In a previous article, I discussed how indie game development is our best hope for truly next-generation gaming experiences. Fancy new hardware’s nice – but without radical new ideas in the games themselves, our art form will be unable to grow to its potential.
Indie game development – just like indie music or indie film – simply means that the game has been made without the support of a third-party publisher. On the one hand, that gives the developer complete creative freedom. On the other, it means they lack the finances and marketing muscle needed to make the game a success. But crowd-funding and early-access are making indie development more viable than it’s ever been – and with it, we’re seeing some incredible ideas hit the PC gaming scene.
Forget the next Call of Honour: Battlefield Ops – these five games have the potential to change what we expect from a computer game.
There’s a certain preconception of indie games – not unjustified, by any means – which I want to dispel right away. Indies aren’t just 8-bit, lo-fi throwaways or retro love-letters to old classics. Lots of indies do adopt a simpler art style, and many are unabashed tributes and reboots.
But they’re not the whole story. There’s a significant number of indies which impress graphically. Hawken, The Witcher, Trine and Torchlight are beautiful 3D games which stand against AAA titles. Even simpler titles, like Limbo and Bastion, offer a striking visual style.
Enter Reset: check out the in-game visuals below:
The graphics speak for themselves. This is a technically superb engine which rivals Crysis for visual fidelity.
Not a lot is known about Reset just yet, only some teasing footage and a few scattered details have been released. We know it’s a time-travelling puzzler, with co-op. We know there will be a story. We know that, like many indies, it’s crowd-funded and boasts a regularly updated development blog with some really interesting entries.
The exciting thing about Reset is that it dispels so many pre-conceptions about what independent gaming looks like. Next generation indies could look like AAA titles, but will be backed by unrestrained imagination and experimentation. Just imagine the possibilities.
Our next featured game is revolutionary in a very literal sense. What happens when a game starts to simulate what happens political fallouts in real-world scenarios?
Riot is well named: it’s a riot simulator. As the player, you’ll take control of an angry mob to release your frustrations, or command riot police to calm the unruly masses. It’s Part strategy, part management, part rapid response. It looks like a thoughtful, challenging game.
What really sets Riot apart is the fact that its based on real-world events. While aiming to be politically neutral, Riot bases its “levels” on real conflicts from real locations around the world. The potential ramifications are fascinating. Would political violence be reduced if people could vent their frustrations virtually? Would riot police – or, perhaps more worryingly, rioters – be more effective if they “practiced” using a simulated environment?
Whether it meaningfully spills over into the real-world or not, it’s clear that Riot is doing something different to most games. As the game’s official website says:
‘In “Riot”, the player will experience both sides of a fight in which there is no such thing as “victory” or “defeat”’.
How many other games can offer you that?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Polish indie studio The Astronauts, formerly of People Can Fly (Painkiller, Bulletstorm) are putting their minds together to bring us alternative gaming experiences (their blog, by the way, is a really fascinating read if you’re interested in game development). Their first venture, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is, in their own words an “evolutionary, not revolutionary” horror story.
Like Reset, it boasts stunning graphics – check out the teaser trailer below, which shows a scene rendered in-game:
The game is unconventional in a several ways. It’s an explorative adventure game – so there’s no combat, no traditional gaming challenges or threats. There’s a few of similar titles springing up in the indie scene. Their focus, usually, isn’t on combat, puzzles or story, but on allowing you to explore your environment.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter stands out because of its great graphics and its focus on immersion; coupled with an interesting story. That could be key: many explore’em’ups are in danger of being empty experiences. Here, you play a detective investigating a series of murders with a paranormal ability to re-create crime scenes.
But there’s more. The experience throws out many of gaming’s rules in favour of immersion. You’ll find no scores, no bosses, no clearly laid out objectives or power-ups. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a stripped-down experience with a razor-sharp focus on making the player feel like they’re in another world, not in a game. It’s a radical design philosophy which promises to bring gamers a whole new experience.
Tantalisingly, there’s talk of supporting Oculus Rift – the new virtual-reality goggles which will (hopefully) be spilling into mainstream gaming in the next couple of years. Oculus Rift could be revolutionary hardware, but it’ll be worthless if it doesn’t have creative, innovative software to run with it. Hopefully, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will be just the ticket.
Torment: Tides of Numeria
We don’t know very much about Torment yet, so forgive an old-school gamer voting with his hopes, rather than his expectations, in this feature. But bear with me – because this one has a lot of potential.
Planescape: Torment remains one of the best game stories ever produced. When it was released back in 1999, it was filled with vibrant characters, varied and imaginative locations, and a story which didn’t just have philosophical implications for our own world, but which also supported some of the contrivances of a video game. The main character, for instance, was immortal, making death part of the game experience. You played a character who had died a thousand times, and would likely die a thousand more in your personal play through. There have been great games and great stories since – but Planescape still stands tall among them.
Torment is the spiritual Successor to Planescape, set in the same universe (or close enough to not make much difference). And it promises to be a uniquely story-driven experience. All aspects of the game appear to be tailored to making the story more interesting, with character creation streamlined to allow players to tailor the game to their play styles.
The game itself will be an isometric RPG, rich in dialog and lore. It’s a style of gaming which doesn’t get seen very often these days, with more RPGs opting for a 3D world and third-person camera. What the isometric perspective lacks in intimacy, it makes up for in world-building. Without having to create full 3D representations of all in-game artefacts, Torment will be able to produce a richer set of environments in a colourful, vibrant game world. It also leans on the players imagination more than 3D worlds do, so the experience becomes inherently more personal – just like reading a book.
Expect Torment to be a fascinating, gripping – possibly slightly disturbing – and eye-opening experience. Few games, in the indie or mainstream space, will match Torment for imagination.
That Dragon, Cancer
Our final feature introduces something so different that it can barely be called a game. Indeed, it’s described on the official website as both a painting and a poem.
Sadly inspired by his 4-year-old’s son cancer, Ryan Green has tried to translate some of his experiences into a video game. Reading the press around the game, it appears that just about everyone who has experienced it hands-on has been moved to tears. I’ll throw in this disclaimer now: I haven’t played That Dragon, Cancer, but what I’ve seen and read has already had an influence on me. In a way, this whole article is little more than excuse to shout about this project and say “Look! Look at this – this is what games can do now!”. Games as an art form? You’d better believe it.
There’s no winning scenario in That Dragon, Cancer. It’s all about the journey of supporting a loved one who is suffering, while you can only look on, powerless. It turns conventional gaming on its head: far from being an empowerment fantasy (be the hero! Save the world!). That Dragon, Cancer is all about emasculation.
Early impressions suggest that this is a bleak, soul-wrenching and emotionally difficult game. So why play at all? Why seek to re-create such a horrific experience as Cancer?
The same question can be asked of the Columbine RPG, or any other interactive experiences which seek to re-create, explore or challenge the terrible things which happen to us. Games have incredible potential for understanding, sharing, empathising and exploring. And that, in my opinion, is precisely what That Dragon, Cancer is all about. I have little doubt that such an experience can bring great comfort to Ryan and any others who suffer under some dragon’s flames.