GDC 2013: Your guide to the IGF grand finalists

Tom Senior

The IGF winners will be announced on Wednesday alongside the GDC awards in San Francisco. The Independent Games Festival has turned out another strong field of nominees, some of which you can play entirely for free right now. Here's your guide to the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF awards 2013, with interviews and details on the five finalists, Cart Life, FTL, Little Inferno, Hotline Miami and Kentucky Route Zero.

Click on the links below to go straight to your game of choice:

And let's start with Cart life.

Cart Life

Creator Richard Hofmeier describes the scrolling, grey world of Cart Life as a "retail simulator," but that's a bit of an undersell. It celebrates the mundane and touching aspects of everyday life, at work and beyond. You can choose from a pair of characters, including a single mom working in a coffee store and a Ukrainian immigrant trying to keep his newspaper stand afloat (you can pay $5 to play as a third character, Vinny the bagel guy). Melanie must look after her daughter and earn $1000 to fight her side in a custody hearing. Andrus must take care of his cat, Mr Glembovski, and fend off a racking smoker's cough.

Cart Life is about the struggle of day to day existence in an unglamourous monochrome cityscape, rendered in excellent pixel art. On the business side, you're choosing products, balancing stock and selling as much as you can against the clock. Outside of work, you're trying to balance what little time you have between eating, sleeping, drinking and socialising.

You can play for free by downloading the .exe file from the Cart Life site . For more on Cart Life, Chris Livingston documented his experiences as part of our Sim-plicity series. Read all about it here . Cart Life is in the running for the Nuovo award, the Excellence in Narrative Design award and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF.

I sent over a few questions to Cart Life creator Richard Hofmeier to find out which indie gems he'd like to see do well at the competition. "I'd enjoy seeing IGF give their highest endorsement to Porpentine's Howling Dogs, which is a dour enchantment in that holy dread kind of way, but, because it's text-based and rarely classified with other videogames, it's largely unplayed by people interested in good games." You can play through Howling Dogs on Porpentine's site for free.

"Now, it's important to note that Howling Dogs wasn't submitted to the IGF (and where the hell is Dwarf Fortress, anyway?). So Thirty Flights of Loving would be a great winner, too, but I'd really like The Stanley Parable in such a position, because it secretly remarks on the fact of videogames, themselves. If IGF wanted to be The Oscars, Stanley would make a suitable "best picture", which often confess something useful of their medium. Then again, both Dear Esther and Fez (which do this exact thing extremely well) were released this year, but aren't candidates on account of having been candidates previously... All right, okay - I'd pick Emily Short's Bee. Yes yes yes yes." Here's Emily Short's Bee .

Why is the IGF important? "I'm not fond of this question's presumption that your interview subject feels this way," Richard responded, "It's important because sponsors and GDC attendees have elevated the means by which it's carried out, and an elevated assessment of small videogames seems comprehensive, conclusive and respectable-- but I guess that'd be "How is the IGF important?". Either way, IGF will get some excellent games into the lives of people who, otherwise, wouldn't have found them. That's useful, and it makes the world a better place in a small way."

"But, when you presume its importance, I just think about how much money it must take to put together, and how it wouldn't exist without the games themselves. Wouldn't you say that the IGF is less important than the games it declares? Of course IGF nominees and winners will sell higher numbers for having been recognized, but I think the premise of determining merit is much more interesting and, you know, important."

How could the IGF formula be improved? "Mostly, I just want to see the submission process deteriorate entirely, over time. It seems like there are better judges every year, so I'm increasingly inclined to trust their own choices, from all they've seen in a year instead of limiting candidacy to a submission pool. Like the MacArthur Fellowship Grant or Nobel Prize nomination process. Easy for me to say, right? You set me up with that last question, you bastards, didn't you? Anyway, the distinction of "indie" games vs "regular" games will become obsolete and they'll have to come up with something else for the "I" to stand for."

An IGF nomination won't drag a paparazzi horde to one's door, but has life changed for Cart Life's creator since nomination? "I'm getting more freelance illustration and design work this year than last, so I'm able to keep up this fantasy lifestyle of the bathrobe and coffee cup."

He adds: "The best part of making games, though, is the shared premise which allows me to start conversations and sometimes even befriend the people I most admire. At Indiecade, I kissed several of my heroes, I spent a few hours with two vibrant luminaries in an emergency room, I spilled whiskey on my idols. Almost like having coworkers, only without the building resentment."

FTL: Faster Than Light

FTL was the first Kickstarter-funded game to see release, which has set the bar nice and high for all those to follow. At PC Gamer,w e've been lucky enough to have access to a few pre-Kickstarter prototype builds. Long before release, this roguelike space exploration sim showed promise. You control the crew of a small, upgrade-able ship as they flee from a pursuing army across randomised sectors of space. As you jump from star to star, you encounter moral dilemmas, pirates, attack drones aliens and intergalactic superstores. You must improve your ship with new weapons, drone bays and teleporters and nurture a competent crew to put out fires and stave off attackers.

It's good. In fact, we gave it our short form game of the year award this year, and gave it a score of 89 in our FTL review . Check out Tom F's description of an FTL encounter for an idea of how tense FTL's ship vs. ship showdowns can get.

So how do the developers feel about the IGF nod? "It feels pretty great," says designer Justin Ma. "We went from having Honorable Mentions in Design and the Grand Prize last year to being officially nominated this year. It's validating to find out we improved on last year's prototype."

IGF mentions have proved helpful when the team started promoting the polished version of FTL late last year. "Last year's Honorable Mentions certainly changed our situation," says Justin. "It was a ton of publicity and helped launch our Kickstarter which started around the time of GDC 2012.

As for other contenders, Justin mentions that he'd like to see Mark of the Ninja getting some future recognition, fellow designer Matthew Davis would pick Super Hexagon. "I haven't tried all of the games so I cannot fully comment" adds Justin, "but I just played through Ep. 1 of Kentucky Route Zero and I was blown away by the art and atmosphere. It felt like a spiritual successor to Out of This World (Another World)."

Subset are currently working on finishing up backers' Kickstarter rewards. "The next big project is still up in the air," they say.

Why is the IGF important? "The IGF is one of the most influential events that celebrate independent gaming partially because of its connection with GDC. They are able to get a large assortment of judges with specific knowledge about their category from all over the game development world. This not only means it is prestigious but it also helps promote independent game development by putting it in the spotlight."

Little Inferno

2D Boy co-founder Kyle Gabler is certainly no stranger to IGF success. World of Goo scooped IGF gongs for design innovation and technical excellence in 2008. Now he's teamed up with software developer Allan Blomquist and Henry Hatsworth creator Kyle Gray to make Little Inferno. It's is up for the Nuovo, Technical Excellence and Grand Prize awards in this year's competition.

Little Inferno invites you to burn all of your toys in a huge fireplace. Once you run out of stuff to torch, you can order more flame-fodder from a catalog using the currency you've earned burning things. For some, it's a sly comment on time-sink social games, for others, it's a hypnotic way to wile away a few hours immolating innocent possessions. It's as dark and charming as it is divisive.

Kyle Gabler is chuffed to be nominated. "The mighty orange orbits are mesmerizing, and we're surprised to be included" he says, "but we're also well aware Little Inferno is a controversial experience up against some insanely beloved and beautiful indie games."

But which ones would he like to see win? "A few years ago, World of Goo totally lost the grand prize to Petri Purho's Crayon Physics (that jerk!!). He's a fellow who we'd known for a long time as someone who consistently submitted memorable and creative games to the Experimental Gameplay Project competitions. This year, we once again hope to lose to another friend of EGP: Kentucky Route Zero or Hotline Miami."

Kyle Gray says "I'd love to see Incredipede win Best Visuals. Colin and Thomas took a risk pushing Incredipede's artstyle in the direction of wood carvings, and it would be great to see that pay off." (you can read about Tom's experiences with Incredipede here , and learn more about its globetrotting creator in our Incredipede interview .)

Gray reckons that the IGF is useful for generating the sort of exposure that big developers pay PR departments manufacture. "Because indie studios are so small, we often don't have the resources to promote their games properly. IGF does a great job of pushing these games into the spotlight, and can really help indie devs find their audience."

Gabler, meanwhile, has some suggestions for how to improve the event. "The IGF is modeled after real award shows like the Academy Awards with all the lights and glamour and thumping music and scary disembodied voices announcing categories and nominees - but indie game developers like us would probably be just as happy, and possibly more comfortable, having a barbecue in (IGF/GDC/Gamasutra overseer ) Simon Carless's backyard."

I've no idea how big Simon's backyard is, but the steak point is hard to argue. Things are going "great!" for the Little Inferno team, according to Gray. "Except my family still thinks I sit in front of the TV all day with a controller glued to my hand, making a game where you shoot people in the face. One day we'll reach a state where people know what an indie developer is, but we're not there yet."

Hotline Miami

Dennaton's frenzied murder death kill rampage sim bludgeoned its way into our hearts last October. The top down perspective does little to distance players from the lurid and sudden torrent of violence that pours out of the monitor every time you kick in the front door of a new level, but none of it would be quite the same without the soundtrack ( hear it here ). Crazed bouts of electronica bring a psychotic sheen to every improvised killing spree. Grab the knife. Stab the dog. Throw the knife. Grab the gun. Kill the man. Kick the door. You're on a dance floor. Kill them all!

Hotline Miami's strange delirium is so infectious that IGF nomination seemed assured. Our pick for the best music in a game last year is in the running for an audio excellence award, and it's battling for the top spot in the Seumas McNally Grand Prize category too.

Dennaton's production habits may be partly responsible for Hotline Miami's sense of pent-up, frenetic energy. Jonatan "Cactus" Söderström is used to turning games around in less than a day. "I usually stop when it gets hard to push the idea further or doesn't feel like it's worth it to keep pushing," he told us in an interview in PCG247. "Some game concepts work a lot better if you keep them small and concentrated and would just get repetitive if you try to make something bigger from them."

The concept of Hotline Miami has been around for a while, however. "My original idea, when I made the first prototype called Super Carnage, was just to make the goriest game I possibly could, with as many weapons as possible. I was only 18 at the time so it was a pretty silly and incomplete idea," he said.

"Then I remade it about a year later, this was after playing some of Ikiki's games and I really wanted to capture that feeling of always being outnumbered and having to master the controls and plan your actions to beat a level. I had to quit though, because I couldn't solve the pathfinding I needed for the AI. Then last winter I realised I was now able to do the whole thing without any technical problems, so I showed the old prototype to Dennis (Wedin, Dennaton's artist). He liked it a lot and started doing graphics for it before I knew it."

It turned out pretty well. In fact, we liked it so much it secured a score of 86 in our Hotline Miami review . If you've played through it five times already and need another fix, cool your jets. Dennaton are preparing a sequel. More "sweet tunes" are planned.

Kentucky Route Zero

This dark and enigmatic adventure game is described by its creators as a "magical realist adventure game about a secret highway." The tale is set to unfold across five parts over the next year or so, but part one has already done enough to catch the eye of the IGF judges. Kentucky Route Zero is more about atmosphere and exploration than complex puzzle solving. The beautifully restrained, moody artwork evokes a sense of quiet unrest quite marvelously. "It's a game about hard times, and people trying to connect with each other," the developers told us earlier this year . "It's also about the culture of Kentucky."

It's made by two chaps - Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy - who, when merged, form a single indie devzord entity known as Cardboard Computer. As well as Kentucky Route Zero, they released Limits and Demonstrations - an examination of the work of installation artist Lula Chamberlain - for free last month. That offers a short shot of the quiet, introspective pacing that makes Kentucky Route Zero such a hypnotic experience.

A modest Kickstarter campaign gave the team the capital they needed to license the game engine, but the benefits of Kickstarter extended beyond monetary gain.

"As a solution to our financial roadblocks in getting the game made, it worked very well, but the continuing support from folks who backed the Kickstarter drive has ended up being the most valuable part of the experience for us. Some of them helped beta test the game, or just provided feedback and encouragement as we updated them on our progress."

"We never seemed to run afoul of supporters' expectations," they added, "even when the release of the game was delayed, we just communicated frankly about it with our supporters, and they were all very understanding in their responses to us.

Part One of Kentucky Route Zero was released in January this year. We gave it a score of 84 in our Kentucky Route Zero review . You can find out more and buy the game on the Kentucky Route Zero site .

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