If anything can be said about 2012, it’s that it was definitely the year that indie game developers officially hit their stride and really created some unique and memorable experiences. And while the PC is home to some of the most ingenious of all of them, I’d be happy to argue with anyone that the PS3 was really the platform that saw the most compelling and interesting indie games of 2012. Why? Because of these three games:
One of the most interesting games of the year, Thatgamecompany’s Journey managed to take top honors as Game of theYear with many different media outlets. And it’s completely well-deserved.
Unique barely describes the experience you’ll have with Journey. It’s not a long game, features no combat, and limits the player to only being able to run, fly, and chirp at other players. There’s no in-game chat, no linking up with your buddies, no screen names over the heads of other characters. It’s completely randomized, and what you do with the people you encounter is entirely up to you.
The whole goal of the game is to reach a mountain in the distance, all while adding length to a rune-covered scarf your traveler wears and traversing Journey‘s varied and vast environments. It’s ultra-linear, but manages to convey a sense of depth to the world that masks the game’s linearity well.
Visuals within the game are highly stylized and striking, relying on dark and light color palettes to convey mood and the world’s overall personality. And of course, the soundtrack demands some attention here, as it is a gorgeous composition central to the entire experience. Austin Wintory coupled beautifully with the gameplay to deliver some truly hard-hitting and interesting moments.
Journey‘s story isn’t one made up of plot points, characterization, and twists. Rather, its minimalist nature allows you to absorb the story as you go, crafting your own narrative based on the experience you have traveling toward the mountain. When I played through the game, my story was one of loyalty, despair, loss, sorrow, and ultimately, hope. It was a compelling and moving experience unlike any other, and by far one of the strongest games of the year.
THE UNFINISHED SWAN
The first game from developer Giant Sparrow, The Unfinished Swan is an indie game that utilizes unique game mechanics to help you navigate its strange and wondrous world.
It begins by telling the story of Monroe, a boy whose mother has passed on, leaving him with nothing but her memory and a collection of paintings she never managed to finish. When he’s taken to the orphanage, Monroe is allowed to take one painting with him to serve as a memento of her. He chooses her favorite; an unfinished painting of a swan.
One night, he awakens to find the swan has gone missing, and a trail of footprints leading to a mysterious door are the only clues he has as to where it’s gone. Following the footsteps, Monroe opens the door and enters.
That’s where the game begins, leaving you on a white screen with just an aiming reticule in the center. After toying with the controller a bit, I learned that hitting any one of the top trigger and bumper buttons made my character throw globs of black paint into the space around him. While lobbing a bit of the paint around, you start to reveal the world around you in a very striking contrast of white and black and the use of negative space to help with your spatial awareness and gauge what direction you’re headed in. At the start, it’s a bit disorienting. But as you go along and start moving through a garden, the world begins to feel much more organic and takes on a visually striking tone.
After the first chapter, you’ll continue to unravel an entire story as you move throughout the rest of the world. Outlines and shapes start to appear, the world fills in, and new mechanics such as growing vines by throwing water or creating platforms in an alternate world are visited throughout the remainder of the game’s short story campaign. It never gets old, because it moves on to new ideas before you get tired of the old ones. The formula works well to create a visually interesting game that engages your mind and forces you to approach things visually from new angles.
But my favorite part of The Unfinished Swan wasn’t necessarily its mechanics or story; it’s the way I felt while playing it. A tranquil, relaxing Minecraft-like soundtrack and striking art style, emphasis on exploration, seeing things in new ways, and learning how mechanics worked through simple trial and error made me feel like a kid again, experiencing everything for the first time and engaging what is essentially a virtual storybook by navigating its environments. Add to that the fact that a very gentle, motherly voice is continually narrating the game as you find new story points throughout the world, and it feels like a playable bedtime story like the ones I heard when I was little. It’s a genuinely moving experience that suggests ideas of love and one’s legacy.
PAPO & YO
Although it didn’t have the most innovative gameplay, Papo & Yo managed to do something unique and different with its story by incorporating ideas of metaphor and raw emotion in the narrative. The main characters, Quico and Monster, are meant to represent the relationship between the game’s creator and his alcoholic father. While Monster is a helpful and mostly peaceful companion to Quico, he can become violent and dangerous when he eats the poisonous frogs he can’t seem to distance himself from. It’s when this happens that Quico has to find a way to avoid being hurt by Monster at all costs.
Putting this in a game not only manages to tell a unique story; it also utilizes the powerful medium of games to put players in a firsthand perspective to really experience the character’s emotions in a firsthand way. Using this idea, the goal is to make the player feel as vulnerable and afraid of Monster as the creator was of his father, all while shedding some light on the sensitive issues of abuse and addiction and their damage on relationships. Papo & Yo was innovative because its goal wasn’t to just make you a witness to emotions; it was to make you experience them. And on that, it succeeded with powerful results.