The Independent Games Festival awards in 2008 made it seem like the sky was the limit for indie gaming, and so this year's IGF contenders face impossibly high expectations. They are competing with our rather recent recollections of Audiosurf, World of Goo, and Crayon Physics. All brilliant concepts that made fantastic games. How can they hope to match up to that?
Well, by being completely independent. If anything is missing in this latest Grand Prize line-up, it's the obvious contender for commercial success, like Audiosurf or World of Goo, but that doesn't matter. (And should not matter.) What we have here are brave, brilliant experiments. There's a couple of things in the wider IGF that we've already seen plenty of, such as PixelJunk Eden in the technical excellence and audio categories. But what is most intriguing are the five titles nominated for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize itself: Blueberry Garden, CarneyVale Showtime, Dyson, Night Game and Osmos. There is no clear winner, and these five games could not be more diverse. Let's take a look at each one.
We'll stroll into Blueberry Garden first. This is the weirdest and possibly the most wonderful of the five finalists. It's being developed for Xbox Live Arcade, and is a proper bastard to get working in its XNA form. Thankfully my tenacious fiddling brought it to life, and I was treated with a dreamlike, hand-drawn 2D world. The game is being developed by Erik Svendang, and he's been quite happy for it to speak for itself.
In it you control a flying birdman character, who must explore a side-scrolling world which appears to have been drawn by a talented, imaginative child. The game too seems to have an innocent, unexplained quality to it: you start exploring and find that things within the world have unexpected properties. As you explore the landscape you encounter giant random objects: books, pencils, pieces of cheese, and so on. Get close to them and they are teleported with you back to your starting point. These collected objects pile up, creating a tower off which you can jump, and then fly, allowing for further explorations of the weird terrain. What does it all mean? I've really no idea. Blueberry Garden, with its hand-drawn animals and bulbous fruits, is a mystifying experience. But perhaps that's kind of the point. Blueberry Garden could well be this year's winner.
The second game on the list is CarneyVale Showtime. This is a kind of ragdoll acrobatics-meets-Peggle versus pinball, in which you control a magical puppet who intends to be the world's greatest acrobat. The levels are a mixture of centrifugal devices and trampoline-like surfaces off which you can bounce. Performing tricks, hitting particular highs, and then completing the level pushes you forward, and opens up increasingly complex acrobatic puzzles.
While it appears straightforward to start off with, it rapidly becomes clear that it's a highly unusual game, blending action timing with some puzzle-solving elements. (Just how do you get through this level, or that? How do you maximise your points with a convoluted route to the final somersault?) The small amount of balance control you have over your tumbling puppet means the game rewards extended time spent with it, as it's possible to become increasingly skilled over many sessions, manipulating your charge through some serious split-second stunts. CarneyVale Studio is fantastically presented, and possibly the most polished-looking of the games on this Grand Prize list.