Let’s Blow off some steam.
In an interview at Casual Connect conference last Friday Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness, shared his thoughts on innovation and progress in the indie scene. It’s fair to say he wasn’t very positive.
According to Blow, indies of recent years haven’t been pushing the boundaries like they once did, have stagnated, and tend toward copying AAA’s rather than producing something original. He stated: “There’s a small number of people who I would say actually do creative stuff, but everybody else is trying to be like a cheap AAA game.”
Blow’s point of view, like anyones, is informed by his background. Being the creator of a notoriously tricky puzzle game and a industry influential platformer gives you the kind of cultural currency that makes statements on industry-wide generalisations kind of expected. But we can think of a plenty of games that prove the opposite of his words.
What can be defined as ‘innovative’ is somewhat subjective, but these indie titles have certainly pushed the boundaries, aesthetically and structurally. If it’s creativity Blow is searching for, this is where he will find it.
Baba is You
Originally the winner of Nordic Game Jam back in 2017, Baba is You has absolutely captured the industry’s imagination. In this word-based puzzler, you write and re-write the rules of the game by moving specific words around in a sentence. Like a kind of crude coding system, the aim of the game becomes the deconstruction of the game itself. It’s the kind of meta, fourth wall breaking mechanic that could only come out of a jam and the best thing about it? It’s genuinely fun, difficult and will 100% make you smile.
Creativity at its ‘Flag-is-Win’ best.
No Mans Sky
No Man’s Sky might have notoriously got off on the wrong foot, but it persists – it’s the game that just won’t quit. There is something profoundly ‘of the moment’ in this game’s approach to development. The game’s frequent updates, which have steadily fulfilled the multiplayer and other promises made to the players at the launch, has kept this world moving well beyond its initial release date.
With more and more games moving toward a ‘games as service’ model, No Man’s Sky is a rather different kettle of fish, continually adding content, but to the players benefit. For a voyage into procedural generation at its most beautiful, you really can’t get any better. This survival game keeps surviving, and it is this commitment to it’s spacey realm that makes it so innovative and exciting.
Okay, Bird Alone isn’t out yet, but it has already made waves at festivals such as A MAZE. Berlin and EGX Rezzed. A fantastic example of what can be done within the structure of a small mobile game, Bird Alone is absolutely brimming with creativity.
The game is intended to be played for a few moments each day, as you chat to a lonely bird about life, death and friendship. Real-time has a real impact on the game, as while the player is away from the bird, it gathers its thoughts, ready for your next conversation. Over time, the bird’s views on life and death evolve and change. It’s like having a portable toucan best mate.
Alongside conversations, the game occasionally tasks you with drawing things for this melancholy bird, and even playing it music by dragging your finger over some melody producing lily-pads. The whole experience is wonderfully arresting. Bird Alone is an exciting innovation in game empathy as much as it is for games on mobile. You’ll fall in love with this bird.
You only have to take one look at Truberbrook to see its innovation. Set in 1960s Germany, Truberbrook is made entirely with hand-crafted models and handmade scenery. The result is Wes Anderson-like aesthetic marvel, taking us straight back to the Wallace and Gromit films made by Aardmann Animations. It looks like it must have been a time consuming process, but it absolutely shows how far art-styles can be pushed.
On their Steam page, developers btf describe their process: “The models are digitized using a technique called photogrammetry and later retopologized. This way we get highly detailed polygon models that blend perfectly with our digital characters. (…)
Every scene gets an individual treatment and is staged with actual physical lighting. This allows us to simulate different hours of the day or weather conditions. Even a change of seasons is possible just by redecorating the set with real tiny little snowflakes, no joke.”
Florence has single-handedly raised the standards and expectations of not just mobile game experiences, but also linear narrative games themselves. The tale follows Florence, a 25 year old bored with her lot. Her world is hum drum, until she meets Krish, a cellist that bring some colour back into her world.
What follows is small interactive puzzles and interactive mechanics that with very few words, beautifully illustrate the highs and lows of a relationship, from start to end. The interactive elements are simple, but narratively powerful in a way that will delight, and bring you to tears. The whole tale is told in around 30 minutes, but the game stays with you for far longer.
Whatever your view on what counts as innovation, these games are a fantastic example of the kind of creativity being showcased in the industry today. You only have to have a quick glance around conferences like A MAZE and EXG Rezzed to see that this boundary pushing is only going to continue with upcoming releases.
Of course, Blow is entitled to his opinion, but with so much promising innovation going on as we write it’s still a little disappointing. But maybe, as with many things, it’s just about looking in the right places, and we can help with that.
Kate has been gaming since she could control a mouse. In addition to having a penchant for indie games, Kate had a World of Warcraft account when she was far too young, and has a weakness for any game with ‘RPG’ in the description.