First things first: if you have not yet read my companion piece, “Not the Top 5 Indie Games of Christmas“, might I suggest you take a look? This was a remarkable year for indie games, and the strength of the field means that a top 5 is not only an arbitrary nonsense, but also a highly limiting one. At a time when, with a few shining exceptions, mainstream and AAA gaming seemed to be somewhat exhausted, or at least gathering its strength for the next-gen push, small studios went from strength to strength, creatively and often commercially.
A quick note on selection: “indie” here is being used to mean a small studio publishing its games itself, through another small publisher or through a recognized, ownership-agnostic method such as Steam or the Humble Store – so, for example, State of Decay or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, despite their high quality and indie sensibilities, are out. Only games with a retail or finished release in 2013 are applicable: early access or beta games including Maia and Sir, You Are Being Hunted will be considered in the year of their self-certified full release. And, this being Forbes.com, sensible pricing, a coherent business model and strong sales performance are at least somewhat taken into account.
That said, with a trumpet and a drumroll, let us bring on the arbitrary nonsense of the top 5 indie games of 2013!
5. Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga (Windows/Mac/Linux/PS3/PS Vita)
Proteus will be left off many lists, in part because of its early release in January, and in part because it is hard to know exactly when it was released – Ed Key and David Kanaga’s heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking explorer was an early pioneer, post-Minecraft, of the paid alpha. However, it deserves a place at the table for its skilful use of procedurality in environment and music.
It is hard to pin down the precise appeal of Proteus – the player explores blocky, brightly-colored environments as a procedurally-generated score by Kanaga (who used a similar technique to great effect in Dyad) plays. It is peaceful, soothing, sometimes surprising and sometimes beautiful. At first the exploration of the island seems directionless, but with a little patience players can discover a path through the game. There is transformation and an ending of sorts – wrapped in a calm, meditative and sonically delightful experience.
The ongoing project to convert Proteus to the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset (headed up by – full disclosure – my sometime associates Nick Ludlam and Aubrey Hesselgren) also promises to offer proof that immersion isn’t about pin-sharp graphics and 8K screens, but about creating an immersive world and dropping somebody into it. It just edges Cellar Door’s Rogue Legacy - which is both a terrific roguelikelike and currently deeply discounted in the Steam holiday sale – out for fifth place.
4. Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer (Windows/Mac/Linux)
One of the less expected trends for the 2010s would be the roaring back of the point and click adventure into relevance, but Twine, Wadjet Eye and Telltale Games, in particular, have spearheaded a renaissance of the traditional and the next-generation strands of this venerable genre, much as Twine and studios like Inkle and Failbetter (which – full disclosure again – employ associates of mine) are revitalising the text adventure.
Kentucky Route Zero is in some ways an orthodox point-and-click, with the modern twist of an episodic release schedule. It begins with Conway, a trucker for an antiques firm, trying to get to Dogwood Drive – the joke being in part that dogwood, and streets named for it, are a common Kentucky feature. In his quest he moves between Lucasartsish, pixel-artlike scenes and text-only encounters experienced while navigating an imaginative map of the roads around the I-65, and encounters, among others, a blind petrol pump attendant with a yen for poetry, a diner where meals are ordered and eaten in total darkness and the bureaucrats and bears of the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces.
In some ways, KRZ fits into the Gilbert/Shafer school of surreal, wordplay-heavy adventures. But the wordplay here is, much like the strange, horse-heavy imagery and snatches of Appalachian song, elegiac in tone. The gentle and genteel Kentucky Conway is driving through, and reliving in his memories, is dying, metaphorically and literally. Local power company offices are abandoned, and the sinister consolidated power company that replaced them is moving late payers to insecure, crackling power. Ghosts play pen-and-paper role-playing games in the cellars of moribund petrol stations on country roads. Conway’s later companion, and the second playable character, repairs TVs but refuses to set up digital TV boxes. A brilliant mathematician does the sums on her overmortgaged house, and is rendered a ghost by despair. The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces shuffles deserted businesses into spaces for art events.
There are explicit and implicit references to the Odyssey, Ulysses, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, the work of folklorists John and Alan Lomax, the poet Robert Frost,
Actually surreal in a way few experiences described as surreal are, Kentucky Route Zero is two episodes into its full “season”, which puts it precariously into the “no unfinished games” area. However, it deserves recognition, and top 5s are, as mentioned, sort of arbitrary, so it earns its place on the strength of its atmosphere and its determination to place lyricism and musicality at the heart of its gameplay, rather than its minimalist soundtrack.
3. The Stanley Parable by Galactic Cafe (Windows/Mac)
A standalone conversion of Davey Wreden’s own 2011 Source mod, The Stanley Parable begins in the office of Stanley, an office worker with an incredibly boring job – he sits at a computer, which periodically tells him to press a particular key, and then presses it. It doesn’t take a lot of processing power to work out that this role, at a high level, describes not just white-collar busywork but a large amount of video gaming.
When Stanley finds one day that his computer is no longer telling him what to do, and then that his fellow office workers have mysteriously disappeared, he sets out to investigate. And thus begins a battle of wills between Stanley and his environment, and between the player and the narrator, who just wants Stanley to do what he’s told – to play the game, if you like – and experience a story of mystery, hope and redemption. And not to go down that corridor – the textures haven’t been done yet.
Almost the opposite of most FPS games – in which a linear progression leads to one or two possible endings, the Stanley Parable is “exploded” – broad and flat. Disobeying the narrator’s confident assertion that Stanley turns left can unlock a half-dozen or more potential endings, which often share relatively few resources. The element of surprise is vital to the game, and some of the paths taken lead to some audacious – and hilarious – riffs on the nervy relationship between game designers, game players and the mediated experience between them. At one point, the narrator can be driven to distraction by the player leaving Stanley standing in a broom closet. During the next playthrough, the broom closet has been nailed shut. To reveal too many of these elements would be to spoil many of the game’s surprises, but several of the narrator’s mood swings and desperate attempts to get an intransigent player to compromise and go with the flow of the story were laugh-out-loud funny, and others genuinely touching.
The Stanley Parable is an important game in part because it highlights the gap between video games and some other forms of critical discourse – the Brechtian elements will be familiar to students of theatre and film, and the manner of the narrator’s discourse is clearly embedded in a generically comfortable mix of Monty Python and Douglas Adams, delivered with plummy panache by Kevin Brighting. However, it also works to close that gap in interesting ways – and stands both as an enjoyable puzzle and an interesting counterpoint to the approaches of “AAA art games” like Spec Ops: The Line or Bioshock Infinite.
2. Gone Home by The Fullbright Company (Windows, Mac, Linux)
A surprise VGX Awards Best PC Game winner, and less surprising Indepedent Game Federation laureate, Gone Home has proven to be a divisive game. Some people have praised its minute evocation of teen life in 90s Cascadia, and the sensitivity and depth of a story of family secrets and personal awakenings told through found objects and diary entries. Others have complained of its short length, lack of combat, puzzles, platforming or other traditional game elements and shameless promotion of a politically correct agenda of tolerance and equality that has no place in video games. This last accusation was only swollen by The Fullbright Company’s decision to pull out of Penny Arcade’s PAX festival. Gone Home was slated to appear at the prestigious and sought-after Indie Megabooth, and their withdrawal was met with surprise – although subsequent controversy, which managed to overshadow the actual games on display, probably make this decision look cannier now than it might have seemed at the time.
So, it is either a finely-crafted exploration of human emotion or a deceptively-marketed walking simulator that probably makes you gay.
Fortunately, in this argument everyone gets to be right. Sort of.
Gone Home is indeed short – although it is now reaching the point of being regularly discounted to $9.99, and will hit $4.99 in the fairly near future, making for about a dollar per hour for a thorough playthrough. It does indeed have no combat. What it does have, as I noted in my review, is a putting back mechanic, as Kaitlin Greenbriar, the player character, negotiates her family home, found abandoned on her return from a long stay in Europe:
Objects obey physics – so, as in many first-person games, objects can be picked up with a click of the left mouse button, levitating at the bottom edge of the screen, and dropped – or more accurately thrown in a gentle arc to the ground – with a second click. However, in Gone Home if the cursor is over the location it was picked up from, the left button instead replaces the object in that original location. It’s a simple functional alteration with a huge impact. In most FPSes the character is running through a hostile landscape – items are immediately discarded if not useful. This is a home – Kaitlin’s home. This simple mechanic does a huge amount to connect the character and the environment. Kaitlin’s family may be missing, but that doesn’t mean she wants her father or her baby sister to know she has been rifling through their stuff.
Grace notes like this pervade the game – and the house is as much of a character, and possibly more, than most of the Greenbriar family, giving up its own secrets as well as those of Kaitlin’s vanished younger sister through a mass of perfectly-imagined 90s consumer products and playable Riot Grrl cassettes.
And, regarding its insidious PC agenda, it is indeed a game with a broad message that people are generally happier if they are honest with each other, and try to respect both what is honestly communicated and the people doing the communication – although I think that the ending in particular is far more ambiguous than many give it credit for being. If this broad concept is upsetting, then there are probably bigger things going on with you as a player of games than an end-of-year top 5 can reasonably address.
Gone Home is an artistic success – it succeeds in its goals, and in doing so creates what might best be described as a superior piece of crossover fiction (the game’s creator has subsequently noted the unconscious influence of Freaks and Geeks). Its commercial success, and mainstream acceptance, has also done much for the cause of indie development. Many indie developers deserve credit for pushing the bounds of what is considered acceptable subject matter for games, in this and previous years. However, in 2014 developers aiming to make quieter and more grounded works may find that Gone Home has helped to kick open some doors for them.
1. Papers, Please by Lucas Pope (Windows, Mac)
Papers, Please starts off with the kind of intentionally dull premise that puts one in mind of daily-grind sims like David Gallant’s I Get This Call Every Day, where a ludic structure is placed around the repetitive and tiresome process of doing a job. In fact, a closer comparison might be Richard Hofmeier’s 2012 indie game Cart Life, which was recognised with several awards from the Independent Games Federation. Both have a clearly defined and somewhat idiosyncratic aesthetic reminiscent of 8-bit computing. Both create a series of challenging and repetitive systems to represent the challenges of repetitive labor. And both carry a strong message that low-level employment is very little fun.
Papers, Please has a more exotic and directed storyline that Hofmeier’s tales of street-cart retailers. The player is a subject of the authoritarian city of Arstotzka, which has recently relaxed its border controls. Assigned to passport control, and dispatched to the divided border city of Grestin, the player has to process applicants for entry into Arstotzka.
At first this is a relatively simple process of checking their photo and vital statistics, but as tensions rise at the border, security becomes more stringent. Nationals of different countries require different treatment, supplementary documents are demanded and, at times, body searches and interrogations must be entered into. Despite this added complexity, payment is still doled out according to how many legitimate applicants you pass, and docked according to how many illegal entrants you allow in. It is hard to feed and house a family on these meagre wages. Should you accept inducements to look the other way? Or is the problem deeper, and demanding of more radical action? Compelled to guard Arstotzka’s borders, and underpaid for the privilege, do you owe the régime your loyalty?
Papers, Please is a game where simple systems layer to form a complex challenge, but mechanical complexity itself does not make for a great game. Pope has intertwined an emotional narrative through what might otherwise be a challenging but ultimately limited difference-spotting game. Some of the decisions the player makes will have significance for which of a large number of possible endings they ultimately reach. Others are more emotional – snap decisions about whether to allow a wife to follow her husband across the border, despite a missing form, or whether to reject someone pleading that they will be killed if forced to remain in their homeland.
Each new examinee is a short vignette in a developing story – sometimes comic, sometimes tragic – and often a brief moral puzzle. A woman has slipped you a note begging you for help: she is being trafficked by a man behind her in the queue. When that man arrives, his papers check out. Turning him back nonetheless might protect that woman – but what if she lied? And what would the consequences be? A fine might mean you cannot buy medicine for your sick child that night. Who should you help, and how?
It is theoretically possible to play Papers, Please as a simple mechanical exercise – a straight process of responding to the stimuli of authentication while making enough money to keep your family above water. However, this would miss much of the pleasure – of a rather downbeat kind – of becoming involved with the small stories of the applicants, and how they interact with your character. Some are cheerful, some deluded, many desperate or defeated. Some have to be scanned, or submit to the indignity of having their weight or gender queried. One, whose ID card shows a suspiciously young and attractive woman, responds if queried only that the years have not been kind.
The immigrants in Papers, Please are victims of state power, but so is the player. At heart, it is a game about the indifference of state power, the compromises and brutality it forces on it subjects, and the uncertain morality of resistance – themes explored by Lucas Pope in his previous game The Republia Times, set in another of the fictional republics bordering Arstotza. For the people at the bottom of the pile, the right thing to do is rarely clear, and often impossible, and even risks undertaken may benefit the wrong people, or – perhaps worse – make no difference to the balance of power at all. However, the process of teasing out the fakes and frauds during this drudgery is fun - until you realise that you are humiliating an old woman with a strip-search simply because that was today’s directive.
It wouldn’t be a top five without a little equivocation, and two games in particular rarely left contention, both high-quality platform puzzlers. Gunpoint (Windows) by Tom Francis is a hugely assured début from the former PC Gamer editor, built over three years for the cost of a copy of Game Maker.
A high-tech heist platformer with yet more intentionally low-res graphics, Gunpoint gets interesting in its short but well-formed campaign mode when your character gets hold of the Crosslink device, which allows devices on the same circuit to be connected, so that the player walking through a motion sensor might, instead of sounding an alarm, open an automatic door and knock a guard senseless with it. As the levels grow in complexity, the challenge becomes to find a way to each circuit box in order to make more and more devices vulnerable to Crosslinking, while other devices allow the player to jump higher, break glass silently or rewire guard’s guns, with potentially hilarious effect. To quote my colleague Duncan Geere’s review:
Some games try to push fun at you. Gunpoint is better than those games because it gives you a situation and a pile of ways to interact with it, and lets you create your own fun.
Certainly, the pinwheeling, die-and-rewind, high-jumping style of Gunpoint is the near-antithesis of Papers, Please. Although the levels are fairly small, and often have one “correct” way to navigate them, there is replay value in trying different gadgets, and changing one’s play style – for example, trying to leave as many guards as possible none the wiser that their security is breached, or pummelling every single one into paste (continued punching of a prone guard leads to progressively more horrified status notifications: the dialog and general writing is consistently sharp and funny). Although the campaign has been criticized for its brevity, the inclusion of a level editor provides the possibility of extensive user generated content.
The Swapper (Windows) by Facepalm Games, the sixth game to be bankrolled by the Indie Fund, is another stylish platform-puzzler. Its most immediately noticeable element is its art design. Breaking from the pixelated approach taken by many indies, The Swapper is built from darkly beautiful painted backgrounds and stop-motion animated figures, providing a very different aesthetic. The mcguffin of The Swapper is the eponymous device, which allows the player to create up to four clones and transfer control between them.
Each room becomes a puzzle which can be solved by correctly placing clones, transfering consciousness and negotiating the power-blocking effects of different-colored lights. The art and atmospheric sound supplement the excellent puzzle design, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts: The Swapper’s dark and doomy ambience reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon as much as the Dead Space/Aliens atmosphere of the abandoned space station, and there is something decidedly eerie about watching a clone, mirroring your movements, walk off a ledge, crumple like a rag doll and disappear, reabsorbed into your current body.
In a weaker year, either of these games could have walked into a top five, along with several others – and I am sure they will appear on the lists of many who are naturally more inclined towards platform gaming, or place less of a priority on cross-platform availability. For indies – developers and players – this was a good year. As we wait to see if the next generation of consoles will refresh the big players, the independent sector seems to be going, creatively, from strength to strength.
I am sure, however, that I have missed games that others feel should be included. I’d love to hear any dissents – the more good games being praised, the better.