indie games

The legendary and indescribable Dwarf Fortress goes non-ASCII and non-free for the first time

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Among the growing field of indie games, one truly stands alone: Dwarf Fortress. The unbelievably rich and complex and legendarily user-unfriendly title has been a free staple of awe and frustration for years. But the developers, in a huge shift to the status quo, have announced that the game will not only soon have a paid version on Steam — it’ll have… graphics.

It may be hard for anyone who isn’t already familiar with the game and community to understand how momentous this is. In the decade and a half this game has been in active, continuous development, perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed about the game is that it is a maze for the eyes, a mess of alphanumerics and ASCII-based art approximating barrels, dwarves, goblins, and dozens of kinds of stone.

You know in The Matrix where they show how the world is made up of a bunch of essentially text characters? It’s basically that, except way more confusing. But you get a feel for it after a few years.

So when developers Tarn and Zach Adams announced on their Patreon account that they were planning on ditching the ASCII for actual sprites in a paid premium version of the game to be made available on Steam and indie marketplace minds were blown. Of all the changes Dwarf Fortress has undergone, this is likely the most surprising. Here are a few screenshots compared with the old ASCII graphics:

Not that you couldn’t get graphics in other ways — gamers aren’t that masochistic. There are “tile packs” available in a variety of sizes and styles that any player can apply to the game to make it easier to follow; in fact, the creators of two popular tilesets, Meph and Mike Mayday, were tapped to help make the “official” one, which by the way looks nice. Kitfox Games (maker of the lovely Shrouded Isle) is helping out as well.

There are plenty of other little mods and improvements made by dedicated players. Many of those will likely be ported over to Steam Workshop and made a cinch to install — another bonus for paying players.

Now, I should note that I in no way find this bothersome. I support Tarn and Zach in whatever they choose to do, and at any rate the original ASCII version will always be free. But what does disturb me is the reason they are doing this. As Tarn wrote on Patreon in a rare non-game update:

We don’t talk about this much, but for many years, Zach has been on expensive medication, which has fortunately been covered by his healthcare. It’s a source of constant concern, as the plan has changed a few times and as the political environment has shifted. We have other family health risks, and as we get older, the precariousness of our situation increases; after Zach’s latest cancer scare, we determined that with my healthcare plan’s copay etc., I’d be wiped out if I had to undergo the same procedures. That said, crowdfunding is by far our main source of income and the reason we’re still here. Your support is still crucial, as the Steam release may or may not bring us the added stability we’re seeking now and it’s some months away.

It’s sad as hell to hear that a pair of developers whose game is as well-loved as this, and who are making a modest sum via Patreon can still be frightened of sudden bankruptcy on account of a chronic medical condition.

This isn’t the place for a political debate, but one would hope that the creators of what amounts to a successful small business like this would not have to worry about such things in the richest country in the world.

That said, they seem comfortable with the move to real graphics and the addition of a more traditional income stream, so the community (myself included) will no doubt see the sunny side of this and continue to support the game in its new form.

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Gift Guide: Indie games for players worn out on AAA titles

Posted by | Gaming, gift guide, Gift Guide 2018, indie games, TC | No Comments

2018 has been a big year for big games, and with new titles from the Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises all competing… it’s enough to make a gamer want to just quit and play something a little more low-key. Here are some of the smaller, independent games we liked from this year and who they might appeal to.

Bonus: Many of these can be gotten for less than $30, making them super solid/easy gifts. They aren’t for any particular platform or in any particular order, except that I’ve been playing the heck out of Ashen for the last couple of days, so it’s first.

Ashen – for “Souls” lovers

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

(To be fair, this is less of an “indie” than the others on this list, some of which were made by one person, but it’s just off the beaten path enough to qualify.)

If you’ve ever heard your loved one talk about “builds,” really hard bosses or which helmet completes their outfit best, they probably play games of the Dark Souls type. Ashen is a new action-adventure-RPG in the same vein but with a few notable twists. It has a lovely art style, a streamlined (but still byzantine) progression system and an interesting multiplayer style where other players drop into your game, and you drop into theirs, with no real warning or interaction. It works better than you’d think, and I’ve already had some great experiences with it.

Yoku’s Island Express – for people who like both pinball and Metroidvanias

Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Windows

Don’t be fooled by the cuteness of Yoku’s Island Express. This game is both unique and well-crafted, a fusion of (believe it or not) pinball mechanics and gradual exploration of an enormous map. It’s definitely weird, but it immediately clicks in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a great break from the grim environments of… well, lots of the games on this list.

Dead Cells – for action fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, Linux, macOS

The “roguelike” genre has you traversing procedurally generated variations on a series of levels and progressing farther by improving your own skills — and sometimes getting a couple shiny new weapons or abilities. Dead Cells takes this genre and combines it with incredibly tight side-scrolling action and platforming that never gets, old even when you’re going through the sewers for the 20th time. The developers were very responsive during Early Access; the game was great when I bought it early in the year, and now it’s even better.

Below – for atmosphere fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

In some ways, Below is the opposite of Dead Cells, though they share a bit of DNA. This game, the long-awaited follow-up to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP by Capy, is a slow, dark, tense descent into a mysterious cave; it’s almost totally wordless and shown with a pulled-back perspective that makes things feel both twee and terrifying. The less said about the particulars of the game, the better (the gamer should discover on their own), but it may be fairly noted that this is a title that requires some patience and experimentation — and yes, you’re going to die on a spike trap.

Cultist Simulator – for the curious

Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s very hard to explain Cultist Simulator. It’s an interactive story, different every time, told through cards that you draw and play, and which interact with each other in strange and wonderful ways. One card might be a place, another an action, another a person, all of which can be used, investigated or sacrificed to other cards: ideas, drives, gods… it’s really quite amazing, even if you rarely have any idea what’s happening. But the curious and driven will derive great satisfaction from learning the way this strange, beautifully made machine works.

Return of the Obra Dinn – for the observant (and dedicated)

Available on: macOS, Windows

This game absorbed me completely for a few days earlier this year. Like the above, it’s a bit hard to explain: you’re given the task of determining the identities and fates of the entire crew of the titular ghost ship by using a magic watch to witness their last words and the moment of their death. That task, and the story it reveals as you accomplish it, grows increasingly disturbing and complex. The beautiful 1-bit art, great music and voice acting, and extremely clever construction make this game — essentially made by one person, Lucas Pope — one of my favorites of the year. But it’s only for people who don’t mind banging their head against things a bit.

Dusk – for connoisseurs of old-school shooters

Available on: Windows, Switch

If your loved one ever talks about the good-old days of Quake, Half-Life, Unreal and other classic shooters, Dusk will be right up their alley. The chunky graphics are straight out of the ’90s, but the game brings a level of self-awareness and fun, not to mention some gameplay improvements, that make it a joy to play.

CrossCode – for anyone who spent more time playing SNES Classic than AAA games this year

Available on: Windows, Linux, macOS

This crowd-funded RPG was long in the making, and it shows. It’s huge! A fusion of SNES and PSX-era pixel art, smooth but furious top-down action à la Secret of Mana, and a whole lot of skills and equipment. I’ve played nearly 20 hours so far and I’m only now starting to fill out the second branch of four skill trees; the overarching story is still just getting rolling. I told you it was huge! But it’s also fabulous.

Celeste – for the dexterous and those not inclined to anger

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, macOS, Windows, Linux

Celeste is one of those games they call “Nintendo Hard,” that elusive combination of difficulty and control that cause you to be more disappointed in yourself than the game when you die. And you will die in Celeste — over and over. Hundreds of times. It gleefully tracks the number of deaths on each set of stages, and you should expect well into three figures. The platforming is that hard — but the game is also that good. Not only is its pixel art style cute and the environments lovingly and carefully crafted, but it tells a touching story and the dialog is actually pretty fun.

Overcooked! 2 –  for friendships strong enough to survive it

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, macOS

Much like the first Overcooked, the sequel has you and your friends attempting to navigate chaotic kitchens, hazards, and each other as you try to put together simple dishes like salads and hamburgers for never-sated patrons. The simple controls belie the emergent complexity of the gameplay, and while it can be frustrating at first, it’s immensely satisfying when you get into the zone and blast through a target number of dishes. But only do it with friends you think you can tolerate screaming and bossing each other around.

Into the Breach – for the tactically minded

Available on: Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux

The follow-up to the addictive starship simulator roguelike Faster Than Light (FTL), Into the Breach is a game of tactics taking place on tiny boards loaded with monsters and mechs — but don’t let the small size fool you. The solutions to these little tableaux require serious thinking as you position, attack, and (hopefully) repel the alien invaders. Matt says it’s “perfect for Switch.”

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Cult classic indie game La-Mulana finally gets a proper sequel

Posted by | Gaming, indie games, retro | No Comments

The sequel to the legendary, and legendarily difficult, indie sleeper hit La-Mulana has finally been released, and all gamers with a penchant for retro-style platforming and a broad masochistic streak are encouraged to descend into its depths.

If there were a gaming achievement hall of fame, surely one of the rarest feats would be beating La-Mulana. The original game was a contemporary of the revered and influential Cave Story; both were wonderful free games made with charming retro pixel art, but beyond that the stories diverged.

While Cave Story was a relatively accessible action-adventure that took seven or eight hours to complete, La-Mulana’s tale of an archaeologist delving into the titular ruin was so deep, complex, obscure and difficult that only the truly dedicated were able to survive even the first few hours, let alone the dozens to come.

The new game goes for a sort of 32-bit look, like the 2012 remake of the original.

This gem, lovingly crafted to closely mimic the look and feel of an MSX game (though enormously expanded), received a screen-for-screen remake for the Nintendo Wii in 2012, but it wasn’t until early 2014 that the original team of three decided to make a whole new game. They raised $266,000 on Kickstarter, with an estimated delivery date of December 2015. That date slipped and slipped, but seemingly because the game they were creating was one worth taking the time to do right.

Fast-forward a few more years and here we are: La-Mulana 2 was released today. It’s substantially the same: a labyrinthine underground ruin to explore, deadly traps and monsters to avoid and maddening puzzles to solve. I’ve played the first couple of hours and from what I can tell it is true to form.

You’ll play as the daughter of the original explorer, who has arrived at the ruins to find them turned into a tourist trap — but soon it becomes clear that a twin ruin, hitherto unexplored, is wreaking havoc on the first one and must be investigated.

If this game is even half the size and depth of the original it will be well worth the $25 price tag — plus you get the warm fuzzy feeling of supporting an indie developer that’s been doing its own weird thing for 15 years or so now. Just don’t expect any hand-holding — this game is the real deal, “Nintendo hard” all the way.

It may not be up everyone’s alley, but I wanted to celebrate La-Mulana and its new sequel. I like to think of small gaming studios as startups, as indeed they are, and a big launch like this deserves recognition. It’s available right now for Windows and macOS — but I’d be surprised if we didn’t see it on Switch at least fairly soon.

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Feast your eyes on these uniquely beautiful indie games from E3

Posted by | e3 2018, Gaming, indie games, Media, TC | No Comments

The AAA games on display at E3 this year have, as usual, an amazing array of beautiful, nearly photorealistic graphics — and while they’re amazing in their own way, I always find it fun to highlight a few games that take a totally different approach to their art. Here are a few that caught my eye this time around.

Sable is a “coming-of-age tale of discovery” set in an open world that you can explore at your own pace. The overall look of the place is rather Journey-esque, but there’s also a shade of Hyper Light Drifter in the environments. Most interesting of all, however, is the visual effect that makes the whole thing look rather like a comic book by Moebius.

The effect is a bit hit or miss — some details can end up warping or looking odd — but overall it’s extremely arresting and definitely set the game apart instantly from its more realistic peers. Hopefully the writing and gameplay live up to its visual style.

Overwhelm is a chunkily pixelated hardcore shooter-platformer with a couple of interesting twists.

First of all, you die in one hit. That’s what makes it hardcore.

Second, you only get 99 bullets per level, and your gun needs to cool down after firing three times.

Third, whenever you beat a boss, it gives a special ability like wall climbing not to you, but to all the enemies.

It reminds me a bit of Abuse, a classic side-scrolling shooter with free mouse aiming and scary aliens. But its art style is far more reminiscent of the excellent Downwell, which itself was modeled on (I believe) the original Game Boy’s four-shade palette. Minit is another recent example of successfully using this ultra-pared-down look.

Noita (Swedish for “witch”) is one I’ve actually been following for a while now. At first glance this looks sort of like a dig-’em-up, à la Terraria, but the visual and gameplay twist is that every pixel is physically simulated. That means everything in the game can be burned, exploded, melted and so on — dirt will fall, fire will spread, water (and acid, and lava) will flow and escape its container.

You also create your own spells as you delve deeper into the procedurally generated caves looking for “unknown mysteries.” Well, that’s a bit redundant, but you get the idea. It looks like a real blast.

Signalis goes retro, but in a much different direction than most others. Instead of recreating the beloved pixel art of the SNES or Saturn, it goes to the less-beloved chunky polygons of the PlayStation era. Think Resident Evil. I’m also reminded of the cutscenes from Another World.

Although it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on from the trailer, I’m definitely digging the look and feel. The control panels, the mix of polygons and hand-drawn backgrounds, the scary, lonely air and threatening atmosphere… right up my alley.

Last is Ooblets, which as far as I can tell is about planting and farming strange little creatures that eventually have some kind of dance-off in the forest.

It can be hard to really express a visual style in 3D, but I love what Ooblets is doing. Everything is delightfully awkward and cute, with a deliberate stiffness to it as well as a clear design. The unshaded polygons, careful lighting and modeling, it all creates a strange but compelling whole. The closest thing that I can think of to it is the Katamari Damacy series.

I realize now, having written this, that I put “uniquely” beautiful in the headline and then cited similar looks or inspirations for all the games. But really, though, they do take inspiration from others, they’re definitely all doing their own thing. (Really, really, though, I just didn’t want to scroll up and change the headline.)

There were plenty more striking games at the show — check your local indie games site to see what others have dug up!

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Indie developers ditch controllers for real-life interactions

Posted by | e3, e3 2016, Gadgets, Gaming, indie games, indiecade, iPad, TC | No Comments

e3_2016-6150122 If there’s one thing E3 was not short of, it was controllers. Thousands of the things! Xbox controllers, Dual Shock controllers, third party controllers, motion controllers. But at Indiecade, an independent games showcase at the show, developers devised a variety of ways to play with no controller at all, making digital games charmingly analog. Read More

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Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson on becoming the “Sub Pop for games”

Posted by | devolver digital, e3, e3 2016, Gadgets, games, Gaming, indie games, TC | No Comments

devolver logo “Doom was made by six dudes in six months. And that’s where we are again — it’s come full circle.” That’s Mike Wilson, the founder of Devolver Digital, a game publisher that’s made a name for itself by finding the smallest and weirdest, yet most promising indie games out there. Read More

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