Thursday, January 22, 2009

Independent Games Festival - The Rest

So I'll confess - I got bored of trawling through the 2009 Independent Games Festival finalists, and judging from my blog traffic reports I'm guessing you did too. Too many of the games just didn't have any public media to base a meaningful post around. I'd recommend to the IGF that they make the provision of a public-release trailer a condition of entry in future years, to help facilitate a meaningful discussion around the awards.

Anyway, for the sake of finishing things off, here are the finalists I didn't get around to doing a full post about:

Zeno Clash

A first-person brawler with a nice flavour to it, even if the sound effects are a bit Duke Nukem 3D. I love the look of the bone-sword, and also the speaking alien near the start of the trailer. Developers Ace Team have a very professional looking site, too. This looks like one of those games that you wouldn't know was an independent release unless someone told you.


A very cute concept is on display in Retro/Grade - it's a Gradius-style shoot-em-up, played in reverse. Time runs backwards, and you have to catch your incoming laser shots while dodging the enemy's lasers. Mistakes "damage the space-time continuum". I love the concept, although I think in practice it might end up being functionally identical to your regular sort of shoot-em-up. Also, there's not exactly a lot of variety on display in the demo above. The official site has another teaser video, if you want more.

This game, by Jason Rohrer, is available in full for free, which is awesome. There's a couple of catches though. One is that the game is, for some reason, only available at the moment through the online version of Esquire Magazine, so if you object to visiting digital men's magazines you're out of luck. (If not, though, you can grab it here.) Secondly, it requires two players, two networked computers, and a server. What's it about? I have no idea, other than that it explores "consciousness and isolation". Sounds fascinating.

Cortex Command
I'm completely out of enthusiasm for describing these games, which is a shame because the last one is Cortex Command, which I have been hearing through the buzz is "frikkin' awesome". You should, apparently, check it out. I understand it to be a little like Worms, only with butt-kicking robots, or somesuch. You can download a pretty extensive demo through the official site, or alternatively shell out for the fully-featured final release. If you play it, tell me whether you liked it.

I'd finish up by saying that while there are some excellent games in the full set of IGF finalists, there are also a lot of games that are conspicuous by their absence. You Have To Burn The Rope, for instance, is cute, but it's the shallowest shore of an ocean of games from the last year that have been exploring similar themes, and it's disappointing to see it featured when titles like Shift 3, which have actual gameplay, are missing. The Maw, already enjoying a well-publicised retail release, hardly seems to need the leg up, while Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble has been struggling for just this kind of love from day one. The inclusion of Musaic Box is a joke in bad taste, especially when Dark Room Sex Game and I Wish I Were The Moon were completely ignored.

It's really not clear what agenda the IGF is trying to promote through its selections, and I think that weakens the value of the awards as a whole.

Coil developer Edmund McMillen, who was nice enough to stop by after I was less than kind to his game, has been saying something similar over on his development blog, although less politely, and I'll direct you to his comments.


Sim said...

I helped!

Greg Tannahill said...

You did!
Actually my blog traffic downturn may have more to do with coming down off the spike brought about by people googling "disco stick" and "prince of persia trailer" than anything in my actual content. It's going back up again now!

simonc said...

'It's really not clear what agenda the IGF is trying to promote through its selections, and I think that weakens the value of the awards as a whole.'

'The IGF', as such, is a group of almost 50 judges - indies, media, and mainstream developers, all smart and experienced. They played the games, they voted in each category, and this was the result.

I'm not really sure there's an 'agenda' behind that, and I don't really understand why people are keen to ascribe one. Do you know what I mean?

Also, as IGF Chairman, I do take issue with the concept that games that might be popular or have publicity should not be honored.

Why would we knock out The Maw, just because it's being released on XBLA? (It's not retail, btw.) If a game gets sufficiently popular, should it be disqualified?

We think the IGF should be a celebration of the best indie games, no matter what - so there may well be a mix of known and less know titles, I guess?

Thanks for the feedback anyhow. We're definitely listening.

Greg Tannahill said...

Thanks for the comment, Simon!

I suppose I should explain that better. Other award systems generally exist to achieve some particular goal, either by explicit design or by established tradition.

Time Person of the Year, for example, aims to recognise the man, woman or idea who has made the greatest mark on the world that year, for better or for worse, with the implicit aim of reflecting on the evolution of society.

The Oscars explicitly recognise outstanding achievement in filmmaking over the year, but by tradition particular recognise Western studio-driven achievement in filmmaking, and are not above giving proxy awards by rewarding a strong candidate both on their merits that year and on the basis of previous unrecognised efforts.

In the case of the IGF, the largest mission statement I can find is "rewarding innovation in independent games" - I apologise if there's a better explanation that I'm unaware of, but if so it's not immediately obvious from the IGF website.

Judging by the construction of the website and its emphasis on past IGF winners who've gone on to big things, you could draw the conclusion that an unstated goal of the IGF is to help struggling but talented teams find the publicity and funding necessary to take their works to the world stage by highlighting them with an appropriate award.

You might also draw the conclusion that the aim of the awards is to highlight independent development as a breeding ground for new mechanics, art styles, and methods of play that large publishers would otherwise have little incentive to fund exploration of.

But neither of those goals is reflected strongly in the selected finalists, and there's no clear rationale to be found as to why some finalists made the cut and others didn't.

Obviously judging is a subjective process, and part of the mark of a good awards process is to be controversial - to stimulate debate among the community and thereby raise the profile of both sucessful and unsuccessful entrants. But it would be nice to have a clearer view of what goals the judges are attempting to achieve by their selection, or what selection criteria the games might be being judged against.

I'll come back again to You Have To Burn The Rope, which was an excellent and hilarious game well worth highlighting for reasons of debate, but which it's really hard to accept as in any way innovative, except in the manner in which all unique pieces of comedy innovate.

And I guess retail may have come to be used in a sense that implies physical storefronts but the literal definition is "the sale of goods or commodities in small quantities directly to consumers", which I'm quite happy using to describe portal-based online sales (possibly as distinct from sales direct from the developer's website). There could be an entire interesting discussion in that!

The case of The Maw (and for that matter PixelJunk Eden) is interesting in that it raises the question of what "Independent" means (which I note isn't addressed on the IGF site). The Maw, much like Braid and Castle Crashers, is shaping up to be a flagship title for Microsoft's Live Arcade service, which they're likely to end up heavily promoting. While it may have started life as an indy title, does it continue to be one once Microsoft are actively using its name to promote their service? Is PixelJunk Eden an indy game when Sony are using it to sell the PSN? These are (admittedly excellent) games that now have the support of the biggest names in the business behind them.

Anyway, I really love that the IGF are out there, I'm very supportive of anything that highlights the excellent work being done by so many independent developers, and thank you very much for engaging in the discussion!

Sonictail said...

I'll speak out for Cortex Command, it's a cross between worms and a very old series of games from europe (that's still going). Slightly entertaining and well made, and very complex to old school levels of game.

Probably not really IGF material, but at least they have a demo you can play. FFS having a publicly available demo should be a requirement of entry! But I have to agree on the corporate backing, the competition needs some tightening down on in that aspect.

But I will say this, It might need a slightly larger overhaul, it's voting are from a wide collection of awesome judges so there's no real collaboration on the entries (to my understanding of well, talking to the dudes) but perhaps a public shortlist for everyone to get involved might be considered in the future. Sure if we can make it to GDC we can play em on the floor (if the terminals are not incredibly busy, like they were last year), but seriously, gaming is much more than GDC!