(The joy of Hokra, as played at IndieCade 2011. Photo by Elliot Trinidad)
I lived a nomadic lifestyle this year, splitting my time between Copenhagen, Princeton, Montreal, and San Francisco. As a result, I didn’t have regular access to game consoles or the presence of mind to play through longer games.
But I did have my trusty laptop with me! And my iPod. Also, I attended a number of indie games festivals, where I was lucky enough to try a number of games by some of the world’s most talented indie developers. All in all, I had the opportunity to play a number of delightfully innovative “smaller” games, some of them still unreleased.
Thinking back over my year in games, here’s a list of my own favorite titles of 2011. I don’t purport this list to be any kind of definitive “best of,” but I do promise you that all these games are wonderfully compelling. They deserve your attention!
Before I begin, I’d like to mention that I intentionally excluded Where is my Heart? from the list. I didn’t work on that game myself, but I do co-own Die Gute Fabrik, so it seemed like poor form to feature it on my list. That said, I was deeply moved by the game, and I’m very proud of Bernie, Nils, Alessandro, and the rest of the team. I urge you all to check it out!
(Full disclosure: I am friends with a number of the developers mentioned below).
Now, onwards to my Favorite Games of 2011…
Based on the sheer amount of time I’ve spent playing it, Scoundrel is my own personal Game of the Year. Though it’s simple and unassuming, I believe that the game is downright important.
Here’s the idea: imagine if Solitaire was actually fun. That’s Scoundrel! It’s a rogue-like dungeon crawler, played with a deck of traditional playing cards. The game was originally designed by Zach and Kurt, and the two of them are now developing an iOS version with graphics by indie game stalwart Adam Saltsman. Ace.
I had the opportunity to alpha-test the game soon after its conception, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve also been playtesting the iOS version of the game and, no joke, I’ve played it about 2000 times (each session only lasts a few minutes). It’s been my go-to game for filling downtime, like when I’m waiting in line. Like Drop7 before it, Scoundrel keeps my mind occupied in a satisfying and rewarding way. But even more so than Drop7, Scoundrel features a staggering amount of strategic depth.
The iOS version is particularly nice because it saves you the trouble of shuffling the deck and tallying your score. It also a Time Attack mode, among other features.
Seriously folks, watch for Scoundrel. It’s a winner.
I’ve written about GIRP before, here. Suffice to say, it’s one of the funniest and most satisfying physics-based games ever made. Hell, I liked it so much that it inspired me to make Mega-GIRP, a physical installation piece based on the game.
Um, and the game is also free, so you should probably go try it now.
Best known for his slapstick flash game QWOP, Bennett has established himself as the master of comedy qua sports games. Between GIRP and his excellent two-player game Pole Riders, 2011 has been an especially strong year for Bennett. He’s become one of my very favorite game designers. And like me, he’s secretly an academic by training. Inspiring!
Imagine if you took Boards of Canada and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and mashed the two of them up into one indie game. You’d get Proteus. It’s an exploration “game” that’s low on explicit goals, but rich on audiovisual charm. Set on an island, the game features stylized lo-fi visuals that are perfectly complemented by David Kanaga’s darkly nostalgic soundscapes (it won an IndieCade award for Best Sound, and rightly so!)
Over just the previous year, the game has progressed in leaps and bounds. If you’ve only tried the public beta that Ed posted earlier this year… well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Without exaggeration, Proteus is one of the most genuinely moving games I’ve ever experienced. Like Boards of Canada, Proteus mixes nostalgia, whimsy, and wonder into one hell of an emotional cocktail. Don’t just take my word for it – make sure to check out this excellent Electron Dance preview of the game.
I can’t wait for the final release! Highest possible recommendation.
4. Hokra (unreleased), by Ramiro Corbetta
Like Scoundrel, the game is simple and unassuming, but important. I write “important” because the game, just like the best co-located multiplayer games of yore, excels at bringing people together in joyous competition. Yes, joyous – I got to see the tournament action first-hand at Prince of Arcade this year. Hokra reminds us that sports games, though often overlooked by indie developers, have a lot to offer us.
Ramiro is still figuring out how best to release the game. Here’s hoping the rest of you get to try it soon! Massive recommendation.
Early this year, Nifflas finally released his much-anticipated NightSky. Nifflas, the man behind such indie classics as Knytt and Within a Deep Forest, is renown for both the challenges he designs and for the atmospheric worlds he builds. NightSky is no exception, and may indeed be one of his very best games.
The physics-based gameplay is superbly tuned, and the world design meshes perfectly with Chris Schlarb’s sombre yet beautiful soundtrack. I particularly like the quirky “vehicles” that you get to pilot throughout the game. For more reading, I recommend this Auntie Pixelante post about the use of “denouement” in the game.
Here at Die Gute Fabrik we’re huge fans of Nifflas’ work. For us, it’s no surprise that NightSky is one of the best-crafted games of 2011.
6. Six, by Wade Clarke
Six is a lovely piece of interactive fiction qua text-based puzzle game. It won 2nd place in the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition.
In Six, you control a pair of twin girls, Harriet and Demi, who are celebrating their sixth birthday at the local park. In the first “campaign” you play as Harriet. Your task is to play Tag (or as they say in Australia, “Tip”) with your motley crew of friends. Each friend provides a unique and different puzzle, in that you have to figure out how to trap and catch them. When you beat the first campaign, you get to play as Demi in a more difficult campaign, with the same friends/personalities but with a different set of puzzles.
This kind of game could easily have been cheesy, but game author Clarke handles the narrative setting with admirable humor, subtlety, and restraint. I very much enjoyed seeing the world through the eyes of a six-year old – or rather, through the eyes of an adult trying to reconstruct/remember what such a worldview feels like. On this point, Clarke’s masterstroke is the inclusion of the second campaign. Demi sees the world slightly differently than Harriet does, and those small little discrepancies go a long way in accentuating the poignancy of the whole experience.
Surely, one of the most charming games of 2011! Interactive fiction deserves more attention from the gaming community, and Six stands as a perfect example of why.
You’ve all probably heard of Bastion already, so I won’t write much here. Even if the Secret of Mana inspired gameplay isn’t quite your cup of tea, the game is worth a try, if only for the audio design and the story. In particular, I was tremendously impressed by the spoken narration that provides a kind of color commentary throughout the game. It’s inspiring to see such a small team make such smart use of voice-over acting. Bravo!
8. Ascension (iOS version), by Playdek
Ascension is a card game heavily based on the popular game Dominion. Over the course of the game, you slowly build your deck and try to amass victory points. My game designer friends and I have been spending a lot of time playing the iOS version, mostly asynchronously. Typically, I’ll have six or seven games running at any given time.
Truth be told, I’m not even convinced that Ascension is that strong a game “system” in itself. Compared to Dominion and other derivatives like David Sirlin’s Puzzle Strike (highly recommended!), I’m not sure Ascension is quite as “rich.” But what the iOS version of Ascension gets so right is that it makes it such a breeze to play with friends over Game Center. Ascension is the game that sold me on asynchronous multiplayer on iOS.
My main gripe is that the game still doesn’t support in-game chat (Playdek could learn a thing or two from the excellent Carcassonne app). In addition, the visual art doesn’t do much for me. That said, I have so thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Ascension this year (shout-outs to my sparring partners Nick, Andy, and Paul). Ultimately, those happy memories speak for themselves. Recommended!
Spell Tower is another 2011 iOS game by Zach Gage (one of the guys beyond Scoundrel, as listed above). It’s also his most widely accessible project to date.
The game plays as a mix of Boggle and Tetris. In most of the various game modes, your goal is to use adjacent letters to spell out words. As the round continues, you’re tasked with spelling longer and longer words, and the challenge becomes increasingly difficult. You finally lose when you let the growing tower of letters creep too high.
Yes, word games for iOS are a dime a dozen, but Spell Tower is something special. Zach uses his signature minimalist style to perfect the genre. It just feels right. Unlike most popular word games, Spell Tower isn’t filled with extraneous junk, and it doesn’t make you feel dirty for playing. Yet despite Zach’s “indie” take on the genre, the game is so accessible that I happily gifted it to a bunch of family friends for Christmas. I even got my mother playing it, and I don’t think she’s ever seriously played computer games before. Ace!
10. WAY, by Coco & Co
I don’t want to say too much, because that would spoil the experience. What I will say is that WAY is a two-player co-op game about nonverbal communication. I describe it as an indie, high-concept take on Little Big Planet. My experience playing WAY was genuinely moving – and inspiring! You can play the game online here for free, but you’ll need another person to log-on to join you. It’s worth the wait!