Think of the Independent Games Festival as "Sundance for video games." Think of "indie games" as a bit like the short films they show at the Sundance festival, i.e. brief, tasty, even intellectually stimulating alternatives to the latest publishing blockbusters with retina-scorching visuals but a fast-food template-tastic design aesthetic.
Sometimes the best games come in small packages, and that's certainly the case with this sterling inventory of IGF 2007 winners and IGF 2008 finalists, plus a few notable extras to round out our list of award-winning independent games you can't miss.
Remember that scene in the 1983 movie WarGames where Joshua, the creepily insouciant military computer program, was instructed to play itself? The screen exploded with dazzling two-dimensional salvos as Joshua calculated hundreds of nuclear scenarios, from predictable "US/USSR first strikes" to outre stuff like "Thai subversion" and "Gabon takeover." The world dissolved a hundred times in blossoming blotches of light, and all you could think was: where can I play that?
Thanks to Britain-based indie developer Introversion, you can play apocalyptic war games on your home PC? DEFCON isn't an official movie tie-in, but it might as well be. It's a real-time strategy game from the folks responsible for the IGF 2006 award-winning Darwinia, which renders the world in the same dehumanized 1980s vector graphics you'll recognize from the film's ominous NORAD war room screens.
Command a range of conventional and nuclear weaponry, which you deploy in stages as the clock ticks down from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1, at which point the nuclear gloves come off. You can challenge the computer or go nose-cone-to-nose-cone with up to six players online, but as for winning, let's just say the player who loses least, loses best. And make no mistake...everybody loses.
Download DEFCON (Price: $19.50; Feature-limited demo)
Asteroids is dead, long live Asteroids! Which if you add a dash of tactical finesse in the guise of hull points, turning speed, and then build all the ships from individually assembled pieces, pretty much sums up IGF 2008 finalist Battleships Forever.
First you build your ship. It can be a battleship, a destroyer, or other naval craft. Once constructed, you can launch missions to protect civilian ships, space stations and more from roaming pirate marauders. Or you can try out skirmish mode and do a little marauding yourself.
Battleships Forever may look a little retro in the graphics department, but it's all part of the nostalgia, lovingly coupled to a real-time tactical aesthetic which turns brittle-looking ships into durable composites made of interlocking pieces. You can even draw custom force fields around some, or fiddle the deflectors on others to make individual sections invulnerable to fire. Winning comes down to harmonizing those abilities with tactical placement and facing. And when you've mastered all that, you can design your own battles in sandbox mode, or draft custom ships with the bundled ShipMaker tool.
Download Battleships Forever (Freeware)
Everyone wants to be an aquatic worm-creature under the sea, lazily chewing on microorganisms and evolving into something completely different, don't they? Grab a copy of flOw and get transformed.
Playing this weirdly hypnotic game is as easy as moving your mouse pointer in the desired direction and clicking to speed up or slow down. As ethereal music chimes in the background, you aim at targets that look like tadpoles and other odd undersea creatures, wrap your mandibles around them, and voila -- you "evolve."
As you creature changes, it gets larger and more complex, a process you can speed up by targeting specific organisms -- you are what you eat. Swimming up translates as "zooming out," while swimming down zooms to deeper and ominously darker planes. In those depths, you'll eventually encounter hostile organisms composed of multiple glowing dots, which must be fully consumed to convert your enemies into benign and edible particulate.
How do you beat it? That's not really the point, but if you manage to swim to the ocean bottom and defeat the final enemy, you'll float to the surface and be reborn a jellyfish-creature, at which point you can run the entire gauntlet again.
Download flOw (Freeware)
Eschalon: Book One
Remember Ultima? Tile-built worlds? Isometric view angles? Turn-based combat? Having the option to abandon your computer at will without hitting pause to prevent holy pandemonium from breaking loose?
Miss that? If so, you'll want to give Eschalon: Book One a try. It's a role-playing game (RPG) done up old-style, but rendered in clean, high-res lines and inviting hues that make it visually superior to most of its bygone predecessors. Like stats? It's got 'em. Loot? Scattered everywhere. Pick a class, a name, your attributes, and you're off to wrestle with oodles of enemies, plot twists, and your own missing memories.
Eschalon's world may not quite be Ultima-sized, but it's big enough, with a story that doesn't hold your hand or force you to tackle missions single-file. Give it a look if you miss this sort of thing, and know that it's called "book one" because it's the first in a planned trilogy. Plenty more to come, in other words. And why not? Like bell bottoms, sideburns, and platform shoes, there's no reason old school RPGs like this can't make a comeback.
Download Eschalon: Book One (Price: $27.95; Scope-limited demo)