As promised, here is my list! As with last year, I’ve highlighted noteworthy achievements, as opposed to trying to single out favourites (so you will see some that I thought were more interesting than fun). I’ll kick off with what I thought were the year’s overarching themes:
Theme of the year I: march of the small games. Every year has its notable short and/or cheap indie games, such as FTL in 2012, and in 2013 these included Skulls of the Shogun, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Papers: Please, and Gone Home. However, the year also saw a large publisher, Ubisoft, throw its hat into the ring with Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Ubisoft is set to continue this trend with Child of Light, and it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which other publishers follow – especially after Tomb Raider missed Square Enix’s expectations, sparking the latest bout of soul-searching about the future of AAA games.
Theme of the year II: iteration. In 2012, my favourite games (XCOM, Wargame: European Escalation, Analogue: A Hate Story), as well as other notable titles (FTL, Journey) were all quite novel. Even XCOM, while thematically faithful to the 1994 original, was mechanically unique. 2013, though, was more like 2011 in its preponderance of evolutionary rather than revolutionary games, from the big end of town (Assassin’s Creed IV) to the little guys (Dominions 4), plus expansion packs (Civilization V: Brave New World, XCOM: Enemy Within). That said, we’ll see exceptions below.
Science fiction, it is said, is the literature of ideas – a genre about going where nobody has gone before. Its iconic emotion is the “sense of wonder”; its iconic heroes are explorers and scientists. Now an indie game, Tiger Style’s Waking Mars, has distilled that spirit into a remarkable ten-hour package.
I wrote my first impressions of Waking Mars last year; you play an astronaut exploring a cave complex beneath Mars. Each area is home to a certain amount of Martian wildlife, and to progress to the next, you must increase the amount of life – the biomass – above a certain threshold. To do this, you flit about on a 2D, side-scrolling map of the area, planting seeds, tending to the newly grown plants, and collecting their secreted seeds to plant elsewhere or feed to animals. (While the game does look like a platformer, I found this is not the case; it emphasises exploration, not reflexes or timing, and in fact I recommend turning the difficulty down so you can focus on its strengths.)
This is a simple premise, but it’s done wonderfully. Over time, you encounter more, and more varied, species, each with their own ecological niche. There’s the Halid, your workhorse throughout the game: a plant with moderate biomass and the ability to produce a profusion of seeds. There are little scurrying creatures, which reproduce after eating Halid seeds; individually their biomass is trivial, but if you can fill a room with them… There are plants that offer high biomass, but that kill other organisms. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Along the way, you discover more and more species, more and more of the planet’s mysteries, and I wish I could spoil some of these for you – more than once, they made me think, “wow!”
So I’ve had a few days to play around with the current Humble Bundle, Android #4– by way of introduction, this offers Android, PC, and Mac copies of five indie games (Splice, Eufloria, Waking Mars, Crayon Physics Deluxe, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) on a pay-what-you-want basis. Paying more than the average (currently $6.61) will add another six games: Machinarium, Avadon: The Black Fortress, Canabalt, Cogs, Swords & Soldiers HD, and Zen Bound 2.
Of these, I’ve dipped very briefly into Eufloria, Superbrothers, and Machinarium, but I’ve preferred to spend my time with Waking Mars, Crayon Physics (which I’ve owned on Steam for a while), and Swords & Soldiers (both on Android and on Steam). Brief thoughts below…