China Toy Fair


COMMENTARY: Indie Video Games Are More Than Just Minecraft

Video games come in all shapes and sizes, and blockbuster series such as Activision Publishing’s Call of Duty and Rockstar GamesGrand Theft Auto can be fun in their own elaborate ways. But on the flip side is independent, or “indie” video games, in which each title is often the brainchild of one or a few talented persons at most. While these games don’t always provide a high degree of spectacle, all feature interesting ideas or idiosyncratic touches, making them unique and unlike much of what’s available in the mainstream.

Phil.Jan2.MinecraftThis past weekend, I got to immerse myself in indie video games, courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y. Together with IndieCade, an international festival that promotes video games as a vehicle for artistic expression, the museum is hosting an exhibition, Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games, that shows off a variety of games that have been developed outside the major publishers. Among those displayed was Mojang’s Minecraft, which began life as a Swedish programmer’s side project, but has since grown into a cultural and commercial juggernaut.

(I could wax poetic all day about Minecraft, which allows users to build and share amazing homemade structures in a geometric sandbox world. But better yet, check out our recent Minecraft commentary, written by our outstanding editorial assistant Kara Faulk, for a more in-depth look at the hit game.)

The Minecraft installation drew its share of spectators, but there were plenty of other cool games on-hand for visitors to both play and experience. Many have been available on home consoles through the PlayStation Network and other download services. Here’s some of my favorites from the exhibition, but please note, this is in no way a comprehensive list, and anyone curious about the full roster of IndieCade games should check out Museum of the Moving Image’s event web site.

Phil.Jan2.EverydayShooterThere’s a fine line between beauty and destruction, and Queasy GamesEveryday Shooter coaxes players into crossing it. All the action is restricted to a single screen, and players play a dot that moves in all directions, blasting various hostiles that take the form of geometric shapes. Along with a guitar-heavy background score, whenever an enemy gets destroyed, it results in a single guitar chord. In this way, the environment itself is constantly reacting to the intensity of the game play.

Environments are also a key component to Mossmouth’s Spelunky, which initially seems like a standard pulp adventure. Players explore underground caverns, discover treasure, kill poisonous snakes and bats using a whip, and more. What makes Spelunky unique, however, is that the game itself randomly generates each level. I actually got to experience this firsthand after my avatar was killed three times (once by snakebite, twice by exploding myself with my own bombs—such is the life) and each return trip presented re-arranged obstacles. Given how adventure games can quickly become repetitive, a game play mechanic that keeps players on their toes at all times is a novel idea.

Matt Thorson’s TowerFall Ascension is another game that appears simplistic at first. The action is restricted to a single screen, and dropping through a hole in the floor causes you to fall from the ceiling. Player avatars, meanwhile, are armed with a bow and arrows. The catch is, the number of arrows is limited, meaning once they strike—or miss—their target, they fall to the ground where any player can retrieve and re-use them. Ultimately, winning relies less on reflexes and more on strategy and using the backdrop to one’s best advantage.

Phil.Jan2.BraidA puzzler in more ways than one, Jonathan Blow’s Braid is ostensibly about rescuing a princess from a monster. The game plays like a traditional side-scroller, but the major innovation is that players can rewind time. As such, if the player’s avatar dies, the game can be rewound to the point right before death occurred. Each level also features puzzle elements as well as objects that are immune to time travel: For example, at one point, there is a key located at the bottom of a pit. Players need this key in order to unlock a particular door. After dropping into the pit and grabbing the key, they can rewind time until they—and the key, which is unaffected by time travel—are back out again.

It’s easy to get caught up in the puzzle solving, time manipulation, and painterly visuals of Braid. But as I was playing, I couldn’t help thinking, “If I can rewind time, why do I need to go on this mission at all? Couldn’t I just go back to before the monster captures the princess?” These questions have answers that unfold in the style of a dream—or a nightmare—but rather than give anything away, I will simply credit the game’s creator for a storyline that is thoughtful, uncompromising, and would probably have been rejected by every major publisher. That last sentence, incidentally, is the highest compliment I can show for Braid.

Finally, Flower by thatgamecompany seems less about objective than the feeling it creates, which is a glorious, lighter-than-air sensation. Players control a breeze blowing petals, and its interactions with the landscape can result in dead grass blooming, wind turbines turning, and the picking up of additional petals. The visuals and animation are bright and fluid, respectively, and the game play experience utilizes the PlayStation controller in a unique way: Players tilt it in one direction or another to control where the breeze blows. More importantly, in a world where some of the best-selling games feature acts of death and violence, a title that centers on bringing about life and harmony is not only original; it’s pretty welcome.

Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games will be exhibiting at Museum of the Moving Image through March 2.

For more commentary from Phil, check back often. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!