This has been an incredibly fruitful year for independent game design, featuring games that are beautiful to look at, funny as hell, and even a few that provoke pleasure even as they make us more than a little uncomfortable.
In between forays into the worlds of Rapture and New Austin in games like Bioshock 2 and Red Dead Redemption, I have found myself increasingly drawn to web sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate for a little bit of respite from triple-A gaming this year. Flash as a medium for games has rarely been of particular interest for me, as it largely seems like a space to port classic video game titles in a kind of "freeware" form to older gamers. This is all well and good -- playing a few rounds of Donkey Kong or Asteroids is mildly diverting -- but barring the nostalgia factor, this kind of diversion fails to keep one's attention for very long.
However, Flash gaming has really grown up in the last few years. Gone are the days when simple ports dominated the scene (though these still exist) as a lot of developers (sometimes as parts of larger commercial teams, but especially of the independent sort) have managed to really create some unique and innovative titles. Many of these games are sequels, and earlier games in such series may be somewhat simplistic and underdeveloped, but when playing through these series, it becomes clear that the evolution of the form is beginning to result in the refining of some real gems. Flash gaming is looking pretty sophisticated this year, and with that in mind, I wanted to take the opportunity to point out some titles that particularly stood out.
In some cases, I chose games simply because I admire the quality of the visuals. Flash games are not competing with the hyper-realistic graphics of HD-enabled console games. Instead, these games are marked by highly stylized visuals, and some are really very striking and beautiful to look at. Additionally, some of these titles have some amazing performative and narrative depth, from surprisingly strong voice acting to interesting and unique storytelling that defies the conventionality of professionally developed titles. Finally, some of these titles really challenge the sorts of experiences that one can have with a game. There is a good deal of clever satire and comedy, as well as some downright thoughtful and avant garde experiences to be had in Flash games, the sort of thing that, again, is often absent from professionally developed games.
However, my top five Flash games are of a more original sort.
5. Armed With Wings 3 (Daniel Sun, 7 November 2010)
While Armed With Wings 3‘s plot is brimming with the breathlessly earnest "flair" of anime, it is difficult to ignore the sophistication of its visual aesthetic. Put simply, the game is beautiful to look at. Each level is composed of basically two colors, a washed out color contrasted with black. The result is a lot of very simply composed images contrasted against starkly pretty environments. Coupling action game mechanics (some platforming and melee combat) with some basic puzzle design involving swapping between the game's protagonist and his eagle sidekick, this is a game that is delightful to look at, neat, and well-paced. None of the puzzles are difficult to solve, which works well in this action-puzzle hybrid -- they are engaging enough without stalling out what is otherwise a simple (but pretty) beat ‘em up.
4. Hippolyta (Evil-Dog, 11 March 2010)
In clear contrast to Armed With Wings 3, Hippolyta is hard. However, it does share with the previously mentioned game a sense of simplicity. It is simply elegant in presentation and play. The game begins with an extremely spare introduction, in which the player is introduced to an Amazon named Hippolyta who, in attempting to defend her homeland, has been captured by enemy forces. The narrator explains in voiceover alongside some bloody cutscenes featuring Hippolyta breaking free from her chains that "one morning her wounds finally healed, she simply decided to go home." This is premise enough to launch an exceedingly difficult game with some very simple mechanics. The story of Hippolyta's return home is told through a chase through the countryside in which Hippolyta -- on horseback -- is constantly driven forward. The player must match visual and aural cues in the form of obstacles and warnings to keys mapped to actions like jumping, blocking, and ducking in order to keep the Amazon alive. The game is simple, clean, and tells a very classic kind of story (the return home of the hero) in the most elegant (and brain beatingly) difficult way possible. The sound in particular is exceptional in the game, and it needs to be, as reactions are governed not merely by sight but particularly by sound.
3. Robot Unicorn Attack (Adult Swim, February 2010)
Robot Unicorn Attack is utterly enchanting. It has to be. It insists on it. By taking on the role of a unicorn (well, a robot unicorn) with a rainbow dash attack in a world of rainbow-infused lavender and pink landmasses set to Erasure's maddeningly appropriate "Always", the game makes sure that you know that it is enchanting. This is kitsch gone mad. It is also addictive, and why it is addictive is related to its kitschy madness. The title screen instructs the player to "Press Z to Make Your Wishes Come True". There is sometimes truth in advertising. The game is awe-inspiringly stupid and completely irresistible as a result. If you haven't played it, you must. As the game also notes, "You Will Fail", and futility seems to be the punch line to this elaborately conceived joke. Despite its flirtations with rainbows and unicorns, Robot Unicorn Attack is probably the most cynical game that you will ever play.
2. Coma (Thomas Brush, 3 July 2010)
Coma is not so much a game as it is an experience of that which its title describes. There is the vaguest of stories here concerning a bean-shaped creature named Pete and his quest to rescue his sister from the basement. However, most of the background exists only as foreboding subtext to a story driven by dream logic and set in a weird, somnambulant mindscape. Playing Coma feels like exploring the mind in that intermediary space between waking and sleeping. Its characters seem listless, odd, and strangely menacing, and the game asks you to do things that a rational mind balks at. A haunting soundtrack adds to the overall dreamy distance of a world at once so alien and yet familiar enough to anyone who has ever fallen asleep. It is a game as pretty as it is capable of generating an authentic apprehension in the player.
Beginning with a seemingly benign enough question, "Are you a man or a woman?", Loved is a game that provokes the player by taunting, humiliating, and, otherwise attempting to make the player submit to a bodiless narrator whose only seeming goal is to be "loved". Loved takes advantage of the interactive medium in ways that few games do by asking the player to make choices (be they the binary response to the aforementioned question or how to interact with the environment itself) and by making those choices matter not only to its outcome but to each obstacle that the player has to overcome. The narrator that taunts and goads the player will frequently command the player to follow one path or another, to avoid this pit or that save point, or to simply kill him- or herself. The player's choices to submit to or defy this voice of authority result in the game growing more difficult or much easier, visually clearer or more obscured. Submission results in clarity and ease of play, while rebellion results in a more muddled landscape and more challenging obstacles. All of this serves to explore relationships and their power dynamics, questioning the very nature of loving and being loved. Reminiscent in its exploration of relationships' power dynamics to Bioshock or Portal, Loved is more stripped down and basic than either game, and yet, is able to achieve more in some ways by making choice itself something that has immediate consequences on how the player relates to the game world. Loved doesn't merely establish grounds for justifying a "good" or "bad" ending, it punishes and rewards with immediacy and it does so ruthlessly. The game's designer, Alexander Ocias, describes his intentions for Loved simply enough, "I wanted to build something confrontational, that would engage players to give thought to what they are doing both in and out of game." He is successful in achieving both confrontation and thoughtful engagement, making Loved an often upsetting but thoroughly fascinating experience.
This has been an incredibly fruitful year for independent game design, featuring games that are beautiful to look at, funny as hell, and a few that even provoke pleasure as they make us more than a little uncomfortable. It is especially these latter titles that point to the notion that gaming continues to mature as it provides space for experiences and ideas that one doesn't expect of simple diversions or a medium once thought solely the domain of kids and teenagers. My hope is that 2011 will see a continuation of games that provoke in unusual ways and challenge what it means to play.
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