Indie-cent Exposure #1

October 19, 2010

The first of my weekly indie games blogs has gone live over at forgetoday.com, and it starts something like this:-

Morning all, come on in. I think there are a couple more seats at the back. No? Well you’ll just have to stand up then, won’t you.

ALRIGHT. This is to be the first entry in what will hopefully become a long-running series, written with the aim of welcoming all and sundry into the weird and wonderful world of indie games. Over the coming weeks I’m going to ask you to make room in your minds for high-kicking rabbits, nuclear holocaust, sentient balls of tar, unseen and unseeing horrors, meditations on regret, massive robots and mountain ranges made up entirely of right-angles.

Without wishing to sound too teacherly, we could probably do with classifying what we mean by an ‘indie developer’. Tell you what: to make up for it I’ll use the wrong pen on the whiteboard so you can sneer at me. My treat.

An independent developer is usually classed as one without any corporate backing whatsoever. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll be looking at devs with small teams; say <20, although teams of one or two are far from uncommon. Technically speaking the most successful independent developers in the world count Valve and Insomniac among their number, but clearly we won’t be discussing the work of those triple-ay-mega-machines here.

Removed from the twin worries of publisher pleasing and having 300 programmer mouths to feed, indie developers tend to enjoy tremendous creative freedom, sacrificing hot dinners for digestive biscuits in the name of ideas-driven gaming.

In recent years, the rise of release platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, Steam and the iPhone have seen an exponential boom in games of this scale; unlike the shelves of Game Station, these platforms make it viable for affecting character studies to compete alongside slight and divertive entertainment. In the latter camp sits Gravity Hook.

I’m beginning with the slight and divertive in an attempt to show that these games don’t occupy an imagined hell of berets and over-large pixels; in fact there’s every chance you’ve played a good indie game or three before. If, like me, you spent your teenage years on a succession of instant messengers, you might even have already come across Gravity Hook, if only as a means to fill the excruciating 30-second gap between typing ‘wt u up 2’ and ‘lol im not doin nethin either lol’.

This brief role was made possible by Gravity Hook’s somewhat cruel level of difficulty, which will see you spending much of your first half an hour with the game exploding repeatedly.

Boom. Stick with it though and you’ll uncover an endlessly tense and entertaining formula. Cast as a man sat at the bottom of a very deep and very secret base, you’re tasked with using your grappling hook to make your way ever higher. You grapple your way between hovering metal orbs, which – if you swing too close – add the dramatic twist of providing the EXPLOSIONS mentioned earlier.

And so a terrifying paradox emerges, in which you must entrust your life to the very machines which mean to destroy you, over and over. Fail to find an appropriate node to catapult you onwards and the titular gravity will step in. In case you’ve missed me surreptitiously linking the game to you twice already, you can play it HERE.

Gravity Hook was developed by Semi Secret Software, better known for tripping-over-your-own-feet simulator Canabalt. Like Gravity Hook, Canabalt has only one core mechanic and only one button to press. The two games also share the common themes of escape, ever-present sci-fi horror and falling to your death like a numpty.

Canabalt takes an old and arguably rubbish gameplay idea – that of jumping over and under increasingly difficult obstacles without the ability to stop – and makes it compelling through some simple scene-setting devices.

Set to an urban backdrop of War of the Worlds-style alien invasion, the game has you tumbling head-first through windows and over rooftops to avoid vapourisation. I usually don’t avoid vapourisation.

The magic here is in the incidental detail; as you run, disturbed birds take flight, freshly-broken glass scatters in all directions and alien pods crash screeching into the concrete metres in front of you. Other nice contrasting touches include the slightly-ruffled suit your character sports and the silhouettes of huge stomping mechs behind. The end result had me whimpering like Cheryl Cole at an Under-18s Cute Cheeks Convention.

If you’re particularly quick-witted you will have noticed that neither of these games seem to be on the popular platforms I alluded to earlier, instead running in browser-based engine Flash. Actually that omission was for your own benefit, to save you from having to consume so many exciting facts at once. Here’s the whole truth: an increasingly important factor in the recent development of indie games has been the appearance of more powerful, more accessible web browser-based tools. Plenty of devs are currently losing their minds over Unity 3D, which seems to do pretty things pretty quickly and positively drips with potential. Are you handling that truth capably? I hope so.

You can stop looking so damn smug anyway, as Canabalt made its name as an iPhone hit and Gravity Hook recently had an Apple-flavoured ‘HD’ makeover.

Gravity Hook HD’s upgraded features cover just about everything, ranging from shiny new nodes right up to a suddenly gorgeous multi-layered industrial version of the original soundtrack. Sensibly, a cut to the game’s overall difficulty comes with the inclusion of lovely safe green non-exploding orbs, your only true friends in the world.

Only one real concession is made in the move from mouse to greasy-finger control: the loss of the ability to disconnect yourself from nodes entirely and fly free for a couple of seconds. Whilst I miss the occasional moments of “LOOK-MUM-NO-HANDS!”, the change is so miniscule you probably wouldn’t have even noticed, had I not whinged about it just now. The otherwise comprehensive new version also takes the time to respect its elders, unlocking ‘Classic Mode’ once you reach 500 metres. Aww.

You can play it right here inside a pretend iPhone, if you like that kind of self-deception.

And that’s it! Make sure you return this time next week for more screenshots of me dying, in a less exposition-heavy version of INDIE-CENT EXPOSURE.

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