Casual Friday: Indie Gaming Goes Mainstream

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There's this little game, Portal--maybe you've heard of it. Part of the critically acclaimed Orange Box that came out late last year, Portal sprang from the minds of recent college grads whose only previous game-authoring credit was a student project called Narbacular Drop. And what about Flow, the hypnotic game that's an obvious inspiration for the cellular stage in Spore? (How do you like that--two free game links in the first paragraph!).

The next time you're in a store, take a good, long look at the video-game shelves. Many of the odd titles that catch your eye (the ones that don't feature some supermuscular space marine or mustachioed handyman) can be traced back to the indie community. Some of those great original games have been online for a while, where they served as models for subsequent retail releases. And this week I'll give you a quick tour of a handful of freebies that are the inspirations for--or good, quick alternatives to--some great retail games coming out now.

Little Big Planet (and Knytt Stories)

User-created content has been around since the early days of computer gaming. But it keeps looking better and getting easier (no programming degree required). Take the DIY game, Little Big Planet, which hits the PlayStation 3 on October 21. Gamers are buzzing about its customizable characters and capabilities for designing additional levels. Not familiar with LBP? Check out this video of how the game works. In a word: amazing.

Stay tuned. PC World's Game On editor, Matt Peckham, will have plenty to say about Little Big Planet soon--and maybe we can guilt him into creating some levels to share with the public.

Can't wait? A decidedly lower-fidelity experience is Knytt Stories, created by Nicklas Nygren (aka Nifflas). Essentially, it's a tidy little running-jumping puzzle game and a level designer, all in one. You can't build your own levels as painlessly as with LBP, but you always have the option of downloading other players' work. And best of all, Knytt Stories is completely free.

Lock's Quest (and Desktop Tower Defense)

Lock's Quest for the Nintendo DS
An innovative title called Lock's Quest has been released recently for the Nintendo DS. In the game, you build up your defenses to repel attacks from marauding robots. This entails running around like a madman to swat at enemies or place traps, and then racing back to base to keep structures intact. It's a blast to play--but is anyone else getting a strange sense of déjà vu? It sure sounds a lot like PixelJunk's Monsters, which arrived for the PS3 earlier this year. Of course, the idea of base-building and -defending has been around for quite a while. One popular predecessor is the Flash game Desktop Tower Defense. It isn't nearly as action-heavy as Lock's Quest, but you're much more likely to get away with playing it on a lunch break. (Whipping out your DS is a little more of a giveaway that business productivity is on hold.)

Line Rider 2 (and Line Rider)

You have to love success stories like the tale of Line Rider. Slovenian university student Boštjan Cadez created this Web toy in late 2006. A silly time-waster about a stick figure on a sled who shoots down user-created lines, it quickly became a cult hit. According to the site, more than 11,000 shared videos from Line Rider populate YouTube. Like this one.

And now, it's a full-fledged game coming to the PC, iPhone, Nintendo Wii, and DS. Of these, the DS version is probably the most logical one to buy, if only because you use the touch screen to draw lines and solve puzzles. But by far the coolest features here are the options to design your own levels and to download the work of others. And of course, you can always play the free original that inspired it all (Silverlight required).

De Blob (and, well, De Blob)

Not too bad for a student project, eh? This is the original PC version, but the Wii game is equally gorgeous -- and fun.
Like Line Rider, De Blob began as a student project--in this case, for the Dutch city of Utrecht. According to Joost Van Dongen, the students' task was to "make a game that plays in the station area as it will be ten years from now, so that while playing, the audience is informed about what is going to happen." The result: a beautiful 3D game where you control a big rolling blob that absorbs colors and repaints a colorless world. At first this fun, self-contained game reminded me of Super Mario Sunshine. De Blob went on to win awards and turn heads at U.S. game publisher THQ, which decided to make it into an equally cool (and uniquely gorgeous-looking) game for the Wii. Even after you download and play the original, free version of De Blob, you'll find that the Wii version is a great stand-alone experience. You solve puzzles and try to beat the clock while exploring a colorless world. So go on: Paint the town red...or purple...or green.

Well, my time's up here. Do you know of some indie inspirations that the rest of the world should know about? Enter a comment below!

Until next week...

Senior Writer Darren Gladstone geeks out over gadgets, games, and odd uses for humdrum tech. In other words, he's a nerd--and he's okay with that.

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