Doad says that his impulse-buy threshold is about $2.50. It got free reign during the Steam fall sale, and we’ve had a chance to peruse some of the notable new indie games. These games span a wide variety of genres and styles; the only similarities are low prices, modest scope and length, and divergence from the typical material found in mainstream games. Otherwise, they’re all markedly different, and odds are, whatever you like, there will be something here that strikes your fancy. Let’s have a look.
Lilly Looking Through
Geeta Games, November 1 2013
This gentle, dreamy adventure game met with critical praise, especially from reviewers outside the mainstream, and at a glance it’s easy to see why. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, from the lovingly drawn settings to the protagonist’s realistic and unmistakably childlike movements. Lilly balances across boards, clambers on her hands and knees, and imitates a frog. Although the environments are derelict, perhaps suggesting some dark past event, the game nevertheless doesn’t have a dark tone, but rather one of wonder and enjoyment.
The main mechanic is a pair of goggles that, when worn, transport Lilly back in time. Thus, there are two versions of most of the sets, and the puzzles revolve around switching between them in order to complete objectives: A bridge that has collapsed in the present may still be intact in the past, for example. The puzzles are engaging and creative, but compared to other point-and-click adventure games, they’re quite easy. If you completed the Myst series without ever consulting a walkthrough, you may find them boring; for the rest of us, they’re a relaxing change. They also make this game suitable for young children.
My only objection to Lilly Looking Through is its briefness and abrupt ending. Here’s to hoping it’s only the first chapter in a series. But even if it isn’t, it’s well worth checking out.
You arrive at the creepy old mansion at midnight in a storm and inside you discover…a sweet story about a teenager’s first love? This game confirms something that everyone except the game industry already knew: That ordinary people’s everyday lives can be fascinating. There are no monsters, no guns, not even any puzzles, just a young woman, her teenaged sister, their parents, and all their secrets, choices, mistakes, and dreams.
Since the whole game consists of nothing but walking around, looking at things, and listening to diary entries, this game really has more in common with epistolary novels than with the first-person shooters it takes its interface from. The writing is fantastic. You’ll immediately be sucked into Sam’s story and, to a lesser extent, the stories of the other family members. But then, every aspect of this game is masterfully done, from the lush soundscape of lashing rain and humming televisions to Sam’s earnest voice acting to the fact that every bit of in-game handwriting, and there’s a lot of it, was actually written out by hand. Wow.
Even a leisurely playthrough will only take about three hours, but that’s simply how long it takes for Gone Home to tell its full, rich story without any puzzles or fights to break up the narrative flow. I promise you don’t have a better use of that time.
This is a strange and difficult to classify game. Steam calls it an adventure game; Wikipedia calls it a puzzle game; its own description is “A Dystopian Document Thriller.” You play border security at a communist nation in the 1980s, attempting to sort out the law-abiding citizens from the terrorists, smugglers, and human traffickers armed with only your country’s increasingly complex and bureaucratic entry requirements.
Don’t be fooled by the retro low-res graphics: This is a deep, psychological experience. It’s easy to turn into a small-time dictator, reveling in your power over the poor civilians who are just trying to get through the checkpoint as compensation for your own helplessness against poverty, suspicious secret police, and the citations that seem to keep landing on your desk no matter how careful you are. It makes you ask questions. Why is it so easy to turn down the man who begs you to let his wife through early in the game, but nearly impossible to refuse the border guard who makes the same request after a few brief exchanges with you? Can you be absolved of responsibility if you were “just doing your job?”
My main criticism of Papers, Please is that, despite its multitude of endings, it gives you an illusion of control over the plot rather than any real control. Recurring characters will show up at the exact same points whether you approve, deny, or detain them. The game pushes you towards helping the shadowy anti-government organization by not allowing you to detain them, and most of their missions don’t have any meaningful effect: There’s one that I never solved because I kept forgetting about it.
This game won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re detail-oriented and like old-school graphics and MIDI sound, you should check it out. You might learn something about yourself.
I’m not a big fan of platformers, so you may want to take my opinion about Fez with a grain of salt. This was supposed to be the next Braid: An indie platformer with a clever twist (in this case, your ability to rotate to get different 2D views of the 3D world, with each perspective allowing you to find items and get places that you couldn’t from a different perspective). And, as far as that goes, it is. But the devil is in the details.
Everything about this game is bright, flashy, and distracting, from the fake reboot near the beginning to the more stylish than functional world map to the rapid day/night cycles that constantly reminded me how slow I was going. It doesn’t feel committed to the 16-bit aesthetic the way Papers, Please does, abandoning it in several places to render twirly hypercubes instead. Overall, it feels like it’s trying too hard, as if it’s concerned that you’ll lose interest if it ever stops distracting you for a minute. And then there’s the writing. Maybe it’s unfair to criticize the script of a platformer, but the dialogue is incredibly weak, including a deliberately irritating sidekick who never tells you anything you couldn’t figure out yourself.
If you like platformers, you’ll no doubt like this game — everyone else seemed to — but its basic premise, clever as it is, gets overwhelmed with the sheer amount of “stuff.” There are Flatland-style ideas beneath the surface here, but they aren’t explored very well. Fez doesn’t truly succeed at being to space what Braid is to time. If you’re not usually into platformers, this isn’t likely to be the one that wins you over.
Incidentally, its featureless, plain white, male protagonist is a good illustration of the stick figure principle.
All in all, it’s been a good year for indie games. We rounded up some good ones and have several more on our to-play list, including Contrast, Redshirt, and Shelter, which I’ll have to play alone because Doad finds it too traumatic. The ready availability of indie games is introducing all kinds of new material that you don’t see in mainstream games. Let’s hope that it keeps up.