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Jim Rants: on Indie Games

For me, indie games are one of the most exciting things to happen to gaming since someone at Nintendo decided a fat Italian plumber beating up a turtle-dragon to rescue a princess would be a great idea. They showcase fantastic talent, incredible games and offer a very real hope that this miserable, stagnant mess of an industry can at least do something worthwhile.

However, there’s something I’ve noticed in playing these indie games. I find that, really, that there are only 3 types of indie games:

1 – Games that are incredible.

2 – Games that suck, but have one well-designed or implemented feature that stands out – not enough to save it, but that certainly deserves mention.

3 – Games that are outright bad.

For me, there aren’t any indie games that I’ve come away from thinking “meh”. Every one I’ve played falls into one of these categories. I’ll show you what I mean.

1. Games that are brilliant, fantastic, amazing, etc etc, gush gush.

For the most part, this is the widest category. So many indie games I’ve played are so incredibly well made. The example I’d like to use to illustrate this is Bastion.

Bastion,for those who don’t know, is an action RPG in which a beautifully voiced narrator tells the tale of The Kid, our enigmatic player character, in his quest to rebuild his world following a mysterious Calamity. From the off, we’re treated to stunning artwork and a world of truly luscious design, playing along to a soundtrack tinged with elements of both a Western and some strange trippy hip-hop-esque stuff. This certainly doesn’t do it justice – it’s not just a soundtrack, this a lovingly composed masterwork of an album, topped with three stand-out vocal tracks from each of the three other characters The Kid meets and believe me, they make your spine tingle with just how perfectly they’re produced, from the haunting, even chilling, vocals to the light but deft touch of the instruments behind them. Add a fluid narration that adjusts to the player’s actions while still keeping a coherent and well-crafted story, the best example of how to do a multiple choice ending and even making the player feel true sympathy for the antagonist without resorting to a mass of tired anti-villain cliches and you’ve got one hell of a game. But, enough gushing. On with the rant.

2. The Crushing Disappointment of the Bad Game with a Standout Feature.

Limbo is a critical darling that, in my opinion, deserves so little of the praise it gets. I picked it up in the last Humble Bundle and went into it expecting a good game. After all, it had a wad of praise from reviewers and it was featured in a bundle designed to show the best of the best indie games.

Here’s the thing: the first third is good. Amazing, even. An eerie, oppressive atmosphere, a proper feeling of insecurity and vulnerability and a giant monster spider chasing you through a forest otherwise populated by evil forest children who like nothing more than leaving bear traps in tall grass for you and hanging dead bodies around the path you take.

So far so good. The issue though is this: after the first third is done, after our spider problems are sorted, the game runs out of ideas.Puzzles are repeated (pretty much all of them are a variant of push box from point A to point B, climb to ledge C, or even the dreaded brain slug puzzles), the jumping is awkward, the atmosphere is drained away and, worst of all, the controls are awful. In a Pixel-Perfect Platformer like this, where your placement of yourself needs to be bang on, why then does the player character insist on taking a few extra steps after I let go of the run button? More often than not, those few extra steps correspond to the rest of the platform plus a step or two as the protagonist decides that he is the angsty, oppressive-world version of Peter Pan and can definitely fly if only he can strike out on his own. No, no you can’t. You fall and die. Stop this.

Anyway, what this all amounts to is the destruction of fun. A good platformer will be difficult, but gratifying to beat, whereas Limbo is just frustrating. There’s no feel-good sensation when beating another bloody box puzzle that you’ve had to repeat ad nauseum because the player character threw himself out onto that spike pit below. And this is every puzzle after the first third. So, Limbo, is to me, a poor game. It’s stunning opening sequence does little to placate me when I remember that more than half the game is a bland trudge through the doldrums of platformers broken up by having to retread my path because I’ve died thanks to a control issue. Again.

3. The Bad Games

Here’s another game that critics seem to love: Super Meat Boy. I don’t know why. Super Meat Boy is a platformer in which the eponymous hero must rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl (she’s covered in bandages – just in case that needed clearing up) from the clutches of the evil Dr Fetus, a, uhh, foetus in a jar with a monocle, top hat and suit. Obviously, right?

Super Meat Boy calls itself an homage to the ultra-hard platformers of old, but, much like Limbo, it makes the mistake of assuming this meant frustrating platforming helped (?) by bad controls and no real rewarding feeling to beating its challenges.

I’ll say it outright: Super Meat Boy isn’t fun. The hero has the same issue has Limbo‘s; that is, he doesn’t stop after you’ve let go of a movement button. His jumping is awkward and it appears to be random as to the strength of his jumps. Again, in a Pixel-Perfect Platformer, these are game-killing issues. They take the game from the realms of a fun challenge to a frustrating, hate-filled waste of time.

The other thing Super Meat Boy gets wrong is its confusing of humour and references. References can be amusing. Can. Where Super Meat Boy goes wrong is in that its references aren’t funny. They’re more an exhibit. Look, a reference! It has no context, no place in the story, narrative or game, but look! Hey, it’s a character from the internet, aren’t we funny? No. Here’s an example. The second world of the game is (very, very loosely) themed around a hospital. The opening scene sees Dr Fetus transform into a bat and fly off as lightning crashes around the castle hospital as Meat Boy stands outside the looming iron gates. It’s clearly a reference to Castlevania. But why is it there at all? Dr Fetus can’t become a bat in game. Why does the hospital look like a European castle in a horror film? Why does it have cast iron manor house gates? Why is there a horror theme at all? There’s no context, no reason and no humour.

Ultimately, Super Meat Boy isn’t fun, which is the cardinal sin for a game. Games are designed to entertain – any that fails in this is a bad game, and Super Meat Boy is a bad game. There’s no fun and no humour; only frustration and references to the internet and games of the past. And that’s a real shame. Meat Boy, originally a game published on Newgrounds, was wonderful. It got the balance between difficulty and fun absolutely spot-on. But it’s Steam-released cousin doesn’t. The only thing “Super” about Super Meat Boy is the name.