Darren is a scientist and an educator by day, and a writer and reviewer by night. While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. Additionally, he produces the Zero Cool Podcast, and he plays board games quite a bit.
I know, "top ten" lists are cheap, and especially if there are only ten things to choose from. That said, I am going to rank the ten showcased indie games according to how much I personally enjoyed them, and you're going to like it. Or not. Whichever.
If what I say about any of these intrigues you and you would like to know more, feel free to click the titles to be taken to the official websites. Some of them even have playable versions for you to try out.
10. Fieldrunners (iPhone)
Even though it is rounding out the top ten, I wouldn't say Fieldrunners is necessarily bad. But then, I wouldn't say it is good either. Why? It wasn't playable. They had a promotional video at the booth, showing what looked like a pretty, but unremarkable tower defense game.
9. What is Bothering Carl? (PC)
For what it sets out to do, What is Bothering Carl? looked like a success to me. And were I twenty years younger, it might have been at the top of my list. WiBC? is like an interactive picture book for children. It had some charming artwork, and I could imagine having fun with it if I were a young child. I almost feel bad giving it the number nine spot, because I'm confident it would be pretty great for its target audience, but that audience is not me.
8. Puzzle Bloom (PC)
The first thing that struck me about Puzzle Bloom was its artwork. The hard outlines on everything reminded me a bit of Okami art style, which is always a good thing to say about a game. In the game, the player is a green wisp that can control other beings, and can jump from body to body in order to flip switches and solve rooms. When the player gets to a certain checkpoint, the area goes from a desolate industrial world to a colorful, natural one. Thematically, it is pretty reminiscent of ThatGameCompany's Flower. Not bad at all, and if you have the Unity web player, you can try it out for yourself by hitting the link above.
7. Trino (XBLIG)
At first glance, Trino looks a bit like Geometry Wars, but the gameplay is quite different from the ubiquitous shooter. The player is confined to a small area, and enemies show up from outside of it, moving toward the player. Collisions cause death, and the player isn't equipped with any projectile weapons, but has the ability to lay down contact points. After two are laid down, a line segment forms, and the player can move to form a triangle with those two points. After the third is laid down, anything caught within the triangle is destroyed. The gameplay has some depth to it, rewarding combos, where within about a second after forming a triangle, another can be laid down, and more enemies can be defeated. Despite its differences, this game does share in common with Geometry Wars the pick-up-and-play aspect to it.
6. CarneyVale: Showtime (XBLIG)
You probably already know about CarneyVale: Showtime, because it has been out and highlighted as one of the best Xbox Live Community Games (now Xbox Live Indie Games) available. Perhaps if it were new to me, I would have ranked it higher, but it should nevertheless go without saying that this is a pretty good game. The player controls a ragdoll trapeze artist named Slinky who is flung by grabbers around the stage. It's a common formula of "collect all of the things and then get to the end," but the method for movement is unique, it is all very well done.
5. Osmos (PC)
Where Puzzle Bloom really hit me with the art style, Osmos's biggest strength is probably its music and sound design. Immediately after putting on the headphones at the booth, I felt soothed and calm. The game itself reinforces the feeling, as it is very slow paced and methodical. The gameplay is reminiscent of Feeding Frenzy, in that the player begins as a small organism, and absorb things that are smaller while avoiding larger lifeforms, and taking in smaller ameboids makes the player larger. The main difference is that movement is achieved by expelling small parts of oneself, so quick movement toward a target often results in being too small to absorb it. One last thing I noted about the game was the Katamari-esque sense of scale, where the player's cell gets so large later in the game that organisms that were large in the beginning appear as tiny dots. Check this game out if you are into the whole "zen gaming" idea.
4. Tag: the Power of Paint (PC)
You may remember hearing about this game from Anthony at GDC earlier this year. It is a result of a student project at the Digipen Institute of Technology, and it is surprisingly good. I say "surprisingly" because it is just about the only game featured in the PAX 10 whose art style I do not like. I can't even quite put my finger on what it is; the colors are vibrant, the cel shading makes things easy to see, the contrast between the greyscale world and the colored paint is nice, but when it all comes together it just doesn't please my eye. That said, it earned the number four spot on my list because of its inventive gameplay. The player is given a paint gun that can dispense either red, green, blue, or white paint. Red paint allows the player to move very quickly, green paint lets the player jump or bounce off of walls, blue paint sticks the player to walls or ceilings, and white paint negates any of the effects. The result has the player running along a long red path, jumping at the end, bouncing off a wall, and then sticking to the opposite one. It's very fun, and very satisfying, and you can download it from the link above.
3. Machinarium (PC)
Another game that you have probably heard about already, Machinarium is beautiful. The hand-drawn art style is gorgeous, and luckily, there is some clever gameplay underneath as well. If you have read the preview already, you'll know that half the previewers loved the game, and half didn't care for it. I will join Chad and Jonathan on the love side. One thing I adore about Machinarium (aside from the cute robot) is that each screen is a self-contained puzzle (a la Zack & Wiki). While I have dabbled in more classic inventory-heavy adventure games, I greatly prefer being given a problem, being shown all of the tools at my disposal, and then let loose, as opposed to always wondering if I am not solving a puzzle because I haven't thought about it right, or if I have to go pick up an arbitrary item on the other side of the map first. Machinarium puts the player in the former position, and it does so with excellent artwork to look at, which just adds to the charm.
2. Liight (WiiWare)
Despite being at number two on the list, Liight was probably the game I spent the most time with, and the only game for which I went back for a second play session. It is also one of the simplest games on display, but the puzzles were so compelling to me that I couldn't get enough. The player is given one of hundreds of levels, each with colored targets and various obstacles on them. At the player's disposal are lamps that emit light in a cone shape, colored either red, green, or blue. The targets can be red, green, blue, or also cyan (green + blue), magenta (red + blue), yellow (red + green), or white (all three). The goal is to light up all of the targets by placing the lamps such that all of the requirements are satisfied. Again, it is a simple idea, and the gameplay is basic, but it kept me coming back to see what the next puzzle would be like. My one complaint--and I addressed this to the representative showing off the game--was that the control was a bit too sensitive for my taste. He assured me that it was an artifact of the setup at the booth; the sensor bar was just too close. I am inclined to believe him, and assuming the controls work better on my home setup, I will definitely grab this game when it releases this fall.
1. Closure (PC)
And finally, my number one pick for the PAX 10, Closure. Though I was struck by most of the games for one reason or another, Closure was the one game that really blew my mind. The artwork is completely monochrome, but it has a profound effect on the gameplay. There are lights in the world, which have a relatively small radius of effect, but essentially, when they show something, it exists, and when something is shrouded in darkness, it does not. This allows the player to pass through walls or floors, so long as no light shines on them. It also sets up elevators for light moving up a wall, and other machinations using immobile environments and moving lights. I suggest you go try out the Flash version on the link above to really get a feel for the game, as it is a bit difficult to put into writing. The Flash version is unfortunately uglier than the one on the show floor, but it still contains the same gameplay mechanics, which are totally rad. Check it out.