Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Yea, Well I Played flOw Before It Got Licensed.

Well, it was the tenth one, but it's the first time I've heard of the Independent Games Festival, a little get together within the much larger Game Developers Conference. The games up for awards at the festival show exactly what I was hoping would happen with game design; independent designers are experimenting with format, presentation and content in ways that money-flailing companies puss out of.

Now, I don't want to sound like I think these games are better than well funded, popularized ones. Far from it. Most of these games look clunky, unfinished, and are often not all that fun to play. However, it is notable that while Microsoft is showing off it's gelatin physics and lighting advancements, smaller designers are actually trying to think about new ways to make games.

So, here's a quick rundown of the stuff that caught my eye.

Fez and Psychosomnium (which was not at the IGF, but is another indie game) really strike me as interesting.

Fez uses a gimmick of shifting between 2D and 3D environments. It does so, however, in a really intelligent way. The 2D world is not just a constrained angle of the 3D. It's an entirely different environment, created when the 3D world is compressed to a 2D perspective. The result is often vexing, since we expect the 2d world to mirror the 3d one. In Fez they're really two separate worlds. Objects which exist a great distance apart in the 3d perspective are right on top of one another in the 2d one. Distances and objects in the 2d world are truly not in the same space as those same objects in the 3d one.

Psychosomnium is a simple side scroller that is a set of puzzles with counter intuitive solutions. They're only counter intuitive, however,from the perspective of a gamer. The game intentionally takes familiar gaming obstacles and creates solutions that are unconventional or downright opposite from what one would expect. The result is engaging and thought provoking.

What I love about these two games is that they effectively use a virtual world to comment on virtual worlds. Fez's dynamic reminds me that we often do try to make our games and imaginary scenarios mimic reality to the point that we forget that it's games' ability to not be realistic that is their strength. Psychosomnium makes me think about the sort of logic that accompanies gaming strategy, and how it may be a set of rationale entirely localized within the gaming community.

The other two that I'm trying to make parallel to one another, but really don't seem to, are Audiosurf and Crayon Physics. There are a lot more to talk about but I think anyone reading this would rather I wrap it up.

I have to say, I think Audiosurf is overrated. It's fascinating, but after playing it for a little longer than I'd intended to, I feel a little let down. It doesn't manage to make the music and visuals sync up as much as would impress me. It's fun, it's addictive, but it doesn't change my perspective much on either my music or video games. Having said that, it is very cool. It excites me because it seems like a game being used as a means more than an end. This may just be me, but the fun of this game is that it uses your music, not because the game itself is that much fun to play. That means that the game is a conduit between me and my music. It's using interaction and narrative to achieve a goal beyond interaction and narrative. That's exciting.

Crayon Physics. It's fun. It's way fun. It's...not very unique except for it's charming appearance and the fact that it functions so seamlessly. I really think it's the appearance that gets me and makes it valuable. I'm tempted to link it to Audiosurf in that it seems like Crayon Phyiscs is more of a means than an end but... no, no it's an end. The point is to play, and nothing more. To play though, is to doodle. And as someone who remembers doodling long into his academic life, nothing is more exciting than the idea of your doodles coming to life. Crayon physics uses textures and colors that are so dead-on nostalgic that you almost want to just draw box after box and watch them bounce around. Many of my favorite moments of playing it come from screwing up the puzzle and seeing my gritty-lined creations explode into motion. Achieving a goal in the process is just the icing on the cake. It's shallow, but man... it gets you right *here*. ow...

I think the value of these games, on the whole, is the fact that tap into the hearts and minds of, well, gamers. They draw on gaming nostalgia, gaming in-jokes, gaming what-ifs, and gaming "man I wish they still made"s. Combine these minds with a budget, and a whole new vibrant gaming culture could emerge!