As part of their top 12 indie games of 2012 piece, indiegames.com asked me for my own indie picks from this year. I quickly found that I had a lot more to say than they had space for, so here’s the expanded version:
Best archaeological mysteries to solve with your sister: Fez
Fez was slated for release during the week my sister was visiting from San Diego for a couple of family birthdays. I’d played her Rich Vreeland’s live performance of “Adventure”, and she’d told me “I want to play the game that this is the soundtrack to.” Upon its release, we spent several days straight doing almost nothing except play Fez together, taking pages and pages of notes, deciphering clues, and just soaking in the atmosphere — both the atmosphere that Polytron crafted, and that of playing games together like we hadn’t done on a regular basis in probably a decade. It was a perfect confluence of designed and accidental nostalgia, and it’s hard to imagine anybody having a better Fez experience than the two of us did.
Most deserving of the term “murder simulator”: Hotline Miami
I’m utterly convinced that if I actually ran into a house full of thugs with baseball bats and actually tried to murder them, it’d be exactly like Hotline Miami. Minus the restart button, of course. The game exudes filth, and I don’t know if I’ve felt any grosser in my life without actually being physically dirty. It’s kind of stupendous.
Most unexpected source of social anxiety: Journey
I went into Journey knowing only a little bit about it, hoping for a Legend of Zelda experience. You know what I mean: the the solitary, almost wordless exploration of a desolate landscape, picking through the ruins of a long-dead civilization. (Which I didn’t expect from Fez but got in spades, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.) Journey sort of provided that, but it also provided an unexpected co-op partner.
I absolutely get what they were going for, and I admire the accomplishment from an intellectual perspective, but my personal experience was that the meditative mood was ruined every time some dude from PSN showed up in my game. I stopped taking in the landscape and wondering what was behind the next hill, and started wondering whether it was rude to hang back and explore. Then I wondered whether it was rude for me to run ahead when the other guy was hanging back. Then I wondered whether he was judging me for repeatedly failing that jump. Even approaching the endgame, I was thinking about the other player, specifically about how weird it was that we were [spoilers] at the exact same time.
I came away from the whole thing wondering whether I should maybe look into anti-anxiety medication.
Most authentic way to break your neck a hundred times in a minute: Trials Evolution
Like QWOP, Trials is, in part, an almost autistically authentic rendering of a very specific physical activity. Unlike QWOP, in Trials it’s actually possible to internalize the rules: running and jumping, in real life, are intensely physical activities that use a thousand channels of input and output, managed almost entirely by your subconscious brain. But riding a motorcycle in 2D space, as it happens, maps to surprisingly few buttons. And with Coca Cola Zero over on the QT3 forums, saying he breezed through the early game because “I ride mountain bikes pretty seriously and a lot of what you’re supposed to do in terms of leaning and wheel placement is actually pretty realistic”? Trials feels like you’re mastering a real-life skill, and even if it’s an illusion, that’s a potent feeling.
(Only now do I look back and notice how similar my appreciation here is for my appreciation of Hotline Miami. Good job Hotline Miami for making me feel super gross one last time!)
Most unnecessarily chaotic co-op: Spelunky
One of my favorite aspects of New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s co-op mode was the decision to make players to collide with one another. It would’ve been trivial — less work, most likely — to make players pass through one another, and it would’ve made for a much smoother play experience. But the slapstick, accidental-troll experience they gave us instead inspired so much more delight than the smooth one would’ve, and when you did successfully co-ordinate with your friends, even if by accident, it felt like you’d pulled off something awesome.
Spelunky takes a page from that book by locking the camera to just one player in co-op. Especially considering the speed at which you can traverse the level, it’s easy for players to get separated, which can get frustrating if the players aren’t careful or don’t communicate well. The safe design choice would’ve been to implement split-screen, or maybe zoom out the camera like Super Smash Bros. does. Derek Yu’s solution is emblematic of Spelunky’s overall design: just make the player cope with it.
Obviously, this isn’t the right decision every time, but with so many games nowadays erring on the side of sanding off literally every rough edge, I love seeing designers who are so fearlessly willing to try to walk the line.
Best not-game: Dys4ia
Dys4ia is one of those games that doesn’t really qualify as a “game” in the classical sense. “Winning” is trivial and rewards you with no fiero whatsoever, and yet the experience it conveys is powerful in a way that couldn’t be replicated in a non-interactive medium. It’s also a particular experience that is rarely dealt with in any medium, which makes it all the more valuable. Contrast this with “To the Moon,” which starts with an extraordinarily powerful story and then tries to integrate it with gameplay that adds little — unless you count superficial resonance with JRPGs like Chrono Trigger — and often threatens to ruins the pacing and mood.