Delta and the twilight of Xbox Live Indie Games
The unloved platform still hosts some brilliant games, but for how long?
Are you falling or flying? That's the question Delta's left me with. As you race across this tunnel of shifting lights and strobing colours, ducking and collecting and trying to make it as far as possible, are you dropping through space or soaring through it? No matter, really: you're carving space at any rate, lodged firmly in the present and blinking from the spectacle. It's the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey - and yet you can play it. You can play it!
Remember Xbox Live Indie Games, or XBLIG for short? Hermitgames does. This thrilling micro-studio's one of a handful of developers making the Xbox 360's forgotten frontier of game development really sing. These guys have been heroes, nobly chipping away at the future of yesterday.
And what a future! First, Hermitgames gave us Leave Home, a side-scrolling time-limited shooter that let you blast through a perspex winter grotto, arcing your luminous bullets out to the sides and right behind you. Next came QRTH-PHYL: a volumetric Snake, or Blockade if you want to be historically accurate, and historical accuracy seems strangely appropriate here since the whole project is a playfully concealed museum as much as a game.
Delta's the latest treat, and it's the simplest proposition yet. In Delta, you move through the environment in first-person, ducking around the obstacles that present themselves and trying to stay alive as long as possible. The further you get, the more the environment seeks to wrong-foot you, warping colours about so you're unsure where hard surfaces end and open space begins, or even spinning the camera so you have to adjust to that as well as the landscape itself. Finally, you start to realise the game's letting you choose between two routes that are threaded through each other. The first is the path of sheer survival, and the second is trickier and pegged out with glowing triangles that you can collect for fun and profit. Endure or excel? Delta's so finely made that it presents all of this while barely wasting a sentence of explanatory text. It's almost overwhelming in its power, its coherence, its focus.
And that's precisely what's both energising and quietly courageous about the whole thing. For the last few years, Hermitgames has been continuing to take Microsoft at its word, pouring toil and expertise and a desire for perfection into a marketplace that has not been tended as well as it could have been - a marketplace has been shunted to a position that makes it easy to forget about and a mild kind of faff to truly engage with.
The XBLIG devs I've spoken to all say much the same thing, in fact: when it comes to getting your game to the point where people can actually buy it, XBLIG can't be beaten - peer review is swift and reliable, and you don't have to worry about the high-school popularity contest of Steam's Greenlight system. At the same time, what happens when you're actually up there? Things break behind the scenes and Microsoft is slow to fix them, and there's the whistle of wind and tumbleweed to the whole proposition. XBLIG has become a faded palace of games, hidden away on a tab buried in the annoying reworked menus of last-gen hardware.
Still, if you make the effort - and if you can fork your way through the clones, the botches, the unmentionables - you find this: a brilliant jewel of a game that's waiting to dazzle you. A game that takes seconds to download but conjures a stronger sense of physical presence, for all its abstractions, than countless blockbuster FPSes ever manage. (And that costs two pounds.)
Whether you choose to fall or fly through these landscapes isn't really important, then - but do make the effort to seek them out while you can. That's the twist, of course: Delta will be Hermitgames' last title for XBLIG.