maker scene. It’s a forced-scrolling space shooter, that alternates between side-scrolling and top-down stages. It contains animated menus and titles, original music, and several neat tricks.

Though you can pull a few tricks, fundamentally Game-Maker is designed for top-down adventure games. Most of the fun in developing with the package is to make Game-Maker do what it doesn’t want to do. Thus you will see many noble attempts at jumping physics and textless role-playing games and action games so frantic that the engine can barely keep up. What I’ve only seen a few of are space shooters. Of those, Ego Force gets it most right. The ship’s idle animation forces it perpetually forward; monsters move in Gradius-inspired patterns, space junk and obstacles drift into the frame, demanding attention. The ship moves quickly and cleanly. The design is both sleek and gritty.

egoforce2 One throwaway, yet profound, detail comes right at the start. After hitting “Play”, you are thrown into an in-engine selection screen. You can choose three options: a practice mode, and two ostensible difficulty settings. That’s unusual enough. But to the left is a window, depicting the hero ship on a speedy elevator. the elevator platform is still in the center of the frame, while the background zooms past, using several layers of apparent parallax scrolling.

It’s a trick. It’s a very clever trick of the background tiles, and one I have seen repeated at least three times — once in another Eclypse game, and twice elsewhere.

Mortal Harvey

harvey A well-designed platformer, inspired in theme by both “Weird Al” Yankovic and Mortal Kombat. The protagonist has personality, and he moves both quickly and precisely. When he dies, he dies gorily. When he waits around, he gets impatient.

Mortal Harvey is almost certainly the most developed game in the Eclypse catalog, consisting of several varied levels, each full of atmospheric background animation and neat tile tricks. It’s a hard game, full of traps and too-precise leaps.

Most significant, I think, is an elevator level that takes the ideas from Ego Force down a different path. From a design standpoint, this level is basically static. The player can run back and forth on a platform, while the background animates, giving an impression of movement. To give the level some danger, obstacles in the form of monster tiles slowly drift downward, into the visible frame at a rate that matches the background animation. The end impression is that the player is hurtling skyward, avoiding objects along the way. Once the player has avoided an entire vertical map’s worth of monster tiles, a timer gives out, allowing the player access to an exit.

The subjective use of monster tiles is just as important here as the false scrolling technique. What Jim Faux does here, that you see only rarely in other Game-Maker games, is he distinguishes between the actual mechanical behavior of the game elements and their apparent behavior. Monster tiles don’t have to be monsters. Character tiles don’t have to be characters. You don’t have to scroll to give the impression of scrolling. Taken to an extreme, active animation can apparently move whole hunks of the scenery at once. It’s all sleight of hand, and yet what else is game design but psychology?

Breaking Down

Next week we’ll explore a grab bag of other artists, other significant games. Few Game-Maker designers were very prolific; often you’d be lucky to see one or two completed games per user. And yet somehow that just makes the spectrum of voices all the cleaner: each game is so very different from the last, each with its own ideas as to how to use the game engine.

[Read all of our Game-Maker Archive editorials]


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Steam Play Indie Pack

header2 Spring must be the season for indie game packages. Following the Humble Indie Bundle and Sleep is Death pay-what-you-want specials, and indeed Valve’s own free offer of Portal, Steam has a new package of five indie games for $20.00. Not quite as cheap, but still tidy compared with the $50.00 cover price for all five.

The Steam Play Indie Pack includes Broken Rules’ And Yet It Moves, Hassey Enterprises’ Galcon Fusion, Amanita Design’s Machinarium, Hemisphere Games’ Osmos, and (in case you haven’t already claimed it elsewhere) 2D Boy’s World of Goo.

Possibly just as neat as the pricing is the flexibility; all five games are available on either PC or Mac, which is great for a multi-platform or dual-boot household.

The sale ends next Wednesday, May 19th, so keep that in mind if you need to hem and haw for a while.


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Poto & Cabenga Released

poto Honeyslug‘s Gamma 4 presentation piece, Poto & Cabenga, has now gone public. If you’ve got trouble multitasking, maybe this is a good life tool. It’s a single-switch game, where you control two characters at once.

For Cabenga, hold the space bar to run and release it to jump. For Poto, hold the space bar to slow down and tap it to jump. You can imagine the complications that play out, as you collect objects, avoid stray hedgehogs, and collaborate between the two characters to solve problems. All with a single button. Now there’s overloading the functions for you.

Even before you get to the mechanics, the aesthetics are a big draw. The designs and layout, by pop artist Richard Hogg, are lush and clean. In place of traditional sound effects, the player’s actions are accompanied by Tetsuya Mizuguchi-esque flourishes that build on the music, resulting in an interactive soundtrack. It’s a very holistic bit of design, all around.

It’s free, it’s neat, it opens right in your browser. It only takes a few minutes to play. Go pick it over. Only downside is sitting through the tutorial again whenever you replay. Oh well! Such is modern game design.


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EDITORIAL: A Life Worth Living

nintendogameboy Some of the typical themes to indie games, and art games, and deconstructionist games in general, include violence, death, and loss. I find it interesting that the deeper problems of game design, toward which the more thoughtful game authors are drawn, so closely mirror a boilerplate list of human concerns. At least, metaphorically speaking.

Of the three, death and loss, and the association between the two, are the bigger concerns — perhaps because in the short term, with such a narrow communication bottleneck, it’s more worthwhile to hand out monosyllabic verbs for the player to sling around: shoot, run, jump, grab. Let players use the grammar they know, while you precisely sculpt a context to lend the discussion an illusion of eloquence. Thus we have Half-Life 2, and Resident Evil 4.

Grim Amusement

In classic design terms, death and loss are the same. You either win a game, or you lose. (Early on, “winning” just means you haven’t lost yet.) You lose a game by dying; loss means at least an existential death, in that you’re no longer playing. If you’re allowed several lives, then often death is the metaphor for even a small loss, in that each death sets you back — indeed, it’s often the only setback that matters.

Later on, battery backup and memory cards changed things a little. Instead of games being an all-or-nothing challenge, they were a slow and awkward slog to the top: keep chipping away, keep saving at every opportunity, and eventually you’ll be king of the mountain. A player’s progress became a sort of permanent virtual property, rather than a matter of fleeting skill and experience. And now loss takes on a bigger meaning. Since starting over would mean losing all their hours of “hard work”, games got longer and larger so as to feed the player new “content” for as long as he retained interest — thus further reducing the chances of a replay, as that savefile grows all the more priceless.

Granted, on the surface of it death and loss barely factor into social games like Animal Crossing or certain text or graphical adventures like Myst, but those are specific and defiant structures, with the former laying bare that modern relationship between property and progress (in videogames as in life) and the latter born from the imaginative, exploratory side of role playing games — as compared to the simpler systemic representation (your points, your rules) with its focus on violence, loss, and death.

Entry Fee

Today, with so much investment in the content, designers like Hideo Kojima want players to see the whole game — which creates a weird conflict, since the only real fail condition that people are accustomed to in a videogame is death. How can designers tell a huge, linear story if the player keeps dying and getting booted out of the game — or at least thrown back, to replay the same sequence over and over again? The goal and the method don’t match.

Some games, such as Naughty Dog’s later platformers, stick a band aid on the problem by eliminating lives. Others just make it nearly impossible to fail. Others put the responsibility in the player’s hands with unlimited quicksaves. You can find clever examples everywhere in between, from smart checkpoints to the teamwork-focued revivals in Gears of War. Really, though, no one has a clue what to do about death and loss.

The most progressive games — Dead Rising, Pac-Man: Championship Edition — spend their time experimenting with it, and sometimes they find some narrow, specific answers. Gradius V finds an answer that suits its own premise, though it wouldn’t really work in Super Mario Bros. I guess that’s the best that anyone can hope for; a specific solution to the specific problem at hand.

Introspection

And that is, I guess, where indie games come in — generally very specific problems explored by specific people in a specific way. And gee whiz, do they spend an awful lot of time exploring this issue. Braid exists to undermine the sense of absolute consequences that you’d expect from a glance at its format. Passage is just one long trundle toward death, with a few gamey metaphors for our individual pursuits and hang-ups on our way to the grave.

Uin, which we reviewed last week, abandons the traditional life/death structure in favor of a weird afterlife cycle. When you lose all your energy, you wake up in an unsettling zone far above the normal gameworld. An inscrutable figure, all shadow and flicker, looms over you. Tiny shadows of everything you’ve ever killed skitter around your feet. To the left is an enormous door, with bolts that progressively glow when you exterminate a species. If you jump off the cliff to the right, you wake up by your latest save point. It’s easy to take this area as pure metaphor, until eventually you unlock that door and the lines blur. Evidently this purgatory zone is a real area, in relation to the rest of the game’s space. Or it has a consistent and tangible component. It’s inscrutable, which fits the odd dream logic of Matt Aldridge’s games. It’s also uniquely functional.

Hero Core also stops counting, and lets you save at any time. When you die, you retain all your progress and simply reappear at your latest save point. When you pass a save point all your energy is restored, and by holding in both buttons you can warp from save point to save point. The effect is that death is only a momentary setback, and that the tools for preventing loss also serve to prevent repetition (a more tangible form of loss, in the form of lost time) by allowing the player to hop around at will and within reason.

Love+ is another two-button game: jump, and set your respawn point. You get a hundred lives, and you can spend them however you like. So you do your own cost-benefit analysis; what’s more important; one life, or — as above –five minutes of my own very real time?

The Feeder Bar

I’ve this mantra that I pull out whenever it’s convenient. The worst thing a videogame can do is assume I’ve got nothing better to do than to play videogames. What I find refreshing about indie games is that they tend to be succinct in a way that games used to be up through the mid-1980s. Rather than assume I’m invested by virtue of the fact I’m playing a videogame (or perhaps by virtue of the fifty dollars I’ve plopped down), they make their point, they elaborate as much as they feel they need to, and then they move on.

And yet 1980s designs are typically overwhelmed by a model of loss dictated by a simple financial model. In the arcades, the most clever games — like Gauntlet, in which you never stop dying — were the ones that got you to keep pumping in the quarters. Even home console games have their heads in the same place; the only difference is that removing the moment-to-moment demand for spare change makes the loss model a little arbitrary.

You could argue that failure and continual replay justify the large up-front investment by preventing the player from playing through the whole game at once. By the time the player has finished with the game, he has practically memorized it. Old-school gamers brag that they can practically play Super Mario Bros. blindfolded. This kind of rote drilling, though — in its way it’s just as much of a time sink as the linear, content-based design that memory cards brought about. And once memory cards did arrive — well, pretty much from the moment that Zelda hit — it became clear that playing at will, in the comfort of one’s home, dictated a different kind of approach.

Limiters

So until fairly recently, death and loss have been more associated with financial models than with the expressive needs of design or consideration for the audience. Little surprise, then, that the basic language is so eccentric and absolute. Compare with the record industry, and its constant battles against convenience and flexibility. First audio tape was the villain, then it was clumsily exploited. Then CD-Rs were the villain, and then the Internet. The concern isn’t so much about playing to natural patterns of use and modes of communication as it is about constraining the audience, controlling the message so that it fits what you know has worked before.

Granted, game design is effectively behavioral psychology in a can. It’s always about convincing the audience to do what you want, and making them think it’s their own idea. It’s just that the motivation behind that puppetry tends to reflect on the form it takes. So long as the form keeps looking pretty much as it does now, with its limited, black-and-white pings and largely specific and pre-determined pongs, and its enormous games demanding enormous investment from all parties, I’m not so sure there’s a real answer to the problem.

When commercial designers like Keiji Inafune (Dead Rising) start to experiment, the audience tends to look at its financial outlay and balk. If they just paid sixty dollars for a game, why should it keep telling them to restart and lose all their progress? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to milk the game for everything it’s got? What a rip-off. And the people who complain do sort of have a point. By paying such a huge fee up-front, they put a certain amount of trust in the game, and they dictated what they wanted from it.

Shades of Gray

In the circumstances of their design, indie games tend to do give the form space to breathe and to tinker, that isn’t really available in the commercial sector. A person whose only concern in communicating is illustrating his own ideas will tend to speak freely, and more or less as an equal. In design terms, death and loss have been central concerns, often central annoyances, from the start. Give a life-long player a chance to reexamine the form and it’s only natural that those are amongst the first structures under the microscope.

I would say that the first step toward growth, in art as in life, is doing away with absolutes. That means separating loss from death, and allowing the two concepts to breathe. Failure doesn’t mean the end of everything; it’s just a setback. And there are all degrees and types of failure, each with its own unique implications. This is how we learn. In videogames, death is usually our guiding force; the sole way we learn, or the major threat at our heels. In life, death is the end of learning and rarely so much a threat as an eventual fact. In life, our guiding force is our emotions. We act to minimize unwanted feelings and to reinforce positive ones. It’s the secret weirdness of our emotions that makes our behavior so erratic, so strange, that determines our understanding of the world.

Absolutes are facts, and so not particularly compelling. It’s the capacity to make things better or worse — that’s what makes a life, and the lack of it is what makes a videogame a poor model of a life.


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Daniel Remar’s Hero Core released

herocore New as of the Saturday before last: the sequel to Iji and Garden Gnome Challenge author Daniel Remar‘s own Hero, Hero Core. It’s a crunchy, deliberately old-fashioned game, apparently influenced in equal parts by Section-Z (the character movement), Zelda (the overall structure), and Blaster Master (the enemy movement, and some of the tone). I’d say Metroid, but that’s too easy and doesn’t seem accurate in this case.

The game uses just two colors, has crunchy sound effects and .xm-based music (for all you demoscene fans), and controls the same way a saltine feels against the teeth. That is to say, it’s cathartic and has a low overhead. It’ll easily run even on a netbook. You can keep playing one more screen, then save when you’ve had enough and hop back in at will. Classy stuff, wrapped in a snazzy interface.

You can view the trailer here: