Having played most of the Seumas McNally Grand Finalists for the Independent Games Festival next month, I really don't envy the judges. Entirely smitten by what I played of World of Goo, I presumed it was a shoe-in. Then Walker let me have a crack of the code of Crayon Physics Deluxe which is plain magical, and technically an enormous leap on from what I'd played in the freely available early prototypes. Finally, with Jim acting as a facilitator, I found myself introducing Audiosurf to my MP3 library. They may be getting married. It's technically and conceptually a tour de force. Any one would be a worthy winner.
And they're not even the complete list, just the ones whose creators decided that - Yes! - responding to e-mails is a goods thing to do. In Hammerfall's case, this is particularly odd, as there's code freely available online. It's a Russian entrant, and a startling-looking (it's understandably nominated for the Excellence in Visual Arts too) physics-lead combat-heavy action game.
You're positioned as the pilot of a steampunk-fantasy flying machine, to which are attached a variety of weapons. Controlled completely by the mouse, the weapon swings depending on your direction and its own momentum. Much of the game is about keeping whatever implement of hurtage you're equipped with spinning in a way which collides with anyone trying to get close enough, as well as darting in and out appropriately. It's actually what you'd imagine fighting with a flail would be like, the art being timing and rhythm.
Much like the other finalists, its based on a relatively simple mechanic, which you can easily see spinning out into a full game - perhaps the reservation being is that it's both a less immediately compelling mechanic than its competitors and - at least in what's released - lacks the really intricate understanding of design of World of Goo or the sense of wonder of Crayon Physics Deluxe. Interesting, but I'd put this as the outsider in the competition.
Which leaves Noitu Love 2: Devolution as the dark horse. It's a sequel to the freely available Noitu Love, which mixes a hyper-cute graphics style (the creator is a veteran GBA developer) with scrolling action and punching.
For 2, however, all we really have to go on is the publicly available video which displays the first impressive boss fight. You may wonder whether this is a beauty over essentials, until you realise that the game's doing some quietly innovative things. It's actually fully mouse-driven, and by watching the cursor you can see that it's actually going to play quite unlike anything on a standard controller.
There's more to the IGF than the Grand Prize, of course, and even the most cursory scan down the shortlist reveals fascinating looking games in the more specialised awards too.
For example, take Excellence in Audio. Alongside Audiosurf, we have a game like OokiBloks. I've actually been playing the latter, since the developers Studio Work 3 let me have a look at the early code. It's an incredibly slick single-screen platform/puzzle game "thing" which brought to mind Parasol Stars and Bubble Bobble even before the developers mentioned them. As seen in the video, its appearance in the category is due to how its interlinking all your successes and failures into the perky post-Betty-Boo soundtrack. Which is neat.
Alongside that, we have Clean Asia!, which also turns up in the visual category, and has already won the autofire 2k7 award from SHMUP-DEV. It's one of the more elegant contemporary free shooters, and you can go get a copy from Cactus' website. Rounding off the category, we have Cinammon Beats, which is an enigmatic looking rhythm-puzzle game, which - from its available video - appears to be based around creating your own beats with a load of physics balls.
That it doesn't appear in the Design Innovation Award category says much about the quality again... though another traveller from the Excellence in Audio manages to do just do just that (which proves, if nothing else, that I was lying when I said "Rounding out the category" in the last paragraph). That would be Fret Nice, which has a full demo version you can download. Its innovation is really simple to describe - you take a platform game, and use a Guitar controller. You have to applaud.
Similarly conceptually inspired is Fez, who is a 2D platform game character who discovers the world is actually 3D. Watch the trailer for the full incredibly cute existential horror to unfold. Also in the design category is Battleships Forever - also available to play right now - which takes the aesthetics of classic shooter Warning Forever and applies it to a fleet-based space-RTS, with you controlling different fleets of weapon-totting ships. The cutest thing about the design is that you're able to design your own vessels, and then take them out to war to see how they do.
Apart from World of Goo, the other entry in the category is Snapshot Adventures: Secret of Bird Island. Expanding on the concept of Pokmon Snap, you have to take photos of every single bird you can find while simultaneously solving the odd disappearance of your elderly grandfather. No, really. See the demo for more.
As well as the aforementioned Fez, Hammerfall and Clean Asia!!, the Excellence in Visual Art cateogry features Synaesthete and The Path. The former is Digipen's baby, riffing off the Rez rhyhm/arcade shooter category, except instead of following on from Space Harrier it builds a retro fantasia-visual style on top of an isometric shooter. It's available for your pleasure online. The Path, meanwhile, is a beautiful and warped forest-set survival-horror game, based heavily on the timbre of the old-versions of Little Red Riding Hood. Which didn't exactly end well. The Path looks like it's about as Goth as my old record collection, but does it with style. Unlike my old dress sense.
Finally, in terms of the general categories (there are also the student and web-game awards) there's Technical Excellence. Sitting next to Audiosurf and World of Goo, there's Axiom: Overdrive, Gumboy Tournament and (er) Goo! It's a different Goo!, however - this one is a fluid-combat game, with you playing a Goo, trying to engulf and consume your foes - think Pac-man with eukaryotes. There's a public beta available. Gumboy Tournament is the sequel to Gumboy - Crazy Adventures (which won Gametunnel's game of the year award back in 2006), adding multiplayer to the mix. Axiom: Overdrive is a physics-based action/puzzle game, which seems to be expanding on the possibilities of cave-based games like Thrust, except with modern physics. And you have to approve of any developer who makes papercraft templates for you to download, cut out and assemble. I'd have given them a technical award just for that, frankly.
We'll know the winners on 20th February. We wish them all luck.