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Always Bet on Indie – Our Predictions for the IGF 2012 Awards

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Posted January 19, 2012 - By Rob Manuel

Fez

It has begun. The 2012 IGF finalists have finally hit the web. and I must say that it’s a Who’s Who of the indie gaming world. This year, each of the games ran a gambit of trials to earn its prestigious position with each category judged by its own committee of experts. Every game listed here impressed the very best in the fields of visual art, design, audio, and other developers who represent the best of what indie games have to offer. Just getting nominated from among hundreds of other entries is truly an honor, and I congratulate each of the developers that made it into the competition this year.

As with last year, there’s nothing that celebrates the spirit of the IGF like putting a little money on the line. For each of the seven categories, I go through to give you a little analysis and predict the winner. If you want to hedge your bets, I present a second option for those of you looking to beat the spread. To be a real winner, I suggest that you go to each of the links provided, watch the videos, and support the indie scene by buying these great titles. It’s not every day that you get to play some of the best games in the industry or peak into the future of game development. IGF represents the best in creativity, experimentation, storytelling, and some of the most fun your have in the digital world. Good luck to all the developers when the IGF presents the awards during the Independent Game Summit (March 6th - 7th).

Dear Ester

Excellence In Visual Art

Botanicula (Amanita Design)

Dear Esther (thechineseroom)

Lume (State Of Play Games)

Mirage (Mario von Rickenbach)

Wonderputt (Damp Gnat)

More than just a pretty face; developers use art to develop, support, and relay essential information to the player. When a beautiful hillside equates to a programmer’s sleepless night working diligently on code, every visual choice means something. This year’s picks focus on visuals as a way to tell a deeper story. Lume takes paper characters and places them in a hyper-realistic word to convey a sense of fantasy in a story bound to real world environmental problems. A game like Mirage, on the other hand, uses it dream-like visuals to represent the senses of your character and how they perceive the world. Sometimes the right look or the right color is all you need to tell the right story.

The Pick: Dear Esther

It’s not wonder that I started the day with an email from a colleague saying, “Have you seen Dear Ester lately?” Watch the trailer and you’ll be stunned by how gorgeous this game looks. Cool waters flow through a darkened cave as ancient stalactites give off an ominous glow. Rust collecting on the hull of a ship tells the story of a battle lost with the sea. The visuals here are more than just a way to show off your video card. Every building, cave, and tree fits into this ghost story you experience by exploring the environment. If you remember the early days when Dear Esther when it was just a mod for Half-Life 2, the visuals alone will make you want to enter that haunting world all over again. Even when you leave this beautifully rendered virtual world, the story will never leave you.

Second Opinion: Botanicula

Creating a world without a single word uttered or written to guide the player is a feat few developers dare to try. You need to create a world that’s inviting, intriguing, and filled with just enough mysteries to keep the player looking under every rock and poking every button. Problems need to be immediately accessible for the player to realize the nature of the obstacle as well as lead them towards possible solutions. From their Samorost series and Machinarium game, Amanita Design has turned creating worlds to wander and puzzles to ponder a work of art. Botanicula seems to continue this tradition with intriguing characters, an amazing world, and a story told through visuals alone.

Prom Week

Technical Excellence

Antichamber (Demruth)

Fez (Polytron)

Prom Week (Expressive Intelligence Studio, UC Santa Cruz)

Realm of the Mad God (Wild Shadow Studios & Spry Fox)

Spelunky (Mossmouth)

Sometimes it’s not always about what you can see or hear, but what’s under the hood of a game that’s most impressive. Between those thousands and thousand of lines of code, magic happens. Sometimes the most amazing feats of gaming wizardry happen without you even noticing. That’s when you know that there’s true magic involved. Realm of the Mad God lets you turn your browser into an MMO. Find treasure through the procedurally generated worlds of Spelunky. Is it smoke and mirrors or some of the finest talent to ever touch a computer? Only Merlin knows for sure.

The Pick: Prom Week

Let’s pretend that Fez isn’t going to just win everything in its path. Prom Week comes from the same talent that brought us Façade a couple of years ago. You and a young couple try to have a nice night of small talk – or not. This dinner sim allowed you to interact with the characters through your choice of dialogue. Talk about the weather, politics, or just try to break up their marriage. The game responded to whatever you put in that little dialogue box. Prom Week takes it to a whole new level with multiple characters in the weeks leading up to a school Prom. Will you keep your friend or take his girl? Will you conform what others want or be yourself? It’s all the drama with only half as many wedgies.

Second Opinion: Antichamber

Imagine a museum of game mechanics. Instead of signs telling you not to tap the glass, you find yourself trapped in endless hallways and stairways that only lead you back to where you started. Demruth’s Antichamber takes you through a world where accomplishing the impossible may just be the only way out. Instead of trying to beat the clock as you try to find the exit, this first person experience is all about the journey there. I try to find the subtle shifts in the world as I try to glance behind the programming curtain. For anyone designing games or just interested in what games can do, this is one game that you need to experience.

Spelunky

Excellence In Design

Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games)

English Country Tune (Stephen Lavelle)

Frozen Synapse(Mode 7 Games)

Gunpoint (Tom Francis, John Roberts and Fabian van Dommelen)

Spelunky (Mossmouth)

To completely mangle a quote from Hamlet, the play’s the thing. Sometimes it feels as though bigger developers have lost the sense of what makes a game a game with all the high-end graphics and speaker rumbling explosions. Each of the games in this category takes a very simple premise and explores every inch of it thoroughly along with the player. Rewire buildings in Gunpoint or destroy whole blocks of zombies in Atom Zombie Smasher, each of these games give you the tools you need to survive. It’s up to you how you use them.

The Pick: Spelunky

A rogue-like dungeon crawler makes sweet love to a platformer and gives birth to Spelunky. This mixed-up mashup takes the exploration of a platformer as you try to traverse your way around traps, through enemies, and to the gold with the randomly generated levels of a rogue-like game. With fedora and whip in hand, you feel like a real explorer since you never know what’s on the next screen or how to get to that pile of loot. This is all about risk versus reward and all that other good stuff. The game gives you all the tools you need to make it out alive, but do you have the skills to make it around giant bees and piranhas to get the treasure. This new iteration of the 2008 game introduces multiplayer into the works as well as a graphical facelift.

Second Opinion: English Country Tune

Simple. Pure. Often the best-designed games allow for little else than the bare essentials. With only a couple of balls and blocks, English Country Tune manages to do more than most puzzle games with all the bells and whistles. One board may require you to push balls into a hole. Another may have you try to move around a three-dimensional set of cubes while only hitting every surface once. No headshots needed here. You’ll need that head to get through each of these puzzles that play around with the same mechanics. Do whatever it takes. Just get the job done.

Waking Mars

Excellence In Audio

Botanicula (Amanita Design)

Dear Esther (thechineseroom)

Pugs Luv Beats (Lucky Frame)

To The Moon (Freebird Games)

Waking Mars(Tiger Style)

Can you hear me now? More than just music, the splash of water or a lone footstep can put you in the moment. Sound is just another tool in the developer’s toolbox to draw the player further into the game. Pugs loves Beats turn every bouncing puppy into another note while To The Moon uses the digital sounds of a piano to draw players through the memories of an old man. Sound is an immensely powerful tool when used correctly. With the line up this year, these developers know how to make their games sing.

The Pick: Waking Mars

They say in space, no one can hear you scream. In Waking Mars, it won’t be the screams that bother you but the scurrying of little feet from the insects, the collapsing of rocks under your weight, or the plant-life digesting their latest meal. Survive the red planet by any means necessary. This means that you’ll need to think fast and listen to the world around you as adversaries as well as solutions often give away their positions by the sounds they make. Sounds punctuate the silence with every step as you make your way through this lonely and desolate world.

Second Opinion: Dear Esther

Once again, Dear Esther manages to use every tool available to the developer in order to draw the player further into the world. Maybe it’s the mysterious tone of the narrator revealing bits and pieces of the story as you discover each new area that pulls you into the story. Maybe it’s the wind whipping around you, intensifying the feeling of loneliness and isolation on this strange island. Whatever draws you in, Dear Esther finds a way of bringing it out to support the narrative. Haunting and beautiful, this game draws you in with every rolling stream and lonely wind swept road.

Faraway

Best Mobile Game

ASYNC Corp (Powerhead Games)

Beat Sneak Bandit (Simogo)

Faraway (Steph Thirion)

Ridiculous Fishing(Vlambeer)

Waking Mars (Tiger Style)

Mobile games are quickly become a beast within their own right. We even have a weekly column covering them. You should check it out. These games have evolved way beyond the early days of solitaire and snake. Mobile games now have music, graphics, and a level of depth that can keep up with the big boys. Better yet, these games go where ever you go. As God is my witness, I will never be bored again.

The Pick: Faraway

Simple yet elegant, Faraway takes you to the stars as you fly through galaxies looking for constellations. Once you find the right alignment of celestial bodies, you score by wrapping a line around each of the stars without touching the line you just created. This is the not so simple part but with a little practice, you’ll get the hang of it. And there you have the game, the perfect balance of relaxing and challenging gameplay. Faraway takes only minutes or a couple of bus stops to play. The easy to use touch controls work beautifully on the iPad. This is the game that should come standard on every new iPad.

Second Opinion: Ridiculous Fishing

I’m not going to lie to you. I really just like Ridiculous Fishing. It’s one of those crazy games loaded with tempting upgrades. In my gaming world, I call that the perfect storm. The game works in a couple of parts. First, you drop the line into the water as you avoid all the smaller fish to hook one of the larger ones. Once you found your great white, you reel it in while bringing in every fish you touch on the way up. As the hook hits the surface, all the fish go flying where you need to pull our your gun and shoot them for money which you can use to buy a longer line, better guns to shoot fish, or a chainsaw to get you to the bottom quicker. Yes, the name is truly accurate.

Joust

Nuovo Award

At a Distance (Terry Cavanagh)

Dear Esther (thechineseroom)

Fingle (Game Oven Studios)

GIRP (Bennett Foddy)

Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga)

Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik)

Storyteller (Daniel Benmergui)

Way (CoCo & Co.)

Innovation is the key to any industry. It’s how we explore the different facets of our world as well as expand our reach. More often than not, it feels as through the gaming industry steers away from such risky ventures to keep on the safe and often worn-out path. That’s why indie games are more important than ever if games want to continue to grow. These developers are often the dreamers and the risk takers that will pave new paths for bigger studios to follow. Games like Storyteller brings improvisation into the digital age while GIRP will keep your fingers tied up on the keyboard. Innovation is the life blood of gaming and indie games are at the very heart of it.

The Pick: Johann Sebastian Joust

We often forget that games started with just a group of people and a whole lot of imagination. Joust takes us back to those days with the help of a little modern technology. The game uses up to four PS3 Motion Controllers, one for each player. Your job is to simply not shake the wand while trying to jostle everyone else’s wand. From there, it’s all up to you. Players come up with their own strategy. I’ve seen players keep low to ground. Others hold it up as high as they can. And that’s the beauty of the game. It’s your strategy, your way to play the game. Play with a different group of people and you’ll often have to switch strategies in order to be the last man standing. It’s this blurring of reality and technology that makes Joust a game that’s truly ahead of it’s time.

Second Opinion: Way

Way takes the idea of co-op gaming to a whole new level. Two players work their way through a series of obstacles to get to their final destination. Sometimes one player will have information that the second player won’t have like the location of a trap or where to jump next for a platform. Here’s where the genius of this games comes into work. You cannot talk to the other person. Communication relies on motions and creating a language with your partner through trial and error. Waving your arms up and down could easily mean stop or jump. The game lets two people create something very unique to them and only them. Start the game with a new partner and you’ll have to start the process all over again. Way lets you create a special and unique bond with another player without having to say a word.

Fez

Seumas McNally Grand Prize

Dear Esther (thechineseroom)

Fez (Polytron)

Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik)

Spelunky (Mossmouth)

And finally, the grand prize. Honestly, any one of these games could easily be the winner. This list represents not only the best indie games have to offer but games every single gamer should get their hands on. Play and learn from these titles. Each of these titles takes a unique approach to platforming, storytelling, and strategy. I don’t envy the judges who had to pick one to be the very best from this list of games.

The Pick: Fez

Visuals, music, design; Fez represents not only what makes and indie game great, but also what makes gaming great. Your little fez wearing friend, Gomez, explores this beautifully constructed world two dimensions at a time as you shift perspectives in order to overcome obstacles. From the boxy clouds in the sky to the animals that inhabit the world, the amount of detail is stunning. The team over at Polytron developed a world worth exploring where you never know what’s behind the next corner. Imagination and platforming has never collided quite like this.

Second Opinion: Dear Esther

Sometimes we need to step back and understand the power of video games. Dear Esther does just that. Through visuals, audio, and narration; this title weaves a story around the player as they explore different areas in the game. As you listen to the narrator, visuals and audio cues slowly draw you in and tell their own story, often one that the narrator only hints at in his tale. Though it’s an update of a mod, the beautiful graphics and powerful story cannot be denied. Dear Esther represents the sort of storytelling that unique to videogames.

Always Bet on Indie – Our Predictions for the IGF 2012 Awards
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