Looking back on 2011, it might seem that the year was dominated by the flurry of big-name titles released in gaming's traditional blockbuster season; November and December saw the release of Modern Warfare 3, Uncharted 3, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Assassin's Creed: Revelations, while Batman: Arkham City sneaked out earlier in October. The year also saw its fair share of high-quality, lovingly crafted independent releases: Super Meat Boy was finally released and is currently enjoying additional late-in-the-year exposure after its inclusion in the Christmas Humble Indie Bundle; Eric Chahi's From Dust went on to sell over half a million copies after its release in the summer; LIMBO received a wider multi-platform release and universal critical acclaim; and, of course, Minecraft exceeded anybody's expectations and became the surprise smash hit of the year. It's always impossible to predict which indie games will be a success or which will even deliver after the hype but there are a few which I'm particularly looking forward to in 2012. Some of these are already receiving a lot of attention in the mainstream press and look poised to become cross-over successes; others are currently under the radar, but will hopefully be receiving more attention as we move closer to their release.
1 - Journeythatgamecompany Los Angeles-based thatgamecompany will be releasing their successor to Flow and Flower in Spring 2012. As possibly the most well-known developers on this list, TGC will be following up the massive success of their two previous releases on the PlayStation Network with Journey, a game that looks set to continue in the abstract vein of gameplay that the company have become known for, while adding a key new ingredient: online co-operative gameplay. Your avatar, a mysterious robed figure, travels across a gorgeously stylised windswept desert towards a distant mountain, either with or without the help of other online players you meet along the way. Details as to the game's narrative and backstory remain hazy, though imagery in the official trailer and promotional material suggest that the game will have a firmer narrative structure than either Flow or Flower. The core of TGC's releases has always been a focus on how games can elicit an emotive reaction from players, and the unusual application of co-op gameplay in Journey builds on these foundations. In the game, players cannot speak to each other and are visually defined only by a uniquely assigned symbol that appears on their robes. Robin Hunicke, Journey's producer, has explained that as an experiment they were aiming to take away the pressure associated with performing socially in online gaming to give players the opportunity to form deeper, lasting connections with each other: One of the things we talked about early in the project was this idea of creating a connection between players in an environment where you feel small and less empowered than you might in a traditional video game setting. We thought this would be conducive to a feeling of wanting to spend time together. And we wanted to create this connection without forcing it we don't make you play with someone else, but we chose the desert setting because we thought a desolate and unfriendly place might actually encourage a connection between players. Trailer http://youtu.be/PjqAN7apHKM Platform: PlayStation 3 (PSN download) Release date: Spring 2012
2 - The WitnessJonathan Blow Jonathan Blow, developer of the multi-award-winning time-bending puzzler Braid, is due to release his long-awaited 3D puzzle game The Witness at some point this year. After three years of development the game is currently still very much a work in progress, and marks a radical departure from the style and scope Blow established in his previous work. While retaining a non-linear narrative structure and a focus on puzzle-solving and exploration, The Witness moves beyond the 2D side-scrolling platformer trappings of Braid and is set instead on an expansive photo-realistic 3D island which the player is free to explore, solving maze puzzles as they move around in order to unlock other areas of the island and gradually reveal its backstory. If this all sounds a little too much like Lost with added mazes, Blow has stated in interview that like Braid the puzzles themselves are part of a much larger and more engrossing experience: The mazes are a major aspect of the game, but they are not the point. The point is the magic that happens in the player's mind when he understands the subtle things that the mazes are saying - because the mazes aren't just puzzles, they are lines of communication that aggregate, become more complex and eventually say surprising things. The game rejects a traditional linear approach to allow for the inclusion of fiendishly difficult puzzles without frustrating the player. Only 5 of any of the island's 7 challenges need to be completed to finish the game, so the player is free to choose their level of engagement with the game and to set their own goals and challenges: To me a puzzle is something you might never figure out, but a lot of modern game design just isn't conducive to that. If you come to a puzzle in a linear game that you can't get, then you can't play the rest of the game you just paid for. Trailer http://youtu.be/wMDEmbhjfnY Platforms: PC (Windows only) and iOS. There are also rumours of possible download releases for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Release date: TBC
3 - FezPolytron Canada seems to be a breeding ground for indie gaming talent; Phil Fish's studio Polytron looks set to enjoy the same success as fellow Canadian developers Metanet Software (N+) and Capy (Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery) with its first major release, Fez. After a long and reportedly draining development period, the game has already been picking up awards at Indiecade and IGF ahead of its release early next year. The game is a 2D platformer played in 3D space, reflecting elements of other perspective-bending games such as Super Paper Mario and Ilomilo. However, with a focus on exploration and perception and a distinct aversion to combat the game features no enemies Fez promises to be tantalising different to your usual platform adventure. In interview, Fish explains: One thing I'm trying to do with Fez is have people use that story of a 2D creature trying to make sense of the third dimension to think of themselves as a 3D being living in higher spatial dimensions. You can extrapolate from it, and make it easier to think about the nature of the universe and reality and all these trippy things... Yeah, I hope it makes people think a little bit about the world that they live in... Visually, Fez uses a rather odd but somehow winning mix of blocky pixel art and Hayao Miyazaki landscapes, and teaser 'screenshot' demos released by Fish at http://polytroncorporation.com/fez feature an epic synth score and impeccably layered soundscapes. Created almost entirely by Fish and his programmer Renaud Bédard, the game has been a labour of love with a backstory that has almost overshadowed the impending release of the game itself. Fortunately, as one of the games featured in Indie Game: The Movie we should be seeing a lot more about the behind-the-scenes development of Fez... but more on that later. Trailer http://youtu.be/FrVVIVyLx-Y Platform: Xbox 360 (XBLA download) Release date: Early 2012
4 - The BridgeHypercube Games Described by DIY Gamer as what would happen if Braid met M.C. Escher, The Bridge is a tantalising project, not least because of the relative lack of information about it. Despite its presence at last year's Indiecade the game has been garnering little attention from the mainstream gaming press, yet the trailer alone provides evidence of an ambitious, beautiful and intriguing game. A logic-based 2D puzzle-platformer exquisitely rendered in an unusual artistic style, The Bridge could easily be dismissed as 2012's answer to Braid. However, at a time where independent developers continue to be overly reliant on pixel art graphics, a game that pays so much attention to visual craftmanship deserves a lot of respect. You could say that this is a rather personal choice to include in this list, but games like The Bridge games that have the balls to work in such a distinctively unique style are the games that result in the most rewarding and enriching visual experiences. Whether the gameplay will live up to the aesthetics remains to be seen, but I'm holding out a lot of hope that it will deliver. Originally created as part of programmer Ty Taylor's Masters degree at Case Western University, Taylor and artist Mario Castaneda continued to work on the game and are currently finishing development of the professional release. Trailer http://youtu.be/sor8_lHWHkc Platform: Rumours are that the game will be released for PC and Xbox 360 Release date: TBC
5 - Johann Sebastian JoustDie Gute Fabrik Johann Sebastian Joust is a bit different to the other games on this list: there are no graphics, no screen, and the game is played by up to 7 players wielding motion controllers. Melding videogames with real-world playground shenanigans, the aim of the game is to keep your controller steady while trying to knock those of your opponents all to the sounds of the original Johann Sebastian's Brandenburg Concertos. Developed by Copenhagen-based studio Die Gute Fabrik, JS Joust follows their earlier release B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now), a similarly anarchic physical party game where players are tasked with seizing each other's controllers by any means necessary. While B.U.T.T.O.N features a screen that provides players with instructions and challenges, JS Joust jettisons even this aspect of traditional gaming. The game has been popping up at clubnights around the world over the last six months or so and generating rave reviews wherever impromptu tournaments are played. An alpha release for Mac using PlayStation Move controllers is due to be released in the next year. Trailer http://vimeo.com/31946199 Platform: PC (Mac only) (Alpha release) Release date: TBC
6 - Indie Game: The MovieJames Swirsky & Lisanne Pajot OK, so it's not actually a game (and that's where the ...or 6 in the title comes in), but the release of Indie Game: The Movie is going to be one of the massive events of 2012. Filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot spent the last year making IGTM, a feature-length documentary that lays bare the creative process behind independent game development through three case studies of recent indie successes: Super Meat Boy, developed by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (aka Team Meat); Braid, developed by Jonathan Blow; and the upcoming release Fez, developed by Phil Fish's studio Polytron and featured earlier on this list. Funded with the help of two wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns, the film has captured the attention and the support of the game development community. It's already been selected to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month and has been receiving widespread acclaim for its candid depictions of the technical and emotional aspects of game-making, as well as for taking an intelligent and indepth look at a medium often denigrated by the mainstream media industry. Gifted with heartfelt interviews with the developers of some of the most-loved releases of recent years, the film is also brutally frank about the harsh realities of indie game development. Director Lisanne Pajot explains that: We think the common perception is that making video games is fun, because video games are generally perceived as fun and entertaining products. The reality is anything but. It's a grind, a slog, a commitment, a compulsion. In short, it's not easy. And, the personal stakes for these developer are very high. Trailer http://youtu.be/YtBZ68Fx1Kw Platforms: Cinema exhibition, digital download and DVD. Possibly Blu-Ray. Release date: TBC A few other interesting releases coming up in the next year: The Depths To Which I Sink (Bigpants) Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell) Skulls Of The Shogun (Haunted Temple Studios) Botanicula (Amanita Design) Proteus (Twisted Tree Games) Pineapple Smash Crew (Rich Make Game) Office Yeti (Metanet Software)
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