Not all games have ten-million-pound budgets. Not all games take five years to make it from conception to completion. Not all games come with a massive marketing spend. Not all games do yearly updates to squeeze coins from their fanbase's pockets. Not all games are something you've played before with slightly shinier graphics and ten times as many polygons in the lead character's nose. Not all games even have boxes. Not all games even want boxes.
It's high time we wrote about some of these games. We'll call them Indie games, because no-one's worked out a better phrase from them yet. Perhaps over the weeks and months to come, we'll hit upon something which rings a little more true. Suggestions appreciated. We're beginning to suspect that they're are a major part of the short-term future of gaming, and we need to have a something a little sexier than "Indie games" to get behind.
These games are selected, pretty much at random, from things which have caught our attention over the last few months. Others will be touched on in later columns, before you tear my head off for not mentioning (for example) the brilliant Mount and Blade yet. Only so much space.
But, basically, these are things you should know about if you care about gaming, and probably don't.
Let's do something about that.
Take WildTangent's FATE, for example, which is seriously being described as a contender for game of the year in certain corners of the Internet. You'll probably consider that wishful thinking and knee-jerk underdog supporting, until you play it and it starts making a hell of a lot more sense. It may lack in grandeur, but it makes up for that in other areas.
This is primarily because FATE is fun. In fact, it's a lot of fun. In fact, it's somewhere between four and seven Funs (Based on the international standard measurement of a Fun, which is currently held in a Swiss bank, guarded by ninjas and down on their luck Hollywood stuntmen).
It's a fantasy/action RPG with cute graphics. The most obvious mainstream reference is Diablo, except with a classless development (so you get to fine-tune your character in any direction you wish). It walks the line between entry-ist and hardcore play, appealing to both in some way. You don't get much harder-core than Nethack, after all, and the randomly-generated dungeon structure of FATE is ripped wholesale from that king of the text-based RPG. And the fact it's so slight and immediate means that anyone with a mouse and a clicking finger can get into it.
It boasts some lovely features too. For example, your character has a pet. If you're deep in the dungeon, trudging back to the town to sell your goods can be a little bit of a chore. However, you can order your trusty animal to go and do it for you. They'll be gone for a while, and return with a pile of cash, allowing you to progress with the dungeon-delving. It's the best obviously-player-friendly addition to an action-RPG since the Mule in Dungeon Siege. And the Mule was - y'know - really funny.
On a similar pet-based note, you're able to fish in pools. While you can get items, you mostly get (perhaps unexpectedly) fish. These can be fed to your cute animal to transform it into another shape for a while, with specialised killing powers. This mixes a delightful gaming mechanic with genuine cute-appeal. It's pretty smart.
But these are details. FATE's all about the fast-paced slashing. And the aforementioned Fun.
A free demo is downloadable (128Mb), which can be unlocked to the full game for $20. You owe it to yourself to at least play its opening. Because it's been a long time since you've smiled, and you really deserve it.
And while we're over at WildTangent's site, it's worth taking a few moments to nod towards another one of their games. Now - while appreciating FATE makes you something of a connoisseur of the independent game world; one who understands both the power of accessibility and the design-roots of Nethack, Zanband and other rogue-like games - this other title marks you out as something very different. Something different with hairy-palms.
It's called Mojomaster. It's entirely free, apart from the bandwidth for its 93Mb download. It's a promotional game for the Axe deodorant (aka Lynx over in the UK); a form of guerrilla marketing designed to encourage that link between spraying yourself with a scent and the constant attention of hot! Hot! HOT! ladies.
It's essentially a Magic: The Gathering-like card-game structure, where you make moves - to reduce your opponent's reticence with regard to the act of sleeping with you - while they play similar cards to make you (oh, I don't know) ejaculate copiously in your trousers or something. In the great beat-'em-up tradition, whoever's energy bar runs out first loses. Each character is divided into one of five elemental-themed groups, with the effectiveness of the card based on its relation to stats and targets. So, for example, playing a physical card works best if it's exactly the same type as the target, while a mental card works at its absolute best when it's played on someone with the complete opposite attribute (presumably to simulate some kind of opposites-attract phenomenon). As a result, the central tactic is working out what attribute your opponent has and then targeting it with apposite attacks. Beat the lady and you unlock more cards and ladies to attract. It's Pokemon's Gotta Catch Them All with a more venereal thrust.
Obviously it's terribly tacky. And obviously it's terribly sexist. And, less obviously, the actual system's intricacies eventually alienate and fail to convince psychologically. For example, while opposites may attract, you can't believe someone talking about how amazing their yacht is going to actually impress someone who braids their own pubic hair. Similarly, due to the formation of the emotional grid, it makes psychological cards twice as effective as physical cards - as, since there's five corners to it, the former's "opposite" bonus means it works best against two emotional states, while the latter's "Same" bonus means it's optimally useful against one.
And, obviously, to actually work out this flaw in the game requires playing it a hell of a lot longer than necessary. And if it distracted us for the best part of a day and a half... well, it'd be dishonest to say that it didn't appeal in some way. Well, it'd be dishonest to say to you that it didn't appeal in some way. When I'm using my own very real flirty moves on another redheaded vegetarian anarcho/socialist punk-rock girl, I'll decry it as horrific.
Because, all evidence to the contrary, I'm not stupid.
If I was to talk games of social interaction with another redheaded vegetarian anarcho/socialist punk-rock girl, I'd be more likely to mention Façade, because Façade is arty, Façade is innovative and Façade is thoroughly adult in a real way rather than RockStar's patented Gotta-kill-a-hooker-today manner. Well - at least it's adult until you start typing obscenities into the input box and giggling.
Façade is best described as a one-act play. You control a character of either sex, visiting an old friend's flat for a dinner party. Reading between the lines, this couple's relationship is in severe trouble, and it's up to you to do what you can to help it. Set in a single apartment, with a graphics engine carefully tweaked to look more akin to an arty Graphic Novel than a traditional game, you're able to move around, investigate, play with objects and (most importantly) converse with the couple by just typing what you want to say.
So much relies on the parser. The game, oddly enough, works best the quieter you are. If you're a hyperactive typist able to knock out a couple-of-hundred-words-a-minute, you'll find yourself interjecting so often it breaks the game and turns conversations into stuttering and uncomfortable silences. That said, if you sit back and watch the strangeness unfold, only saying a few things when you actually would, it holds together in an actually impressive manner. In other words, the more seriously you treat the game, the more seriously it treats you in return. And even the pauses and tense laughter rings true for anyone who's been in these deeply embarrassing situations of a relationship falling apart like an iceberg sliding into tropical seas.
It's not much of a game, but it's interesting. It's a proof-of-concept which barely works. Anyone with a mind for game design will play it and then think about what they could change to make it a more fluid or convincing experience. It's a genuine experimental game in that it's a testbed for the future. The 800Mb download makes it very much for the less casual observer of the form.
There's no quick and easy thrill here. And you know what? That's fine. Not everything has to be a quick and easy thrill. There's room for both FATE and Façade in the world, and it'd be a poorer place without either.
People often ask me what I think the future of games is.
I always tell them: it's everything and anything.