Indie games got me back into gaming as an adult. Dear Esther reminded me that there was more to a game than getting shot at, and Kentucky Route Zero, well, I could write about it for pages and still not give you a sense of the depth of its experience. The Independent Games Festival is a celebration of independently developed games and the innovation so often explored therein. There are dozens of finalists for this year’s awards, but here’s my shortlist of games that I have been (and will be) playing this year.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Sixty souls are listed on the manifest of the Obra Dinn, but none of them made the return journey home. Untie their knotted fates with a pocket watch that allows you to travel back to the moment of their deaths to discover when and where they breathed their last. Return of the Obra Dinn wields a striking style with its two-tone pixel graphics, engraved look, and period instruments in the soundtrack. It’s the darling of the finalists this year, listed in the categories of Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Visual Art, Excellence in Audio, Excellence in Design, and Excellence in Narrative. The game’s lead designer, Lukas Pope, was also the lead designer on 2013’s Grand Prize winner: Papers, Please.
M Joshua Cauller thinks Jesus would really love this game.
Nostalgia is the bedrock of nerd culture, and the team behind Hypnospace Outlaw appears to have struck platinum when they released their late ‘90’s net surfer simulator this month. Complete with neon graphics, eye-bleeding animation, and music that has me digging through the closet for my burned CDs, this game hits every point I’d want (and some I was fine forgetting) in a game about what the internet could have been. It’s a finalist for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Visual Art, Excellence in Audio, and Honorable Mention for Excellence in Design and for the Nuovo Award.
Listen to the Humans of Gaming interviews with lead designer Jay Tholen, narrative designer Xalavier Nelson Jr., and with publisher Mike Rose as part of the PAX South 2019 Developer Interviews.
If there are any laws for narrative, Paratopic breaks them in the best way. Jarring cuts, almost no character identity, little to no direction for what you should be doing, and yet each of these aspects only builds on the unsettling creeps this game gave me. Add graphics that are purposely just south of palatable and music that you can sometimes barely recognize as a bastardized tune from our world, and it’s a fingernails-on-chalkboard experience you’ll want to repeat. Seriously. The game’s description says you play as three different characters, but I could argue about which one was where and when for four or five times as long as I spent playing the dang thing. It’s a finalist for Excellence in Audio, the Nuovo Award, and Honorable Mention for Excellence in Visual Art.
This is an oddity on this list, as Alto’s Odyssey is a mobile game and a sequel to Alto’s Adventure from Team Alto. Surf down sand dunes in silhouette before sunsets and soaring hot air balloons. Alto does the surfing, all you have to do is make him jump to miss obstacles or do tricks. Meditative soundscapes let you become one with the vistas while you help Alto avoid becoming one with the landscape. Hopefully, you’re better at that than me. Alto’s Odyssey is a finalist for Excellence in Visual Art and Excellence in Audio.
When everything is awful, there is still a reason to keep going. Wandersong was my personal GOTY of 2018 for its hopepunk themes and fantastic soundtrack from A Shell In The Pit. You play as a bard who is explicitly not the hero of the story, but you’re going to try to save the world the only way you know how: by singing. Whether regular conversation, platforming through a dream-world, or performing on stage, singing is the bard’s only method of interacting with the environment, but it’s the only one the bardlet needs. Wandersong is a finalist for Excellence in Narrative, and Honorable Mention for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, for Excellence in Visual Art, and for Excellence in Audio.
Stephanie Skiles thinks Jesus would really love this game, and you can listen to the Humans of Gaming interview with creator Greg Lobanov.
This game reminds me of my brain when I am feeling particularly philosophical. Sometimes I talk about bits of stories I’ve collected in an attempt to make sense of those stories, but mostly make sense of my own. Black Room uses graphics from old arcade games and recontextualizes them in an effort to afford some female gaze to some of the female characters. It’s part ADD, part reflection. This isn’t an adventure game everyone will enjoy, but it’s one that I want to soak in. Black Room is a finalist for the Nuovo Award and Honorable Mention for Excellence in Design.
Play as a supernatural investigator trying to save this plane of existence from creatures on the next in Unavowed. Fans of the Blackwell series by Wadjet Eye will recognize familiar notes in this game. It’s as wide as the Blackwell series but deeper still. I’m kicking myself for not playing it until now. Followers of Wadjet Eye will also note that it’s twice the resolution of the traditional pixel point-and-click games. Unavowed is a finalist for Excellence in Narrative and is Honorable Mention for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.
It’s no secret that some of us at LTN are fans of games with dice. Dicey Dungeons is a deckbuilding RPG where you play as a die and use your rolls to defeat foes and overcome obstacles, then level up. You know, RPG stuff. With totes adorbs animation and a squeaky clean UI, it’s a game that looks like it’s going to be fantastic when we get the final version later this year. Dicey Dungeons is a finalist for Excellence in Design.
Listen to the Humans of Gaming interview with developer Terry Cavanagh and Niamh Houston aka Chipzel as part of the PAX South 2019 Developer Interviews.
I usually only think about the controls I use when I’m learning a game. Some stuff is just intuitive when you’ve been doing it long enough. eCheese Zone is designed specifically to be counterintuitive and obtuse. It looks like something you might have sent in $7 and three proof of purchases from macaroni boxes to get in 1995. The developers describe it as a “crowd punishment party game” made to be played with a group. Looking at the rules for the mini-games, I think I’d need a room full of people to help me keep up with it. eCheese Zone is a finalist for the Nuovo Award.
Nth Dimension[al] Hiking
Sometimes I skip tutorials to see how far I can go before I get completely lost. Nth Dimension[al] Hiking asks what you’d do if there was no tutorial, no controls guide, no instructions. Only the player character and trial and error. You play as a ghost navigating your world. It’s not the most welcoming of games, but it’s not unfriendly. Dev Zachariah Chandler says in the readme, “I like games that ask me to put in, that ask me to learn, to think, to be curious and patient. To be gentle. Those are the kinds of games I want to make.” Nth Dimension[al] Hiking is a finalist for the Nuovo Award.
This was one of the games I was most excited to learn about at PAX South this year. Play as an orb of light illuminating a dark world in Sole. One of the devs described it to me as an adventure game where you solve puzzles by spreading your light around the remnants of a city. Get a sense of place as you leave a trail of light everywhere you go. This game is a finalist for the award of Best Student Game.
Listen to the Humans of Gaming interview with Tom Sharpe from Gossamer Games as part of the PAX South 2019 Developer Interviews.