Hidden insights from the Indie Game Challenge


Posted February 7, 2012 - By Rob Manuel

Nitronic Rush

We’re going to Vegas to check out some of the best games at D.I.C.E. this week. Since my car only holds about five people, we’re going to take a virtual visit to Sin City as we check out the finalists for the Indie Game Challenge. You can check them out and vote for your favorite one, but let’s take them a part and find out what we can learn from them. These ten games have something to teach us about building a better experience. Strip away the code and put on your detective hats, we’re looking into the lessons learned from this year’s Indie Game Challenge.


Style is the Substance

You can tell the biggest stories through the smallest details. Aesthetics shape the way we approach a game by giving us information about the world we’re entering before the first word is spoken or enemy met. Vibrant cools can signify anything from high energy to fantasy while darker tones often relay a sense of drama or dread. Style doesn’t always have to be about shiny veneers and big explosions. Even the simplest of line drawings can convey all the information you need to tell a story. Closure and Symphony approach the matter of style in two very unique ways.

Using only the most necessary of detail, you hunger for every ounce of information in the puzzle-platformer, Closure. Instead of giving you the whole picture, your character and the world around you only exists in balls of light. In the darkness, there is nothing and it’s through the manipulation of light and darkness (substance and emptiness) that you work your way through the puzzles presented to you in each level. Here, the style feeds you information as well as becomes apart of the light and dark gameplay mechanics. If you haven’t already, I suggest giving their earlier version of Closure a try.

While Closure’s minalistic approach uses visuals to convey limited information, Symphony takes a much more organic approach to accomplish a larger goal – visualizing music. A very simple design of wire frames and cool colors works with the music while never becomes a distraction. Enemies burst into notes that you collect. Damage to the ship flies off in little chunks of musical notes. And the world, outside of your action, pulses to the beat of the song playing in the background. Closure’s use of graphics limited information while Symphony brings a number of elements together to produce a cohesive work that reflects any style of music.

The Fourth Wall

Change the context, Change the World

Videogames let us do things that few other mediums allow such as changing the way we perceive the world. Most of the time, games keep to the old standards of our world. Gravity pulls you to the ground. Moving to the right lets you go to the right. And basically, what you see is what you get. People get confused and sometimes frustrated if you start playing around with the mechanics of the world. Change how the player perceives the world and you can start to strip away these rules in a manner that makes sense in the game.

Paradox Shift lets you leap between time elements to solve puzzles in this first person game. Between the construction of the Grand Canyon Dam and it’s destruction, you must find out the root cause and stop it. Beyond merely flipping between times to move around obstacles, you can bring items with you through time by tagging them. Boxes from one era become a bridge for a second era. By understanding how both places relate to each other, you understand how to overcome obstacles set in either period.

The Fourth Wall acts like a typical platformer. As you move form left to right or up and down, the camera keeps you in the center of the screen as the world moves under your feet. By freezing the screen, however, you escape the center of the camera and are able to loop around the screen. Moving past the right edge of the screen transports your character to the left edge of the screen as though both sides were of a continuous loop. Falling through a pit then sends you crashing from the top of the screen. The Fourth Wall allows you to accomplish the impossible by letting you change the rules at a moment’s notice.

Demolition Inc

Play is the Thing

I like my games with a little wiggle room to experiment, to fail, and the ultimately succeed in ways completely my own. I find it to be one of the strengths of gaming and what makes it personable. My solution is mine alone. We also learn from games through our failures and sometimes multiple failures. It’s one of the few places where we can royally screw up and get another chance to make it better. It’s what makes us better and makes us human – to learn through play.

Some cities were made for destruction and Demolition Inc. lets you live out your anarchist ways by leveling buildings one screaming car at a time. By throwing out some well placed oil slicks, exploding cows, and any other instrument of complete destruction; you work to create a chain of events that will hopefully blow up in your face. Gaining new items or new abilities makes going back to the same levels still enjoyable. Even the random bits of traffic keep you on your toes as you plan out every explosion.

I’ve probably said this before but maybe you’re learn this time - Nitronic Rush is awesome. Combining Trackmania with Tron, you race through crazy levels as you try to up your score by flipping, flying, and diving into crazy stunts. Look for new areas or just new ways to score a couple of points. Better yet, it’s free to download on the computer right now. You have no excuse not to play one of the best racing games of 2010.

Little pink dots have never been so scary. Atomic Zombie Smasher lets you play around with people’s lives as you try to save them from the oncoming invasion. You can blast buildings, send in mercs, or launch nukes to certain areas to wipe out the creeping zed. There’s no wrong way to save the last remnants of humanity, but there’s always a better way of doing it. The first time you jump into the commander’s chair, you’re likely to fail. Keep at it. Find the strategy that works best for you and save as many people as possible.

The Swapper

Rules Were Made to Bend

You made the rules, do whatever you want with them. Let’s combine our previous two lessons and roll them into one. Create a world with rules. Then take those rules and bend one of them ever so slightly until it starts to scream. Play around with said rule like a tiger with a squeaky toy and profit. Of course, this only comes from being able to establish a world through rules and then picking that one rule to bend in the game. Through play, we find understanding of both the rules and the world created in the game.

Going in alone is often a dangerous proposition. The Swapper makes that easy by letting you copy yourself over and over again like the spoilerific ending of "The Prestiage." The Swapper let you toss your new body across gaps or use a double to hit switches to far for you to reach. Life threatening falls become a thing of the past when you can pop out a double that only has to drop a couple of feet. While you still have to deal with all the pitfalls of being a rather squishy human, the twist of copying yourself lets you think outside the body.

I love games that let you turn the world on its head. The Bridge lets you control the world’s orientation. By shifting around gravity, you maneuver around obstacles or find yourself falling into the bottomless horizon. Gravity happens to be one of those ideas that everyone gets until you start shifting it around. From the look to the way the puzzles work, The Bridge gives you so much for a game about shifting the center of gravity.


Narrative isn’t a Dirty Word

Honestly, I could write a whole column just on narration in gaming. Some think that it’s the vestigial tale of game mechanics that’s better off letting the player fill in. Others see it as still the golden ring where done right can introduce a new way of presenting new worlds and characters to a player participates in the story. That’s why it’s great to see such a story driven game like The Dream Machine make it to the competition. Point-and-click adventures like this one have always been the staple of story driven games. The clues and items up pick up unravel the story piece by piece. Puzzles outline problems facing the main character. When done well, players can still find great stories within gaming today.

Good luck to all the finalists this year at D.I.C.E. Have fun and play on!

Do You Want to Play A Game?

You Should Play – TD5

One of the greatest tower defense games involving monkeys and balloons is back. This newest iteration feels like a step forward in the series not only in visuals but in design. Along with all new maps, you’ll see that all of the turrets now upgrade through two tracks. You can pick between either tracks up to a point where the final upgrade will lock out the final upgrade from the second track. A couple of new monkeys enter the fray such as snipers and ninjas. Other towers get a slight tweak such as the banana farms requiring you to pick up the fruit if you want the cash.

You Should Also Play – Burrito Bison Revenge 

The big bison with the little spandex shorts has returned to wreck havoc on a whole nation of gummy bears. Like most cannonball-style games, you’re looking to get as far as you possibly can while busting through walls and hopping off of gummi bears. Revenge gets a little sweater with new items, crooked cops who will help you on your way, and even the ability to buy new opponents in the ring. You might not win every time you play but you’ll be that much closer to sweet, sweet freedom.

You Should Support – Monster Guru 

Going beyond your typical “Gotta catch them all” style of gaming, Monster Guru puts you into the game by using Google maps as your playing field. Where you go, your character follows you. What really excites me about this project is the hand drawn characters and particular style oozing from every monster. With stick jutting out of bodies and giant masks, the world contains this exotic organic feel that permeates every cell of animation. With a ten dollar donation, you get the game and a great soundtrack.

Hidden insights from the Indie Game Challenge


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