Think of computer games, and what comes to mind? Call of Duty, Super Mario, or World of Warcraft? These sorts of big studio titles are well-known, but gaming has always had an indie side. Efforts have been made to unite the two: the highly anticipated No Man’s Sky promised to be the first big budget game with an indie aesthetic and endless exploration. However, the mixed reviews reveal the inevitable disappointment that comes with a hype-culture, a world where zealous fans send death threats to journalists for the crime of reporting a delayed release date.
Despite the industry’s problems, I enjoy playing games; I recently did a 24 hour game marathon for charity, and was lucky enough to have some strange titles to choose from, all on my console. Indie gaming has become a popular business, and part of this may be down to consumer boredom with the same old narratives in more mainstream games. It could also come from platforms like Steam Greenlight, where you can tout a game in the hope people will like what they see and vote for it to be made and released. There’s some utter dross out there, too, and more than a little controversy about a lack of quality control; however, there seem to be more games than ever trying to capture the weary audience’s attention or, better yet, a YouTuber looking for something weird to play.
YouTubers have been doing Let’s Play videos for years and increasingly search the fringe for something original. It pays to stand out when surrounded by clones of Uncharted or Fallout. For those unfamiliar with Let’s Plays, the premise is simple: a YouTuber captures footage of them playing a computer game, often with voiceover and on-screen video of their reactions. For the uninitiated, it may sound odd to derive enjoyment from watching someone else play a game, but many tune in for the YouTuber’s entertaining commentary. Don’t knock it: PewDiePie makes quite a good living from his unique style of play, with a reported net worth of $12 million.
If you’re looking for something a little off the beaten track, here are a handful of games which aim to deliver something different, even if that means not being to everyone’s taste…
I could write an entire post about Robert Yang’s games, and perhaps, God-willing, one day I shall. Yang is one of the most interesting creative minds to come out of the games industry in recent years. Whilst at first glance his games seem silly or merely titillating, they often have a deeper meaning. Hurt Me Plenty, for example, may just look like a game where you spank a dude, but it slowly reveals itself to be a thought-provoking take on consent.
Succulent is intended as a parody of ‘homo hop’, and the idea that male gay bodies should all conform to a certain type (toned, white, abs for days). The gameplay is simple: “Castro clone” stands before you, an ice lolly in his mouth. Your job is to move the lolly around as he sucks on it. That’s it. Oh, and then the guy also consumes other… things. Play the game and then check out Yang’s blog for an insight into his thought processes (don’t read before playing as it contains ending spoilers!!!). Succulent is available to download for pay what you want.
One of the most recent releases on this list, Virginia is part of a sub-genre of gaming often referred to as exploration games, sometimes less charitably called ‘walking simulators’. They are usually short (around 2 hours long), with minimal action required (press X here, walk there), and the focus is on the narrative. Virginia is a prime example of this. You are an FBI agent in the 1990s, sent to a little U.S. town to solve a missing persons case. However, you have your own secrets to reveal, and they’re not always pleasant ones. The twist? There is no dialogue throughout the entire story, and part of the joy is working out what the hell is going on. The game reminded me of Twin Peaks with its dream sequences, and there was more than a sly nod at an X Files influence. Play it if you can; it’s definitely an interesting experience.
A quick shoutout to Gone Home as well – another game set in the 90s, your role is to walk around your childhood home and uncover the mysteries within your family. Unlike Virginia, it has dialogue provided through diaries, letters, phone messages and voice recordings. This interactive story takes time to build characters, making you care about this supposedly everyday family before you even realise it’s happening.
Though your main task is to find out what’s happened to your little sister, the father was a surprise: he proved to be a more subtle and rewarding character than initially presented. You won’t necessarily get all the subtext straightaway, but clues about the father’s past, and what drives him, are peppered throughout.
From one unique experience to another…
Hatoful Boyfriend is based around the visual novel genre popular in Japan. Again narrative-focused, it’s more like watching a story unfold based on your choices. However, there are multiple endings (HB has about 14) and the point is to play through the game again and again, making different decisions to unlock the different outcomes. These kinds of games are usually dating sims, where you’re trying to pick which boy or girl to romance.
Hatoful Boyfriend takes the idea of the dating sim and puts a new spin on it. For reasons neither Jesse Cox nor I understood, you are a human girl at a school for birds. Yes. You are trying to romance birds. Talking birds, no less, ranging from a puffy aristocrat, to a deranged athlete obsessed with pudding.
Don’t ask why because it will not tell you, at least, not at first. The storylines are often bizarre and surprising; if you don’t make the correct choices, a ninja comes to murder you in the night, meaning you have to start all over. However, stick with it: a strange narrative emerges. You get a glimpse of this during a sequence where you’re travelling. There is meant to be a section unlocked if you successfully romance the ‘bad boy’ characters (helpfully called the ‘Bad Boy’ storyline), which reveals how the world came to be in this state. I’ve yet to complete it, but God speed, pigeon fanciers!
Another exploration game of sorts, Journey stole my breath away. It is, visually, one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen. You are a traveller on a journey, with the ability to flutter along the wind. As you fly around, music soars as well, creating a sense of joy and adventure.
The puzzles are interesting, though may not be challenging enough for some, especially as other, silent players will show up to demonstrate what to do next. That’s fine, though; it just means you get to spend more time appreciating the style and feel of the desert world. It is one of the most relaxing games I’ve ever played, and thoroughly charming. At less than a tenner, it’s well worth your time.
Not a game I’ve personally played, but one I’ve watched, SWYDS (because I’m not typing that out every time) is a fast-paced arcade game which sounds creepier than it is. The idea is simple: some 8-bit dads and sons are at a swimming pool (I guess?), but the sons are lost. You must guide and match the right son up to their dad and… yeah.
A somewhat subversive take on quick-reaction games, there’s a healthy sprinkling of dad jokes in here and reviewers have said it’s highly addictive as the difficulty increases. SWYDS is going for 79p on Steam at the moment, which sounds like a bargain to me.
Horror games are a staple of YouTube Let’s Plays, where players get to demonstrate their reactions to jump scares and creepiness for the audience’s viewing pleasure. The Bunker had proven a popular choice, partly for its horror storyline, but also for its visual style.
The Bunker is a psychological horror, and a fairly bleak one. Harking back to the 90s, this is a FMV game (i.e. based around filmed video, where clips play after buttons have been pressed and choices made). You guide John, a man who has grown up in a bunker after a strongly implied nuclear disaster has taken place. Now an adult and the only survivor, he’s all alone…right?
I enjoyed this whilst I played it, even if the gameplay did feel more like an interactive movie. The writing is solid and the central performance of Adam Brown as John is outstanding, looking perpetually like a lost schoolboy with too many secrets. The tense, claustrophobic atmosphere ramps up as things go wrong, and you start to wonder exactly what John has seen, or done.
That’s part 1 for now. In part 2, I’ll be looking at Reigns, The Stanley Parable, Life is Strange, The Room (a game based on the infamous cult film) and Goat Simulator.