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Indie | Isolation

By Fraser McMillan

lunnyeThis year, I’ve noticed a few trends in indie games as a whole.

The stereotype of the short, shoegazing platformer backed by a minimalist piano tinkle is not entirely inaccurate, and there’s a surprising degree of thematic overlap between some of the scene’s most prominent releases. One of the more apparent is an overtone of loneliness or isolation, manifest in – oddly enough – short, shoegazing platformers backed by a minimalist piano tinkle.

Three recent indie releases have been party to this, each striking in its own way and distinct in many other areas. This shared theme is something that’s difficult to find among mainstream fodder, even less widespread now than it was ten years ago and arguably not so comprehensively realised since Super Metroid. I’ve written about two of the three before: Glum Buster and Blueberry Garden. The third is Lunnye Devitsy, a game conceived and released in two weeks by tiny British studio Boss Baddie to celebrate, if belatedly, the 40th anniversary of the moon landings.

//Guess who’s back
Blueberry Garden, winner of this year’s IGF Grand Prize, is arguably the least ambitious of the lot. Its win may have been a double-edged sword; despite gaining a bit of exposure from the wider games press, many critics and users alike didn’t quite “get it”. A real shame, because taken as it is – a tight, finely tuned and quietly experimental adventure – it’s an absolute joy. It explores loneliness, but to a lesser extent than the others. The game world is dotted with smaller creatures, and because of its size one or two playthroughs will reveal all it has to offer. It’s not something to get lost in, but the feeling of exclusion is certainly present.

Glum Buster is distinctly more rule-based than the others. It’s rigidly linear, with a set way to solve each puzzle and a path of progress that can’t be deviated from. That said, it provided a similar sensation to that which Braid offered last year – solutions to each problem arrive organically and encourage experimentation with mechanics without ever descending into fruitless trial and error. Once the game’s logic has planted its seed in the mind, answers arrive far more readily.

Isolation is at the forefront of Glum Buster’s numerous themes. Every visual and auditory element is engineered to seem haunting and almost spectral. The actions that the player can perform have a certain style to them and this contributes to the general mood, with the enemy of glum – a dark supernatural substance – consuming most life forms in the world. The experience contains long sections without any contact with another sentient being, and CosMind strives to create an atmosphere of loneliness. When I was perched atop a rocky knoll, the background white and scenery a striking black, the wind howling in my ears, I realised that I had never felt so dreadfully segregated from the rest of existence as I did there and then.

//So ronery…
lunnye2Such sentiments are those that many have decided, without any real qualification, are impossible in video games. Unfortunately for them, another recent indie game has evoked that gut-wrenching sensation of being lost. Lunnye Devitsy is much more similar to Blueberry Garden in mechanics, with the same basic Metroidvania-in-miniature structure and platform gameplay. Devitsy is larger and more freeform, with upgrades to abilities available but not essential and six routes to the moon. Each is linear in set-up but non-linear in order, usually involving the collection of various items and discovery of new moves and areas. The map itself is huge, the visuals silhouetting the player character against his background. While environments can be a little too geometric and inconsistent in texture for their own good, the use of colour and beautiful lighting offset this many times over.

It’s a strange, ethereal place. Though there are a few NPCs, the only interaction comes in the form of small thought bubbles expressing their feelings or providing a clue to a nearby puzzle’s solution. Lunnye is about exploration, and the inability to get around without going off on several tangents – usually leading to a comprehensive loss of direction – sets in without much verbosity. Having no set direction or order of objectives contributes magnificently to the uncomfortably excluded feelings, which are in turn complemented by the bare-bones, but disproportionately effective, soundtrack. Lunnye Devitsy is an icy and depressing experience, combining genuinely exciting exploratory platforming with a crushing lack of purpose; it works an absolute treat. That the player character is invincible only serves to strengthen the already cast-iron sensation of being trapped and unable to escape in a situation where that ideal, the greener grass, is so achingly close.

Few other games have dealt with the theme, but these indie projects are able to do so because they’re unrestrained by profiteering marketers and, to revert to appropriate modern vernacular, the general bullshit the mainstream industry’s creatives have to put up with. At this week’s Edinburgh Interactive Festival, Eidos’ Ian Livingstone told me that there’s sometimes a “conflict of interests between innovators and investors.”  Though it was little more than a cursory comment, I feel compelled by these three shining examples of modern gaming to stand up for those poor innovators. Indie can do entertainment, indie can do originality and most importantly indie can do emotion in a way that the rest of the development community simply cannot. Thematic identity is a very important element of the scene – long may it continue.

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