Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: Indie Games Channel

Courtesy of Xbox

When Xbox LIVE launched its most recent update a couple months ago, a friend and I sat on a couch and flipped our way through all the new features—cloud saves, the new interface, voice controls and all the rest. We disagreed about the benefits of some of the changes, but at the end of the day, it was still just Xbox LIVE. It took us about five minutes to reach that mutual conclusion, and we were about to move on with our day.


Then, more or less by accident, stumbling through the unfamiliar interface we came upon a forgotten relic of Microsoft’s online service: the Indie Games Channel. (I feel wrong, somehow, capitalizing all three words in that — given the way Microsoft threw the service into the ether and forgot about it, I hesitate to think that it deserves such dignity.)


My friend hovered his finger over the B button for a moment before quitting back out to the dashboard. As he did, he dismissed the Indie channel as nothing but a repository of shallow garbage. I couldn’t argue, really. He’s not wrong.


That’s a bigger shame than it might sound. Given the massive volume of Xbox LIVE users — about 40 million, at the moment — I’m sure there were plenty of other Joe-gamers pawing through the service’s new features last month, and probably at any other point in time as well. For many of them, I’m sure that the sad, derelict Indie Games Channel is their only exposure to independent game development. It makes a less-than-stellar case for the value of independent game development. Add in the occasional Facebook or Flash game, and the average consumer probably has the implicit, ingrained impression that indie games are junk.


I can see why they might assume as much. But oh, how very wrong they are.


In coming to the defense of indie games, I wasn’t entirely sure where to begin. Without actually sitting down and playing through some games with my readers, it’s about as difficult as explaining the distinguishing features of Cubism to someone who’s never heard of Pablo Picasso.

Courtesy of Xbox

In lieu of that, perhaps the best approach is to take some specific examples and illustrate, if I can, the outstanding features of each. There are inevitably going to be a dozen terrible indie games for every brilliant one, but here are five ways, at least, that small-time development can rise above the din.


Bringing people together — Minecraft

Let’s start out with a bang (and perhaps the only game on this list that most people have heard of). Minecraft, besides being the most successful independent game of all time, has fostered an enormous and tight-knit community by granting users incredible freedom to create and share their own worlds, which are essentially made of simple, Lego-like blocks. Even when playing alone, though, the game thrives on a blend accessibility, depth and intricacy — if people didn’t come together to figure out how the hell the game even works, we’d all still be fending off creepers with nothing but sticks. That kind of sparse, unguided design could have destined the game to obscurity, but instead it brought together millions of people to make some legitimately staggering creations.


Sharing one person’s vision — Braid

It’s rare that a game so humble as Braid can create such a cohesive, thought-provoking world. It tells a heavy-handed love story, but paces it perfectly for the gameplay not to be swamped amid exposition. What never left my mind when playing through Braid, though, was that it was essentially created by just one man, all on his own. Like a twisted, dreamy novel, every last bit of Braid represents some facet of Jonathan Blow’s vision for the game — just knowing that added a very real, very compelling reason to soak in every moment of Braid.


Letting you tell the story — Limbo

I’ve always loved games that balance exposition with inspiration, and Limbo may embrace that approach more than any game I’ve ever played. It haunted me with an austere, black-and-white style and chilling images of a child lost in a terrible forest. I was genuinely moved by Limbo, but not because of a story it told, per se — in fact, there’s no dialogue or writing in the entire game. But it still wouldn’t let me take my eyes off the screen, and that made my internal narrative even more stirring.


Nailing something simple — Tiny Wings

Sometimes a game just needs to get one thing right. If you have an iPhone, go download Tiny Wings — still the 14th-best-selling game on iOS even a year after its release — and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve killed far, far too much time with this game, and after all those lost hours, the one word that comes to mind when I think of Tiny Wings is “Zen.” Up and down you go, sliding across tie-dye hills and over the clouds with simple, relaxed taps to the screen. Oh, and I should mention — Tiny Wings was also made by just one dude. Way to go, Andreas Illiger.

Courtesy of Xbox

Proving that a new mechanic works — Bastion

Some indie games don’t have any story; Bastion is the story. The hook here, which I really hope to see in more triple-A games, is dynamic narration. The smooth baritone of the narrator delivers dialogue based specifically on your moment-to-moment actions in the game, which lends a real sense of weight to everything you’re doing. Sarcasm, sorrow, wrath and affection — it’s nice to actually hear some feedback for your actions, especially as it’s happening.


So there you have it. If you want to see what a couple guys — or just one — can do with some computers and spare time, go check out these games. The best part? You could buy them all for less than the cost of a new console game.