With the boom in download gaming and the crossover successes of the likes of Braid and Flower, indie showcases like the Eurogamer Expo's Indie Games Arcade have turned into the games industry equivalent of the Sundance film festival. Just as Hollywood power-players go hunting for edgy young talent to suck dry in Utah, Nintendo's been spotted scouring the likes of IndieCade and the Independent Games Festival for titles to add quantity, quality and a touch of arty credibility to WiiWare.
It's reassuring, then, that all the attention hasn't gone to the heads of the indie community or of show organisers like Pixel-Lab, who put together this year's line-up for the Expo. It was the classic indie mix, in the classic proportions: pretentious puzzle platformers, eye-melting retro throwbacks, cute puzzle games, aesthetic experiments, and contemporary art installations rubbing shoulders with one or two games with mainstream commercial aspirations.
Those in the latter category should be already familiar to you, so I won't spend much time on them here. Darwinia+ is finally heading to Xbox Live Arcade and is but the latest chapter in the long tale of indie champions Introversion.The kamikaze multiplayer Mario Galaxy of Plain Sight from Beatnik Games we previewed back in January, and you can finally expect a release soon.
Hello Games' amazingly slick motorcycle stunt game Joe Danger is something we got wind of more recently. It created the biggest buzz on the Indie Arcade and beyond, with some show-goers naming it their game of the whole Expo. A few minutes at the controls and it wasn't hard to see why; it's a tactile riot, as redolent of classic Nintendo as RedLynx's Trials. But now for the real spirit of independence.
You might know this soothing minimalist strategy game by its former name Dyson, as it was called when Jim fell in love with it at this year's IGF. The perennial darling of the indie scene, by Rudolf Kremers and Alex May, is now on sale from Steam and similar.
It's a perfect example of how independent developers can take an overcooked mainstream genre - in this case, real-time strategy - and not only find an attractive new style for it but reverse-engineer it back to its roots. Growing seedlings from vector trees and sending them in swarms to combat enemies and colonise circular asteroids looks as tastefully refined as Habitat wallpaper, but plays like a primal StarCraft in slow motion.
Squid Yes! Not So Octopus 2: Squid Harder
You could call Bagfull of Wrong's reactionary shmup with the silly name (apparently a Half Man Half Biscuit reference) a twin-stick shooter - if you needed more than one stick to play it. It's Geometry Wars without the restraint or the airs and graces. Your squid fires a broad arc of lasers whichever way it's facing, so you're always heading straight into danger rather than trailing it behind you, and the four levels simply require you to survive the aneurysm-inducing graphics and ZX Spectrum chiptunes for one to four minutes. Special props for the text sound effects: [Loud Missile In Flight] [Bleepy Warning Sound] Download it for free this instant.
And when you've done that, go and play Hayden Scott-Baron's Tumbledrop in your browser. A beautifully simple physics puzzler made out of Early Learning Centre sticker art, the aim is to click away the smiling shapes so the smiling star lands on the ground, and doesn't fall in the sea. It's nice to play a game like this where timing and momentum matter as much as planning and thought.
A side-scrolling action game in the classic 16-bit mould aiming for the console download services, Cletus Clay is all about its visual treatment. Developer Tuna Snax has gone to the trouble of modelling and photographing every object, character and frame of animation in actual clay, giving it the warm and tactile look of a Wallace & Gromit cartoon. The resulting tale of hillbilly-versus-alien-invasion is unlike any videogame you've ever seen. It has to be said that the control precision and collision detection suffer a bit, or feel like they do, and the rate of weapon drops needs tuning, but there's time to fix these things.
And now on to the indie scene's favourite genre: the pixellated puzzle-platformer with a twisted disregard for the works of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. There were two such specimens at the Indie Arcade: the first, Edmund McMillen's Time Kufc, makes Braid look like Wonder Boy. It's a matter of re-ordering gravity, the planes of existence and the letters in a naughty word until you can solve block-and-key puzzles to pass to the next phase of your existential journey through monochrome misery and dislocation. Time Kufc's angsty style is a bit sixth-form ("He's flipping me off through the dimensional rift!"), but in puzzle terms it's a very solid slice of head-messing. Those who like their wits re-ordered should try it at Kongregate.
Terry Cavanagh's cheerfully sadistic VVVVVV is a much more straightforward low-fi nightmare: a platformer which messes with your fingers rather than your mind. The simple story of a crashed spaceship has three buttons: left, right and reverse gravity instead of jump. It's basic, frenetic and difficult - this YouTube video should give you a clear idea.
Super Yum Yum: Baby Rescue
Super Yum Yum has a different point of origin to most Indie Arcade entrants, being the first PC and console work of mobile developers AirPlay, and actually a 3D reworking of its popular mobile series, most recently seen on iPhone. It's essentially a maze puzzle, in which your plump chameleon needs to eat fruit the same colour as its skin to clear paths to stranded baby chameleons and the exit. The tricks is that he changes colour to the match the fruit's leaves. There are satisfying knots to untie here, but some will find the presentation and relentless, cheery music grating.
Is art games?
And finally, a roundup within a roundup: there were four games at the Indie Arcade that used computer game design as a starting point for experiences that were, really, more like interactive art installations than any conventional notions of gaming. Eat these, David Cage. (With apologies to rllmukforum's K.)
My notes on Fig. 8 say simply: "Penny farthing navigating architectural drawings to accordion music." It's beautiful, and actually has an interesting scoring mechanic relating to steering, so this art probably is games. Not sure you can say the same for Starcade, which creator Anna Anthropy describes, quite accurately, as "six glorious trainwrecks". Each one, from Gay Sniper to the capital punishment simulation of The Sentence and two-player role reversal of Space Escapers, has a fairly blunt political point to make via gaming idiom - although the hilarious inverse Pong of Dodge Ball is a great gaming one-liner for its own sake.
Pixel-Lab describes Ergon Logos as "Mario retold through beat poetry, with the final level an existential crisis, possibly faced at the point of death". It is actually a playable poem - you choose the "route" through it by mousing over the branching lines - composed of the stream of consciousness of a platform game hero. Clever, but I preferred Happening Game. This challenged Expo visitors to "find somebody else to play with", "shake hands" and "come back in an hour", and caused much hilarity among the few groups who attempted it seriously. It was a gentle reminder of how silly the goals games set us are - and, more happily, why we all got together in the first place. See you next year!