The rise of indie games: My latest Wired News gaming column

Wired News just published my latest column, and this one is about how free, indie games are breaking out of gaming’s rigid genres — by innovating odd new mechanics for play. You can read it online here for free, and a permanent copy is archived below:

Sometimes there is a free lunch

Aching to see the weird new forms of gameplay? Check out the burgeoning world of free indie titles lurking online.

by Clive Thompson

Has gameplay innovation ground to a halt? Surf the aisles of your local game store, and you’d suspect that game publishers have have kinda given up. It’s always the same tired play mechanics, over and over. Shoot the bad guys while avoiding flying lead. Level up your character in an online world. Drive like hell in a souped-up rig. Match the pretty colors in a puzzle.

Obviously, part of this endless looping is that success works: Like backgammon or baseball, these tropes appear to stand the test of time. But it’s also the curse of genre. With games costing millions to develop these days, few publishers are willing to risk serious bling on some weird new style of play that might fail.

If you really want to see innovation, there’s only one place to go: Off the grid. You have to find game designers who actively opt out of the market — by producing indie games they give away for free online. These days, this subculture is happily thriving, fed by game-school grads and underemployed programmers who, like indie musicians, crave to break out of old boxes and want to get as huge an audience as possible.

Want proof? Here’s a short — and totally idiosyncratic — list of some of my favorite free games, each of which innovate one thing cool and new:

Strange Attractors: Are you sick of games that create faux complexity by forcing you to learn hundreds of button combinations? The designers of Strange Attractors went in the radically opposite direction: They use one single button — the space bar — to control the action. Your goal is to maneuver a little craft through free-floating space by using the button to activate and deactivate “gravity,” drawing yourself toward larger objects. It’s like navigating a NASA probe by slingshotting it around celestial objects. The lesson here? Super-simple control schemes strip twitch gameplay down to its pure essence: raw, gorgeous physics. If you like this conceit, there’s a world of other free “one switch” games out there waiting for you.

Facade: You walk into an apartment to visit two old friends, and discover their marriage is rapidly falling apart. By typing in dialogue, asking nosy questions, and playing totally sick mind games, you help to steer the course of the evening — and their marriage. (The first time I played, the husband threw me out after I made a pass at his wife.) Facade is interactive theater so open-ended — and with such juicy voice acting — that it puts paid to the supposedly “immersive” qualities of today’s blatantly tree-forked narrative games. Bonus: It’s fun enough that you’ll ignore the graphics, which appear to have been culled from an ancient Mac HyperCard stack.

RSVP: There are a zillion card games online, and they mostly emulate existing real-world titles — like Hearts, Bridge or the endless limbo of Solitaire. But since anything is possible in the online world, why not design an entirely new concept from scratch? Thus was born the genius of RSVP, which — like any good card game — can be learned in about five seconds, but never entirely mastered. The goal is to place “guest” cards around a table so their colors form a connecting chain. In a neat bit of design, the cards look like they’re from the 1920s, yet their faces shift and morph as you play, making RSVP feel like a sepia-toned, Depression-era opium dream. (Caveat: This game was designed by Pop & Company for a client — Lifetime TV — so it was technically paid for, though you can play it for free.)

Dyadin: In Dyadin, you and a friend play co-operatively on different computers, but stare at the same mazelike playfield, where enemies hunt and energy gates swing open and closed. The thing is, though you’re playing on the same board, you each exist in a different dimension — so you each interact with different elements on screen, allowing you to pass through walls that hem in your buddy, and vice versa. The lesson? A single update in gameplay can breathe new life into an otherwise traditional puzzle-action game.

Cloud: Flying games are innately fun because, well, you get to fly. But inevitably the flying is regarded as a mere conduit to another task — mastery of the cockpit in a simulated 747, or success in a pitched dogfight over Germany. Cloud charts a different route: It foregrounds the inherent joy of simply gliding around in the air. You control a little child who flits about the air, collecting up clouds and then jetting them back out again as you skywrite on the blue horizon. Sure, there are puzzles to solve — but mostly I just enjoyed the trancelike state I achieved from soaring around. Why don’t more games seek to instill a sense of calm?

Arcadia: Those early video games from the ’80s can seem awfully quaint — so easy to master that you wonder why you ever found them fun. Arcadia riffs off this by forcing you to play four different retro games — simultaneously. As you’d imagine, things start off fairly simple but soon descend into perfect madness. The lesson? If you’re going to plunder from the classics, don’t just reskin Tetris or Galaga — remix the culture into something new. (This title comes from Gamelab, a New York design shop that produces so many artistically innovative forms of play that I had trouble picking my favorite. Again, the designers do this stuff for hire, but the results are mostly free.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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