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DoctorTabarnac's blog

4:55 PM on 03.17.2010

Analysis: What the IGF 2010 tells us about indie games

Looking back a year after the fact, we can see what a wild bunch the 2009 IGF selection was. We had a gorgeous point-and-click adventure game (Machinarium). We had a soothing, minimal, pastel-colored RTS (Dyson, later released as Eufloria). We even had Zeno Clash, a balls-to-the-wall first-person brawler (in fact, several games were played from the first-person perspective, or simply engineered in full 3D). In concept and often in execution, a large number of the featured games just screamed beauty and invention, despite the presence of several conservative entries which did not make an especially cogent case for the art of video games.

2009 was also the debut year of the Nuovo award, which a kind of big deal was made of at the time. The already-infamous Graveyard was a bold slab of digital art, much derided for its borderline-derogative treatment of user input. Edmund McMillen's Coil was a harrowing poem, intimate and obscure, beautiful despite the author's slight dismissal of the piece. And You Have to Burn the Rope was a neat inclusion, a loving nod to the bubbling meta-gaming scene. In fact, only the quirky-looking, technically-oriented Mightier did not seem to belong there. Jason Rohrer's Between collected the prize to some merit, although I prefer to consider it an early "Lifetime Achievement" award rather than an official acknowledgment of his... quite peculiar game.

So with that said, what did the 2010 edition have to offer? Well, for one we have seen several more repeat nominees. The panel of first-round judges has been considerably expanded this time, and the critical consensus seems to have strengthened around titles deserving recognition on more than one account. And so we find ourselves with a game like Rocketbirds: Revolution!, a good but very traditional and somewhat clunky Flash platformer, gathering mentions in three categories, a feat which had not been witnessed since the most deserving Audiosurf and World of Goo. The impressive-looking Trauma also distinguished itself in three aspects, while early darlings Joe Danger and Super Meat Boy! qualified in two.

Interestingly, it turns out that two of the evening's winners, grand victor Monaco and lavish Limbo, were not only nominated more than once, but even received two awards each. Another winner, Closure, also appeared in the Audio, Nuovo and Technical categories, which only seems to reinforce the tendency towards surveying the games from more than one angle.

And so, from the eight distinct winners from last year (including the Student award for Tag: The Power of Paint, and reluctantly admitting the clearly casual-aimed Musaic Box), the final selection was narrowed down to a mere five, almost none of which were especially different in nature from one another (I deliberately exclude the Audience Award for Heroes of Newerth, a game of highly questionable indie status with an already-bulging online following, for its unfair pwning of the competition). Which brings me to my larger point...

The fact of the matter is this: taken at face value, the recipients of the 2010 IGF Awards send the message that it is alright for independent developers to keep on doing what they are already well-renowned for, which is making good 2D platformers. And while there is no inherent problem with this, I would dare to go further and suspect that this outcome might very truly discourage aspiring designers to go for broke and hope for the best in the future.

The plain truth is that, compared to the rough seven or eight of last year (depending on your criteria), the number of finalists clearly belonging to the realm of the classic side-scrolling platformer numbered above ten this time around. The most polished, largest-budget games of the selection very deliberately harken back to specific touchstones of retro gaming (Flashback, Final Fight, Excitebike...), while very few approach the level of exciting strangeness previously raised by Osmos or Crayon Physics in past years. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard for Gravity is one of those precious outbursts of pure design wildness (as suggested by its title), as is Enviro-Bear 2000, this year's Burn the Rope, and the unmistakable proof that a hectic, original hook can go a long way, despite its odd placement in the Nuovo category.

The results of the latter, while on the subject, was somewhat of a letdown for me. While I will overtly admit to a personal negative bias regarding cactus' work, and I do accept to consider this a tribute to the man's broader aesthetic contribution, I simply can't conceive how the young Swede's latest psychedelic platformer "advances the medium and the way we think about games" more valuably than the heartfelt, bite-sized expression of Today I Die or the radical minimalism of A Slow Year. Granted, I haven't experienced any of these first-hand, but seeing as no previous cactus outing has managed to capture my imagination outside of their typically short duration, as thrilling as they were, color me skeptical. Out of pure speculation, I would've probably handed this award to Trauma, the most outlandish and seemingly progressive game of the entire crop ("I would like to see more indies thinking about the meaning of their games", said developer Krystian Majewski in his interview with Kieron Gillen), but the fact that it was brushed aside from this category in favor of well-established puzzling fare like Closure is probably telling of a wider disagreement on what "innovation" truly means.

Which leaves us with Monaco, the kooky, pixelly, hopefully cult-spawning game that so clearly impressed everyone. For what it's worth, I'll say that this one truly does look like a winner: a game of pure play, allegedly featuring a tight design and a focus on social interaction. Board gamers and role-players know this very well, but sometimes we video game fans forget how a good set of tools and a solid framework for player agency can yield an experience just as compelling, if not more, as the more restrictive approaches we are used to (see also: Spelunky). Amidst the landscape of familiar tropes and strongly-authored obstacle courses I just described, Monaco stood out, and the jury took notice. Let's just hope that it lives up to the hype.

In conclusion, I will say that despite my reservations, I do not think that the future of the IGF is looking especially bleak. I am looking forward to playing all of the nominees, if only to get a taste of the freedom that permeates even the most orthodox of indie games, and I hope to be surprised by the most dubious ones. Heck, some of the more far-fetched claims that I have made might even be completely off-base, the result of certain personal expectations and disappointments. I would be glad to discuss any objections. Still, I hope that the rising profile, broader audience and tightening standards of the selection do not damage its penchant towards daring, forward-looking design. As DMCcool wrote in a recent meditation, I don't believe that anybody in the independent space wants to leave the impression that "making computer games is easy"... right?   read

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