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The Off-Book series of mini-documentaries, from PBS, has brought us insights on video games many times before. They've taken on the perennial argument of whether (and how) games are art, and they've delved into the 8-bit phenomenon of retro graphics and chiptunes.
In this most recent installment, they delve into the indie game scene. Thanks to digital distribution, indie games by small teams are everywhere: on our computers, our consoles, and our phones. Smaller-scale games made by smaller-scale teams with no publisher affiliations are a big part of what drives the art and industry forward. Designer Zach Gage (Spelltower), composer Darren Korb (Bastion), and critic Leigh Alexander all contribute to this nifty little look at where indie games have been, and where they're going.
Jen Zee works at Supergiant Games. A small indie team, Jen is art director (and part-time badass cosplayer), meaning she's the main one to thank for the amazing colours and vibrant world of Bastion, one of the best-looking video games in recent memory.
A Seattle native, Jen has also done work for Gaia Interactive and Fantasy Flight Games. Those who love the look of Bastion should check out her other work, on her DeviantArt page, CGHub page and blog.
To see the larger pics in all their glory (or so you can save them as wallpaper), right-click on them below and select "open in new tab".
Supergiant Games' award winning action role-playing game Bastion is now available on the iPad, and it's one of the best experiences you can have with the Apple tablet. Just don't ruin it by playing without headphones.
The gorgeous hand-painted graphics and the shooting and smashing gameplay make the trip to the iPad intact, but those aren't the main draws of Bastion. It's the deep, growling voice of the game's narrator and the rich tapestry woven by the game's gorgeous soundtrack that make this game so damn pleasurable, and that's not something you're going to get out of that tiny, tinny grill Apple passes off as a speaker.
I was horrified as I started to play the iPad version, ignoring the suggestion that I should don headphones for the full experience. The poor narrator sounded trapped, caged in a world in which his sonorous pipes were rendered impotent, their magic ripped away cruelly.
And then the music started.
That glorious tapestry unraveled before my ears, sound meant to lovingly caress my hearing places at both ends condensed into a cacophony of raw, stabbing noise.
One 3.5mm plug later and all was right with the world once more, apart from the whole thing falling apart.
Bastion is now available for the iPad 2 and new iPad for only $4.99. Use the extra money you should have paid for this masterpiece to buy yourself a capable set of cans, or buy some portable speakers and share the magic with the world.
There isn't much to Sound Shapes. That's what makes it great.
I'm not talking about the campaign, which is great and I certainly could've used more of. No, I'm talking about the experience that the new Vita game delivers. From the way you play it—pretty much just rolling and jumping—to the environments you play through, Sound Shapes is a shining example of minimalism in video games.
Now, Sound Shapes could have delivered the same core experience with a tacked-on story, a more humanoid-looking avatar and more plush environments. Even it were more Mario-esque, players could still have gotten the main thrust of its structural aesthetics, which is the tight bond between sound and action.
But that fusion of music, visuals and interactivity stands out even more because of the lack of presentational clutter. Jonathan Mak's newest game isn't the only one to soar off the benefits of skeletal structure either.
Part of what made Journey such a great experience is what was left out. No words. No distinguishing characteristics on avatars' faces. No explicitly stated motivation or impetus for your character's voyage. You could make all of that up in your head if you wanted, which makes the experience all the more memorable and personal.
And look at Thomas Was Alone, which gave you only colored blocks to control. You didn't need fancy animations to become attached to the quirky personalities. And detailed textures wouldn't have made the environmental puzzles any better either. Everything wonderful about the game comes across with a limited architecture.
Fez's spare presentation makes its signature mechanics seem even more magical. It helps sell the conceit that being able to rotate the world into a third dimension would rock the perceptions of the creatures that live in the gameworld. And it also makes the tough puzzles in the retro-looking platformer feel that much harder. There are very few distractions in Fez, just you and the brain-teaser that's driving you crazy.
Last year, Bastion exercised a sort of minimalism, too. It scraped away a lot of the trappings that you'd normally find in an action/RPG hybrid. Supergiant's hit from last year clearly riffed on the tropes of Japanese RPGs. But a lot was pared away. There's none of the melodramatic romances or tangled subplots typical to the genre. Bastion's minimalism was one of tone, not presentation. But it still had the same multiplying effect as in the examples above, where the agonizing choices felt more monumental because they stood out more.
Excess and minimalism don't have to be mutually exclusive, either. Moments of quiet economy exist in big-deal AAA games like, say, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Gears of War 3. But the less-is-more approach can feel more brave because there's less room to hide flaws. However, when minimalism succeeds in a game like Sound Shapes, it's because the unique elements are the main thing you interact with. And you'll probably remember those more.