The 2012 Indie Game Challenge: A glimpse at indie excellence

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They're made to amuse, entertain, enlighten; perhaps disturb. They're made by teams, by teens, by twos. Some are the product of professional developers, slick games with familiar mechanics. Others are cobbled together captures of clay and cardboard, side projects or class work.

The commonality among all of this year's Indie Game Challenge finalists was a love of games and a desire to make something new, unique, and entertaining.

Earlier this month, 10 international teams of game design finalists traveled to Las Vegas for a chance to show off their creations to some of the most noted game developers and publishers in the world. After a week of behind-closed-door meetings and public demonstrations, the DICE (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain) Summit wrapped up with an evening awards show that handed out more than a quarter of a million dollars in prizes.

The $100,000 grand prize went to San Diego-based Eyebrow Interactive and their mind-bending puzzler Closure.

No Closure


In life we make a lot of assumptions. We assume that the world beyond our front door exists even though we can't see it, or that when we close our eyes at night, the universe doesn't blink out with the lights.

But what if existence was defined by perception? It would probably be a pretty great video game.

Closure isn't meant to be the punchline to an epistemology thought experiment or some moving example of Gestalt psychology. But it draws it's ideas from a deep well of philosophical discussion, and its name from a handy trick of the mind that's used in most comics.

Perhaps you've never heard of reification, but you've probably seen it. It's the idea that the mind's eye will fill in the gaps for what the actual eye doesn't see. That illusion of a whole when only a part is seen or described is called "closure" in comics. It's basically letting your mind see something within nothing.

Closure's creators Tyler Glaiel and Jon Schubbe wondered: What if the unseen didn't actually exist?

Closure's high contrast world is seen in the light cast by glowing baubles. You can pick them up and carry them like flashlights. The light they cast falls in a shimmering circle around you. Step outside that light, into the perfect black that fills most of your world and you risk falling indefinitely.

Closure is a game without its namesake. There is no whole absent its perception. What you see is what you get. That basic tenant creates levels of moving landscape viewed in the tight circle of light that surrounds you. As the game expands on that idea, and the number of light sources increase, the complexity of your journey grows.

Jumping from one pool of light to the next isn't a jump over shadows, it's a jump over an endless pit. Moving spotlights create elevators of light and mass. Shadows poke holes in walls and floor.

Schubbe tells Vox Games that the game includes more than 100 levels, spread over three areas and one bonus, "very difficult" section. The game, Glaiel says, will be coming to the PlayStation Network within the next couple of months. (You can already play a very early version of it for free on their website.) Once the PlayStation 3 version ships they'll begin work on a new version for the PC and Mac.

Earlier this month the game won the grand prize at the Indie Game Challenge, standing out among an impressive assortment of games and talented developers.

Not bad for a game that started out as a pet project by two students.

"We worked on it in our free time," Glaiel tells Polygon. "We were a little bit surprised when we won, but we had very high hopes for it.


"I started working on the very, very early prototype of it at the end of 2008. I wanted to do something in black and white. That was the first idea that popped in my head: If you can't see it, it doesn't exist."

The duo accrued a mountain of debt, working on the game for nearly three years and bringing in Chris Rhyne to design the music and sound. Glaiel says they plan to spend that over-sized $100,000 check on paying off their debt and getting the game out the door. Then it's on to their next thing.

"We're definitely going to stay working on smaller games," he says.

The IGC Finalists


A wonderful amalgam of real-time strategy, board game and tower defense designed by BlendoGames' one-man team: Brendon Chung. The game, inspired by an amusement park ride and bad 60s' B-movies, has players trying to stop a zombie plague from overtaking a continent. Players first place defensive and offensive units and a rescue helicopter landing zone around a city map. Players view the carnage and spread of infection as dots overwhelming the city's streets as they activate deployed units, demolitions and traps.


A highly stylized puzzle game that leans on gravity, shadows and light to create inventive landscapes that players have to journey across and figure out. A team of three developed the game over the course of three years. The game is based on, and named after, the concept that the mind will complete an incomplete picture by filling in the blanks. What if, the developers thought, what you could see of a world was all that really existed? The end result is a world destroyed and created by light and darkness.


In Demolition, Inc. players try to destroy a city with the help of an intergalactic demolition worker named Mike, and his flying saucer. Instead of having direct destructive abilities, players need to make due with causing mayhem through exploding cows, weapons that cause cars to skid out of control, and dominoing towers of blocks. The game relies completely on physics to determine how things fall apart and blow up, making the levels infinitely replayable.


What if Tron had a really bitching automobile, and instead of trying to overthrow the mainframe, he spent his nights cruising through the Grid? It would probably be a little bit like Gamer's Choice Award winner Nitronic Rush. In this game, players aren't competing for best time, they're racing to survive the landscape. Fortunately, the car in question has wings, and is equipped with a myriad of boosters so it can hop up and scootch side-to-side on the fly.


In Paradox Shift, players are inspecting the creation of the Grand Canyon Dam to ensure that time-shifting isn't being misused in its creation. This first-person puzzle game allows you to switch between two time periods to find solutions for puzzles -- that wall blocking your way in one world might not be there in the other. Players can also tag objects to move them between periods as well. Developed by a team at the University of Southern California, the early version of the game we played had a fun mix of puzzles and an intriguing story line. Certainly a solid start to a budding project.


Just getting a moment to play Symphonyduring the show was a challenge. Every time we swung by the little round table where the laptop running the game was set up, the area was packed with developers, journalists and other finalist game designers. No wonder;Symphony is the sort of challenging music game that's easy to pick up but hard to stop playing. The game creates thumping shoot-em-up levels based on your personal library of music, shaping weapons, enemies and level design around anything from LMFAO to Janelle Monae.


I had perhaps too much fun hanging out nearThe Bridge waiting to see if gamers new to the M.C.Escher-inspired puzzle game would come to grips with the logic puzzles or just give up. Most people persisted, not because it was an easy thing to do, but because The Bridge is an artful, hand-drawn game that backs up its aesthetic with equally beautiful game design. InThe Bridge players move the world as they move its sole blank-eyed inhabitant to redefine gravity and surroundings.


Point and click adventure games aren't the typical fare of game design challenges. Seemingly, there's not a whole lot of ways to innovate in what is essentially interactive story telling. But Team Dream managed to intrigue not just with a narrative that leans heavily on Cronenberg and Polanski, but in a visual design that is nearly unheard of in games. Every object, every scene in The Dream Machine was minutely crafted by hand out of clay and cardboard, shot and digitized to be placed in this strange, interactive world.


The premise for The Fourth Wall wall seems simple enough: It's a game about screen wrap, the ability to move from one side of the screen to the other simply by walking off screen on the right and on screen on the left. The twist here is that you can freeze the screen, changing how that screen wrap works. It's a slight tweek, but its impact on the platforming of The Fourth Wall is monumental. Of all of the games I played and enjoyed at the Indie Game Challenge this was the only one that made me late to an appointment because I couldn't manage to stop playing it.


The Swapper is a lush ambient puzzler, the sort of game you could get lost in just watching. The rich colors and stark lighting is combined with haunting music and an examination of the human body as object through the use of clones. The game has you creating and destroying clones and then swapping yourself from one empty body to the next to get through the levels. As you work your way through the game, the death count, and clone count, sky rockets.

The Rhythm is Gonna Get Ya. No Really ... Run!



What do you think of Space Invaders, Tempest, Galaga, Ikagura? How about Seikilos epitaph, Adagietto or Starships?

Music as video games, specifically music as shoot-em-ups, has probably been done before, but not to the degree Symphony delivers.

Developed by Empty Clip Studios' Matt Shores and Francois Bertrand, the game plumbs the depths of your music collection to deliver not just a soundtrack, but enemies, weapons, power-ups and a rhythm of play.

The backstory of the game is that a demon is corrupting your music collection and you need to play through each song, taking out the flowing enemies with your spaceship. Every song creates a unique item you can attach to your ship. More importantly though, each song becomes a level formed out of the silence and sound of that particular composition.




So if you happen to have Seikilos epitaph, the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, loaded up on your computer, Symphony will take that ancient Greek song and turn its lilting melody, soaring vocals and rhythmic drumming into a barrage of bullets and screen-filling enemies. Symphony has no problem jumping from a song created 2,000 years ago to a bit of Austrian modernism to something a bit more upbeat like, for instance, Nicki Minaj's Starships.

Symphony doesn't judge your music, but it does turn them into challenging journeys through bullet hell.

The idea, the developers say, was to get players to reexamine and rediscover their music collection. Packed into each song, they say, is a self-contained story built on the music's introduction, build-ups, chorus line and bridges. Each crescendo and climax in the song dynamically creates the same in gameplay.

Right now the game is being developed for the computer, with a tentative release date this summer, but Bertrand says that their studio has always loved cross-platform games.

The Deal


The game's music analysis system, and its ability to turn anything melodic into something infinitely playable, garnered the team a $2,500 technical achievement award at this year's Indie Game Challenge. When the team got up on stage to collect their prize they also found out they had landed a $50,000 publishing deal with GameStop, the long-time sponsors of the indie game contest.

"That whole prize was a big surprise," Bertrand said.

The GameStop PC Digital Download Award was the brainchild of Steve Nix, general manager of digital distribution for the retail chain andformerly of id Software and Ritual Entertainment .

Nix said they wanted to do something more than just sponsor the contest and reward prizes, GameStop wanted to help promote some of the games they were seeing each year.

Winning the award means that Symphony will be featured in the mammoth retailers weekly PC download newsletter, will show up on GameStop's Impulse download store front page, get a story written about the game for the site and even receive in-store marketing on shelves.

While the agreement would include the game being sold through GameStop, with their regular 30 percent cut, it wouldn't preclude the developers from selling the game anywhere else, including places like Valve's Steam, Nix said.


Nix spent his week at DICE meeting with all of the Indie Game Challenge finalists, trying to decide which game should land the new award.

"I wanted to see the games and get hands on with them," he said. "Everyone came in and brought their laptops and I played as much as I could. I also wanted to know as much about the team as possible and what inspired them.

"I was looking for a great game that I thought had something really neat and innovative about it."

While there were a number of games that Nix considered, it was Symphony that won him over.

"It has amazingly tight gameplay and it's just a lot of fun," he said. "There have been other music games out there but I don't think anyone has taken music and combat to this level.

"A person's game levels and experience are only limited by their music library. You could go with really mellow or really intense gameplay depending on what song you put in to play."

Image Credit: The Dream Machine (top), DICE 2012 shots (AIAS)