Nachiket 'therapist' Mhatre, Aug 26, 2011 0355 hrs IST
Gaming at its finest.
Videogames have evolved a great deal over the past two decades. It has gone from a niche meant for geeks, to a mainstream medium that has surpassed the mammoth music and movie industries. Unfortunately, this evolution was fraught with the same demons plaguing all things mass market. This is best explained by drawing parallels with the music industry. Just like artistic creativity was crushed by the mainstream appeal of manufactured bands backed by large music labels, the videogame industry saw dominant publishing houses wrest creative control from the developers.
Big Budgets = No Creativity The result can be termed as the hollywoodisation of videogames. Big budget productions translate into lowered risk appetite, which leaves little scope for innovation. This has led to a glut of games that follow set formulas, stereotypical sequels, and a near-complete sidetracking of gameplay and design for eye candy and other gimmicks. You know there's something wrong with the industry when a groundbreaking concept such as Mirror's Edge falls flat on its face, while formulaic war shooters rake in the billions.
However, creativity can still be found in the form of independent games. The formula is simple: small team + small budget - bullying publisher = increased risk appetite. It's little wonder that these independent games (or indie games) exhibit the most creativity and innovation. Their small budgets may not allow them the decadence of DX11 eye candy and such, but that is a blessing in disguise. It compels developers to employ radical design and gameplay to draw in the crowds instead.
Indie games exhibit clever level design, well-balanced difficulty, and superlative controls that are clearly the fruits of extensive beta testing and fastidious fine tuning. More importantly, they do not dumb anything down for the masses. These games will not mollycoddle you with laboured leniency. That may sound intimidating, but I have seen non-gamers being transformed into to twitch-refined badasses, thanks to these games' steep, yet intuitive learning curve and challenging difficulty.
If your curiosity is stoked enough to dive into this niche, here is the list of must-play indie games:
Machinarium Platform: PC (Windows, Linux, Mac), PS3, Wii, iPad, Android
Machinarium puts you in the shoes of a robot named Josef. The game starts off with Josef emerging from a scrap heap, with his head and most other parts missing. If you didn't clue in on it yet, this is a Point-and-Click (PnC) adventure title, and the very first puzzle involves putting Joseph together. The game, however, cleverly rids the dying PnC genre of its most bemoaned flaw - pixel hunting. It achieves this by allowing Josef to interact with only those objects that are within his reach.
That isn't the only way it ensures intuitive gameplay. At the heart of Machinarium's brilliance is its brilliant puzzle design. The puzzles aren't easy by a long shot, but they are meticulously crafted to fit into the context. This game doesn't shoehorn random puzzles just for the heck of it. Every element has its purpose and fits into the larger scheme of things. Rack your brains hard enough and the logic behind each puzzle will unravel eventually.
Even if you do get stuck, the game allows one cryptic hint per level that gets tougher as you progress. If you're still stumped, you can access a pictorial walkthrough, provided you clear a minigame to unlock it. Yes, a pictorial walkthrough, because the game doesn't use any kind of dialogues or subtitles. The narrative is akin to a silent movie, albeit one with breathtakingly beautiful hand drawn art.
Apart from the brilliant art, Machinarium has a fine soundtrack as well. You can sample some of the New Age tracks released by the developers for free by following this link. When you consider its clever spin to the PnC mechanics, cerebral puzzles, beautiful art design, and a memorable soundtrack, it is no surprise why I consider Machinarium to be the finest PnC adventure game I have played in the last decade.
Super Meat Boy harks back to the golden era of sidescrollers that favoured twitch and design brilliance over eye candy. This platformer chronicles the whimsical quest of a hunk of meat to rescue his beau Bandage Girl from the evil clutches of Dr. Fetus - an aborted foetus floating around in a glass jar replete with a suit.
The paper thin premise is an excuse for 100 odd levels that swell up to over 300 when you consider the alternate harder versions, bonus levels and warp zones. That may sound like a chore, but that isn't the case, thanks to a genius design decision that ensures no level is more than a minute long. That is if you are a mutant super-gamer conceived by splicing together the DNA of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Johnathan 'Fatal1ty' Wendel.
For regular mortals, each level may take anywhere between a few minutes and a couple of hours interspersed with bouts of weeping in a corner in the foetal position. The game may be quite challenging, but it is so by the virtue of great design and not poor controls. On the contrary, the controls are razor sharp. Meat Boy can run at warp speeds, yet stop on a dime. Expect to perform gravity defying stunts, as long as you get the timing right.
It is this level of precision, when combined with a brilliant level design, which delivers a sublime experience that pushes your skills beyond your ken. The challenges may seem daunting at first, but with every passing level, you'll be amazed at your exponential rise in skill - something that isn't possible with the current breed of games that encourage you to pussyfoot every move. Here's the shocker: all of this is achieved with a control scheme employing just four keys. What's more, even the music has tonnes of djent. This game is tough but fair, and that delivers a sense of achievement far greater than any modern game can.