The future of indie

Craig Pearson

Page 1 of 10

Hawken Thumbnail

Just look at Hawken. If ever there was a game that undermined the notion of what an independently developed project can achieve, it's Adhesive Games' mech shooter. Every bone in my body tells me a small studio should not be able to pull off such a gorgeous, robot-stomping shooter, but there it is, megabots hanging in the air, spitting rockets at each other across maps that look like they've come out of Epic or Valve.

But I'm getting used to indie games surprising me: freedom to create without interference from the men in suits is the reason their developers go into this murky, unfunded realm, trading security for the chance to follow their own path. Every developer in this list has taken the opportunity to make exactly what they want to make, using that freedom to create some startlingly original games that simply wouldn't be made if they had a deadline to hit and had to justify every decision.

These games only exist because someone passionately wanted to bring them into the world, and it really, really shows.

Hawken

www.hawkengame.com

We can't wait to jump in that awesome cockpit.

You've seen the likes of FPS Terminator, so you probably know already that when garage developers think big, they no longer have to make small. Those triple-A values that cost millions to imagine, millions more to make and whatever's left to advertise do not, it turns out, cost anything like as much as you may think. All it takes, says nine-man LA outfit Adhesive Games, is a computer and the freedom to use it.

Made using Epic's Unreal Development Kit, the self-funded Hawken is one of those games where the concept art looks incredible until you click on it and realise it's an in-game trailer. It's that good, depicting massive robots at war in a world of supermassive structures, leaping whole city-blocks in single bounds. Moreover, as a game devoted to multiplayer rumble, it thinks it's found an escape route from the genre's lifelong niche, running straight down the middle between East (Armored Core, Virtual On) and West (the legendary MechWarrior).

The problem with the former is that all that uninhibited side-dashing and leaping can make the mechs look like ill-advised cosplay outfits wrapped around Call of Duty characters. There's no weight, no sense that breakdancing in a machine the size of Selfridges might, for one thing, use an awful lot of petrol. Then there's the MechWarrior/ Chromehounds extreme, which Adhesive creative director Zhang Le describes as “circling each other until someone dies”. It just ain't happening in Hawken.

Believe it or not, Adhesive see this more as something Halo-esque: fast, but not so much that you never see your enemy till you're dead; hefty, but not to the point when it's stuck halfway between a tank simulator and a card game, relying on choices more than reflexes. It's about every player getting at least 15 seconds of battle in every exchange, the winners being those who don't just know when to zig and zag their mechs, but know to keep enough fuel in the tank. You can boost your way across its giant cities to get straight to the action, sure, just in time to flop into your coffin.

Who, though, will get Hawken first? We're told that “all the major publishers” have tried to snap it up, yet Adhesive don't even know if it needs a publisher. And it's a multiplatform download title aimed at PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 – but no one knows where it's headed first, developers included. Our suggestion: drop the actual machines on each other and let the stompiest robot win. We'll bring the Cooler Master.

Confetti Carnival

www.spikysnail.com

Colour-coded goo balls. We call it Peggle of Goo.

Every now and again, a physics puzzle game comes out that's charming and full of personality. So where Peggle and World of Goo bounced, Confetti Carnival follows.

You control blobs of smiling, happylooking goo, flicking them across the levels to detonate colour-coded bombs. But it's more subtle than just hitting them: it's the goo ball's internal fluid that sets the explosions off, and you need them to dribble this noxious brew onto the bombs to set them off. A direct hit rather unhelpfully scatters the bombs far and wide about the level, so your aim is to burst the goo above the target to keep them in place. This is the sort of twisted condition that gives you nightmares.

Thankfully, with each completed level you'll get new abilities. As you progress through this little blinder, you'll be able to subtly guide your character through the air, burst into multiple patches of liquid to get a wider coverage, and reverse time. It's like liquid ninjitsu.

QUBE

www.qubegame.co.uk

Aperture Science wants its room back!

Most first-person puzzle games can be described as 'Portal-esque', but QUBE really, really reminds us of Portal. In QUBE, (the letters stand for Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion, would you believe) the levels are self-contained rooms consisting of moveable walls that make architectural puzzles the player must traverse.

You use the gloves like a conductor: waving hands over the colour-coded blocks, using their various effects to manipulate the environment. So, the red blocks that cunningly look like someone's sliced stairs off the wall can be dragged out to make those stairs. It gets increasingly complicated, with the player dragging out blocks that fling you across the level, bounce balls around, even manipulating the whole floor, and tilting it to move a ball around the maze-like floorspace.

It's a smart game for an indie dev to make: the art style looks expensive and all they need to do is come up with plenty of challenging puzzles within the framework they've created. It's looking good.

Spy Party

www.spyparty.com

Fooled you. I was actually the plant. Ha!

Most multiplayer games are about shooting the other person as soon as they appear, but in Spy Party you have to find the human in a sea of NPCs. It's about understanding human behaviour, not guns.

There are two roles: the Sniper and the Spy. The Sniper watches as the Spy schmoozes his way around a party, attempting to conceal his activities in the group of revellers. It's classic spy stuff, like retrieving a microfilm, swapping a statue or seducing a target, all performed as the laser beam from the sniper's rifle is sweeping over the room, looking for the telltale animation.

As the Spy, the difficulty is in timing the moments of covert action to occur when the Sniper is distracted, and acting like an NPC at the other moments, trying to place your character very carefully in the correct position to make it look like you're not trying to place your character. Moving like a human is a dead giveaway.

All the while the Sniper watches. As the gunman, you get a single bullet to take out the espionage agent, and it's an overwhelming amount of information to parse. The NPCs mimic a lot of the Spy's moves, but without the subtle tells. Staring at all the activity, your eyes flick from person to person, trying to catch one of them out. The concentration required to keep all the accusatory and dismissive thoughts in your head, with a whole room of people acting independently, makes it difficult to take that shot. Which a good Spy will take advantage of. The asymmetry creates a terrifying atmosphere for both players, particularly when the Sniper clocks the Spy early on and lets him carry on.

Developer Chris Hecker's currently working on level layouts: a smaller, balcony level skews the game towards the Sniper's abilities, whereas an L-shaped room full of people gives the Spy a better opportunity to succeed. He's using those unbalanced spaces to explore how to balance the game: Spy Party's mechanics might be easy to pick up and learn, but that's just the start of a complex game where you have to think about the humanity in what you're doing.

Subversion

bit.ly/17XMNS

Subversion image
Breaking and entering was never so much fun.

Robbery is the new lens flare. Introversion's Subversion puts you in charge of a team of skilled break-in experts, taking apart hightech security systems to get to the loot.

Being from the developers of Uplink, the depth of the simulation is what makes this a fascinating prospect: guns are a fall back position for when things go wrong. Instead you'll be taking down security systems, moving your agents in concert as layer after layer of protective technology is tapped into. The modern office setting gives some familiarity to the world: security cameras are hackable to give the team a better PoV of the layout, telephone wires can be analysed, with 999 calls rerouted to hold off police intervention while the building is hacked.

The team's skills aren't limited to tweaking tech, either: agents can talk their way out of situations, using Fast-Talking augmentations, or simply sneak in, following someone with access to get through a locked door. Of course, you might need to leave via that door, which is where a gun or two could come in handy. Social engineering is all well and good, but a bullet really focuses people.

There's a clear air of the unknown about Subversion, not unintentionally, since Introversion are still refining the concept as they're developing it. But the heist theme, the emergent possibilities and the unusually high quality of their previous games is enough to sustain our interest.

Tiny & Big

bit.ly/eMafBy

All this can be sliced up. By you. It's great fun.

It's almost a shame to be let loose in Tiny & Big's world. It's gorgeous: a hand-drawn, sketchy backdrop full of immense character and charm. And what do you do here? Tear it all up on a quest for your inheritance: a pair of fine white underpants.

It's an environmental third-person puzzle game: everything from the tallest spires to the smallest rocks can be sliced apart by Tiny's laser. It burns through the landscape like a sausage through margarine, turning massive pillars into makeshift bridges, wrecking the carefully contoured world but enabling Tiny to cross otherwise impossible chasms on his hunt for the pants. The scale is as impressive as the technology: the cuts aren't prescribed, so you can chop a giant Redwood-sized tooth of granite neatly across the trunk, felling it like a tree, or slice it up into slivers, chipping away at it, hoping the pieces fall correctly. Or just for fun.

But it's not all left to chance: Tiny also has a grappling hook that you can drag the rubble around with, using it to angle his toppling towers. Or you can manoeuvre the collapsed levels into the desired shapes, like stairs, to chase his pant-stealing nemesis. There's also a rocket to push pieces around if you need to apply a bit more force than the grappling hook provides, or merely turn them into jagged, terrifying, self-propelled shards of angry landscape.

Mechanically, it all seems so obvious. It has the feeling of a game that should have been made a long time ago, and it took a small, student development team to realise it. Developers Black Pants (they seem obsessed with underwear this lot) are episodically releasing the game in level-sized chunks, but they've already released a demo on their site for free. Even in its raw state, it's still immensely enjoyable.

Snapshot

bit.ly/hPrivb

Give me anger. Now give me sad. Now give me a break.

Photography isn't just a way to show everyone how miserable your family holidays were, or how fluffy your new kitten is (and he is so, so fluffy ), oh no. In Snapshot, camera clickery can change the world around you.

It's a pretty, elegant, Braid-like puzzle platformer. You guide your little robot through platform puzzles. They're impossible to traverse normally, until you make use of your camera. It absorbs the world's objects into the photographs it takes and allows you to place them elsewhere in the level. Thankfully it's digital, so there's no time wasted waiting for them to develop.

At the most basic level, you'll use it almost like a gravity gun, plucking a crate from one part of the level and depositing it elsewhere, in turn placing the photograph where you need the object to be to boost your robot up, or lean on a useful switch. More complicated uses come into play, though: the photos capture object momentum, light, and even chunks of architecture. Blimey.

So, say you need to destroy the floor of a platform that's out of reach. You can photograph a falling rock, place the photograph upside down underneath the breakable barrier and the rock will fly out at the desired angle. You can use the same effect to kill an enemy, so you could push a crate off a ledge, capture it mid fall, drop the photo over the enemy and smoosh them. The power of photography!

Lightsources plucked from the backdrop can be used to help guide the bot through pitch-black levels, with the tiny suns rolling around when freed from their positions.

Even the platforms are manipulable: you can photograph a spiked landing, turning it upside down so the spikes are on the bottom and you're safe to land on it – or there are level doors that you can access by ripping them from an awkward position to an easyto- reach spot.

A Valley Without Wind

bit.ly/fcB3YP

The random game world throws up some bonkers areas.

This sounds a little bit like Minecraft: a procedurally generated RPG, where each world is unique to the player experiencing it. Except where Minecraft is about the player's impact on a mostly empty world, AVWW is a lot more involved.

A post-apocalyptic world where the apocalypse (an ice-age) might not have happened, the player's adventure takes him through the remnants of civilisation on a broken Earth, meeting the people left behind in office buildings and villages. Developers Arcen have some startling ambition, creating a game world without any boundaries: it'll go in any direction, generating challenges, characters and areas as the player explores. They claim it will never end, and that you'll never need to generate another world.

That openness is at the heart of the game. Everything you can see you can visit: every building will be open to the player, every settlement will have its own problems to help solve or avoid. Sounds intriguing.

Frozen Synapse

www.frozensynapse.com

The sequel, Chilled Frontal Lobe, is already in production.

A strategy game obviously influenced by both X-Com and Counter-Strike, thoughtful unit placement and terrifying action mix it up in quickly resolved top-down battles.

The futuristic blueprint look is appropriate: it's more about the minute planning of your team's movement than anything else, where each turn is an exercise in precognition and careful consideration. You drag markers for distance, speed, direction and preparedness out of each soldier, with the other player's team and choice hidden until you cross each other's line of sight. Then your gibs hit the fan.

Of course, this all leads to panicky skirmishes: tense little pockets of fighting where your best laid plans explode in your face. Or should that be 'like your face'? That sniper you carefully sent to cover the corner is blasted point blank with a shotgun, while a cleverly planned pincer attack unravels when you realise the target is in another part of the map. So important is each turn that the fear of hitting the button that sets your moves in motion is scarier than any survival horror.

Miner Wars 2081

www.minerwars.com

Quite a 'boring' game. Ahahahahahaa.

Space does funny things to game developers. The minute they start to conceive of a game where freedom of movement is key, they start jettisoning any notion of controlling the player.

MMO Miner Wars 2081 wants the players to go anywhere they want, and make an impact on their own terms. The tools it provides sets it apart from the usual Elite clone, though. You're the operator of an advanced mining ship, trying to carve a life out of the asteroids that lazily spin in the vacuum. Your ship is capable of burrowing through the giant rocks, with each of the vast hunks of mineral fully destructible.

It means the player is free to make a base of operations deep inside the heart of an asteroid, hollowing it out on the hunt for precious metals and setting traps on the walls to ensure your claim is well protected. Make a home there if you like: the universe around you will persist, so anyone carving a replica of their own genitals into the face of a giant rock will be giving the population of the system an eyeful, until someone takes offence and delivers a mining laser eraser to it. Right, Tim?

There's structure, of course. You can't put someone in the cockpit of a space ship and not ask them to escort weaker ships, explore and collect, steal cargo or defend bases from raiders. And the persistence applies to the ship as well, so you'll be upgrading your cockpit as you continue to burrow for precious materials to exploit and rocks to muck about with. That holy grail of Elite online is still hanging over every space sim that comes out, and it's been a while since a full-on live-your-life-in-space revved up to take a crack at it. This is one to watch.

Grim Dawn

www.grimdawn.com

Diablo. Diablo. Diablo. Diablo. Diablo.

Here's a lesson in recovery and openness. When old school action RPG studio Iron Lore (creators of the Titan Quest games) were closed, the core team took stock, took their ideas, took their engine and started on their (and their audience's) dream game, free of publisher interference, showcasing their progress in public at their forums. Airing their development so early in the production cycle is unusual, but has its advantages, and their forumites and fans are constantly suggesting improvements and additions.

Even small quality-of-life tweaks are picked over and analysed: from automatic gold pickup when out adventuring, to deeper and more complex conversations with quest givers and merchants. Even the smallest details get analysed and improved thanks to audience feedback. When an artist posted the first images of a new system to determine where the player could walk, forumites pointed out that a bridge didn't look quite right. Two hours later new screenshots appeared showing a newly tarted up bridge and path.

Super-fans also get to help fund the development. Pre-orders are already open on an escalating scale. Players can buy access into the early alpha and beta ahead of the eventual launch. Get involved in development at www.grimdawn.com . Just don't mention Diablo.

Nidhogg

www.messhof.com/nidhogg

Psychedelic backdrops don't distract once you're playing.

You might not have heard of it yet, but Nidhogg is the funniest indie game ever.

It's not exactly a comedy setup, mind: you and a friend face each other in a swordfight that looks an awful lot like the original Prince of Persia. You can hold your foil high, chestlevel or low down as you attempt to jam those sharp pixels into each other with a series of frantic jabs. If you win the fight, you gain the initiative and can dash to the other side of the screen. By the time you arrive in the next area though, your opponent will have re-spawned in front of you. It's now his job to kill you and regain the initiative so he can run off in the opposite direction. You're both striving to travel as far toward your opponent's side as you can.

It's a simple game learned in a few seconds, but it inspires frantic panic and glorious, dramatic comebacks in a way that will have you and your friend – who's sat next to you using the same keyboard – screaming. It's the constant feeling of not being able to quite believe what just happened.

You can't believe that your opponent just slid under your legs. They can't believe that you turned and hurled your sword at them, skewering them in the back. You can't believe that after impotently nudging your swords into each other a dozen times, your friend won by simply pressing 'up' on the keyboard to change his sword's position. He can't believe that after getting past him, you mistimed a jump and fell immediately into a hole. You can't believe that you managed to knock him back into that same hole using that same impotent nudging. Neither of you can believe the end. There is no victory but pyrrhic victory.

Creator Messhof is working at online multiplayer, as well as some singleplayer game modes. But however good those turn out to be, playing with a friend on the same PC is an experience every gamer should have. You've never laughed so hard.

Rock of Ages

www.atlus.com/rockofages

Yes. That ball has a big creepy grin. Shudder.

It's one of the great philosophical what-ifs of our time: what would happen if Sisyphus travelled through important periods of art history and got to meet people like Da Vinci, Aristotle and Plato?

The fact that Sisyphus was condemned to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill should probably have given you a clue. Rock of Ages is a strategy game where you destroy art-inspired buildings by rolling giant rocks.

The physics-based territorial battles are a mixture of bowling and base building, with the buildings and units reflecting the art style of the period.

We're not usually keen to point out the skybox of a game level, but when one has a 2D representation of the titan Cronus towering over the scenery, it bears commenting on. As does the destruction. The goal is to build the boulder at the top of the hill before the other player constructs his, and build your defences along the slope to stop the other player's boulder from reaching your castle. Those defences crumble and clog up the ball's progress, from little 2D humans on sticks to hovering, spiral-bladed helicopters inspired by Da Vinci's doodles. It's not all left to chance. When you finally release the ball on its destructive path you get to control its descent through the protective layer of buildings, scouring Rococo and Romanticism inspired blockades from the face of the world. Take that, Goya!

Physics and odd art-styles are staples of indie games, but even after years of abstract, silly and inspired adventures, Rock of Ages stands out as one of the most creative and whimsical games we've ever seen.

Monaco

www.monacoismine.com

Monaco's top-down criminal capers.

The big Hollywood pitch for this is Gauntlet meets Ocean's 11. Monaco is a top-down heist game, where a team of four plan and execute a robbery. A caper simulator, is what it is. The team are made up of criminal classes working together in quickly paced assaults on technological fortresses such as mansions and corporations. We've discovered one of the missions is labelled “steal the porn”.

Character classes are built around specific thiefy needs. The Locksmith powers through the level's locked doors, the Cleaner is able to generate health and knock out guards, the Hacker takes down security systems and the Prowler can speedily rush through levels, plus another four that we don't know about yet. They're being kept under wraps, and The Spy refuses to investigate for reasons of professional courtesy.

It sets up a co-operative, speedy jaunt through stylised 8-bit levels, characters overlapping, unlocking doors ahead of each other, peeking around corners. The player's have a limited field of vision, so it really pays to work as a team to get a clear overview of the trouble they're facing. You know, as they're trying to steal porn.

The Swapper

www.facepalmgames.com

Disco lighting can also be completely sinister.

First they fired bullets and rockets, then they fired furniture and portals, and now they spawn clones and fire consciousness. This side-scrolling puzzle platformer takes the next step in the evolution in guns.

Set in space aboard a vast, desolate spaceship, you use these abilities to navigate corridors and trigger switches. The left mouse button lets you place a clone anywhere within a twenty feet radius, while the right hurls your consciousness between them. It doesn't matter if a clone dies, unless your brain happens to be inside it at the time.

Pretty soon you're trying to synchronise the movements of four clones at once, and working around different coloured light that stops you from either swapping or cloning.

Upon solving each level you unlock a new piece of po-faced backstory about the ship and your own origins, but for every piece of purple prose, there's the silly fun of sending infinite clones to their death. Spawn one 20 feet in the air and watch it plummet. Create five of them in a row and jump around to form yourself a bonkers dance troupe.

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