The Game Developers Choice Awards are the other side of a coin that also contains the IGFs. Sure, indies are allowed into this GDC organised awards show, but they have to promise to be on their best behaviour. And wash behind their ears.
The nominations for this year's award - chosen by a panel of game developers - have been announced, with The Walking Dead and Dishonored scoring plenty of nods. Not the most, though - that honour goes to Journey, which is apparently a PS3 game about collecting scarves. Or something.
Dishonored picked up four nominations, including Game of the Year, Best Game Design, Best Narrative and Best Visual Arts. The Walking Dead also received nominations for Game of the Year and Best Narrative, as well as a chance to nab Best Downloadable Game. Wait, aren't all games downloadable?
Other PC relevant nominations include Game of the Year nods for Mass Effect 3 and XCOM, a well deserved Best Audio mention for Hotline Miami, and a Best Technology listing for Planetside 2. FTL also did well, being nominated for the Innovation Award, along with a shot at Best Debut for its developer, Subset Games.
Here's the full list:
Game of the Year Dishonored (Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks) The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) Mass Effect 3 (BioWare/Electronic Arts) XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games/2K Games) Journey (Thatgamecompany/Sony Computer Entertainment)
Mark of the Ninja (Klei Entertainment/Microsoft Studios) Journey (Thatgamecompany/Sony Computer Entertainment) FTL: Faster Than Light (Subset Games) The Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow/Sony Computer Entertainment) ZombiU (Ubisoft Montpellier/Ubisoft)
Humble Hearts (Dust: An Elysian Tail) Polytron Corporation (Fez) Giant Sparrow (The Unfinished Swan) Subset Games (FTL: Faster Than Light) Fireproof Games (The Room )
Best Downloadable Game
The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) Spelunky (Derek Yu/Andy Hull) Trials: Evolution (RedLynx/Microsoft Studios) Mark Of The Ninja (Klei Entertainment/Microsoft Studios) Journey (Thatgamecompany/Sony Computer Entertainment)
Best Game Design
Dishonored (Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks) Mark Of The Ninja (Klei Entertainment/Microsoft Studios) Spelunky (Derek Yu/Andy Hull) Journey (Thatgamecompany/Sony Computer Entertainment) XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games/2K Games)
Best Handheld/Mobile Game
Gravity Rush (SCE Japan Studio/Sony Computer Entertainment) Hero Academy (Robot Entertainment) Sound Shapes (Queasy Games/Sony Computer Entertainment) The Room (Fireproof Games) Kid Icarus: Uprising (Sora/Nintendo)
Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Entertainment/2K Games) Mass Effect 3 (BioWare/Electronic Arts) Dishonored (Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks) The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) Virtue's Last Reward (Chunsoft/Aksys Games)
Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft) PlanetSide 2 (Sony Online Entertainment) Halo 4 (343 Industries/Microsoft Studios) Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch/Activision) Assassin's Creed III (Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft)
Indie space roguelike FTL warped into our top pick for 2012's Short-form Game of the Year and tickled our auditory sensors with wonderful space pew-pew music. Its Kickstarter campaign boasted $200,542 in donations over the $10,000 goal. But given a chance to do it again, FTL designer Justin Ma wouldn't be as keen to include crowdfunding. Speaking to Polygon, Ma said the constant exposure of a publicly tracked project would weigh down the two-man team and add a "whole new layer of stress."
"I feel like I wouldn't be able to work as freely or with such agility as we were with FTL," Ma said. "We prefer to work from within a cave until we have something we feel is worth showing. I'm not sure how some developers are able to publicly show their progress at every stage of development; it just adds a whole new layer of stress."
Ma's thoughts show the other side of the coin on the level of outreach expected by developers when carting their concepts through Kickstarter. Double Fine's Tim Schafer stated people felt crowdfunding made him "unafraid of being open" to sharing as much updates and unfinished media as possible. But as Ma explained, that option could also turn into a burden and constrain developers on a tight schedule.
"Unlike some projects that could simply hire more people, we did not have the option to increase our scope greatly since we also committed ourselves to a deadline only a few months away,” Ma said. “We tried to walk the thin line between using the extra funds to increase the quality of the final product while trying not to delay the release too long. In the end, I think we were reasonably successful."
It goes blip and bloop and ding-ing-ing with reverberating voices, wrapping hazy nebulae and fierce space battles with warm melodies that sing "Oh my God, we're in spaaaaaace!" It's the soundtrack to indie sleeper hit FTL: Faster Than Light, and it's some of the finest game music of 2012.
The 29-track album ($5 on Bandcamp), composed by San Francisco Bay Area-based musician Ben Prunty, combines existing sci-fi motifs such as lonely, echoing synth bells with a unique space adventure sound. Tracks like MilkyWay and Civil are a skirmish between eerie tension and soothing, stargazing melodies, and their sparse chord progressions, warm synth melodies, and chiptunes-like blips have been stuck between my ears since they became my spaceship command companions last year.
In between are ambient tracks, such as Cosmos (Explore), which are harder to separate from the game, but flood their sectors with danger and mystery. Its sibling (each track has a Battle variant), on the other hand, builds to one of my favorite themes in the soundtrack.
FTL is Prunty's first major success as a game music composer, but he's been making music for 10 years and has another album, Chromatic T-Rex, available for the price you name on Bandcamp. What luck: when I got in touch with Prunty, we discovered that he's just a short drive from our South San Francisco office, and he offered to come by for an interview about FTL, his music, and his career.
PC Gamer: So you said you’re from Maine. Why did you move to the Bay Area?
Ben Prunty: Because I wanted to work for games. I wanted to do music for games. After I graduated from college—I had a degree in audio engineering—I knew that I wasn't gonna get any jobs in music for games in Maine. There’s not really any game industry presence there. It’d be kinda cool if there was, but, yeah, I had to move...and then I kinda got distracted and worked at Google for a couple years. "...I kinda got distracted and worked at Google for a couple years." What did you do at Google?
I fixed computer hardware in data centers, so I’d figure out what was wrong with a computer and then rip it apart. It was pretty fun.
So you've got a few fields of expertise?
Sort of, yeah, I didn't know anything when I—I just had a friend who worked there and this was in the old days when Google would just hire you because they liked you, and not necessarily because of your skills. I didn't know anything about computers but I started there and they taught me a ton. I learned all about Linux and discovered that I hated Linux.
Yeah, I was there for a couple of years and then I realized that I needed to get back to doing music.
So, what do you do now? Is it music full time?
Actually, in November I quit my last day job and I’m doing music full time. The sales of FTL are good enough to support me...FTL is a big success and I kept the rights to the music, so whenever the soundtrack sells on Steam or Bandcamp that money goes to me.
So you do the soundtrack and keep the rights—get the money from soundtrack sales—but not royalties when the game is sold, right?
Right, I don’t get royalties from the game. I was paid upfront. I was working for the promise of money for a while, and then the Kickstarter thing exploded. Justin and Matt, the two FTL guys, they asked for $10,000 and they got $200,000. So, they came to me and were like, “We want to pay you what you’re worth, so let’s talk about that.”
So they paid me up front. I negotiated with them and asked them, “Hey, maybe we can do a revenue share or something,” but they didn’t want to do that, so I asked instead to keep the rights so I could sell the music myself, and they agreed to that. So yeah, it worked out.
Things worked out much better for Ben than they usually do for me when I play FTL.
Before you started working on FTL, did you go to them and say, “Here’s what I can do,” or did they seek you out?
So, at Google I made a friend who I still hang out with a lot, he’s a really good friend. His name’s Anton Mikhailov. He developed the PlayStation Move controller.
We were coworkers at Google—we both ripped apart computers together and it was really fun—and he knew that I was doing music and looking for work, and he would always help me out by finding people who were making games, and he knew Matt Davis, the programmer for FTL. They both went to Berkeley together. So, one day Anton came over with a USB stick and said, “Hey, my friend is making this game, wanna check it out? He needs music.”
"I was definitely not musically inclined. I played trumpet in band and I was awful." So we started playing FTL and it was awesome. They already had a nearly complete—not a complete game, but it was a fully functional game. And it was super fun, so I was like, “Yes, I want to be part of this.”
So, moving along to the music: When did you start? Were you always musically inclined?
I was definitely not musically inclined. I played trumpet in band and I was awful.
I played the tuba in school and I was terrible.
Well, I can tell you that being bad in music class doesn’t necessarily you’re going to suck at music in general. I had no musical talent. All I had was the thought that making music with computers would be really, really cool, and I wanted to do that.
Well, you're right. It's really cool.
Yeah, I was like, “Wow, this would be really awesome!” I had no understanding of music and I spent a long time making really terrible music. It was decently produced because I was an audio engineering major, but it sounded awful because I couldn't write music. Eventually, I put in the time to learn music theory and learn piano, and then my music suddenly got pretty good—or, at least, not terrible.
Ben's current work space.
There are some fundamentals that I've struggled with music theory, scales, why we use the notes we do—
...Yeah, it’s really abstract, and I read a ton of music theory books and most were gibberish. And then I found—you know, at this point after reading several of them, I did get some understanding of music theory and my music was starting to improve—but the best one I found was The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory. The guy who wrote it was amazing. He was able to explain it in this purely, wonderfully functional and logical way. It made more sense.
It’s a little embarrassing, I guess, but sometimes those books can be great. It’s how I learned to play the harmonica.
Yeah, they can be fantastic books. Some of the best resources you can get are the Idiot’s Guides or the For Dummies books or whatever. They’re amazing. "I’m profoundly lazy, so, yeah, it’s really hard." And playing the piano is kind of a standard learning method, like you mentioned. Is it something you work on or is it just a tool to help compose?
I actually don’t play piano that much anymore. Yeah, it’s definitely just a method for me to understand music better. Right now, I've just been focusing on banjo. I play about an hour a day at least. I love banjo.
Banjos are amazing.
I’m a huge fan. I got a banjo when I was in college and I just didn't have enough self-discipline to play it constantly, so I never got past the beginner level. You know, I could play chords and do a bunch of different picking styles, but the last, I don’t know, five or six months, I've been trying to plow through it and get better.
Self-discipline. It’s hard.
I’m profoundly lazy, so, yeah, it’s really hard.
But when you do get the motivation to work, do you have this idea for a song in your head, and then you sit down and make it real? Or is it more something that evolves as you work?
It’s a little of both. Often times I’ll have an idea for a direction for some kind of sound, or even just a bass line I want to build off, but it often ends up going in completely different ways than I intended. So yeah, it’s both. I have an idea, but it’s just a jumping off point for a song that’ll go nuts.
A particular track is Cosmos. So there’s Cosmos Explore and Cosmos Battle in FTL, and they’re completely different. They sound nothing like each other even though everything else sort of sounds similar, with the two versions of exploration and battle music...
There’s a shared theme.
Yeah, but these are completely different. Cosmos Battle was like—I had no idea where it was going at the time I was writing it. It was surprising me as I was doing it and it was really fun.
On the next page: more music and the rest of the interview...
Do you have a favorite track in FTL?
I’m really proud of the Engi music. It has a really cool chord progression that I like.
Your title theme does it for me. Something about bells and reverb just says “space,” I guess...it suggests vastness. Was that a lot of pressure? To just encapsulate the whole game in this song that people would hear all the time, every time they started the game?
Well, we didn't know it would be as popular as it was. We totally thought it would be a niche thing for a niche audience. Permadeath, really difficult, not very flashy, kind of like playing a board game—we didn't think these are the kind of things that would appeal to a huge audience.
I’m so happy that they are.
Yeah, I know! It’s really pleasing to know that there’s such a demand for this kind of thing. But, I don’t know, I didn't have too much pressure on me. I was mostly just trying to please them, the guys making the game. That title screen music was actually my original pitch music. They were like, “OK, why don’t you send us something, and if we like it we’ll use it for the game.”
So I was thinking, I have to come up with something that feels like cruising through space but doesn't feel too threatening. Kind of breezy, but not overly happy. I don’t want to be saccharine, but I don’t want to be dark either. So, I spent two or three days just trying to come up with a chord progression that sounded like this cruising thing that was not too threatening. That’s what you hear when it builds up to a climax in the beginning—those chords are what you hear, and I reuse them all throughout the soundtrack.
"I’m like, 'Hey, Denise! Do you want to go grunt in a closet for me while I record?'" On your blog you wrote a post about what you used to make the soundtrack. The Natural Instruments Komplete bundle and all that. Did you have a favorite sampled instrument or synth?
I had a synth bass that I started to call the Mantis Bass. I don’t remember what it was called originally but some bassline from one of the synths in the Komplete bundle. I don’t remember now, because I saved it as a preset. I loaded up this bassline and made modifications and saved it as Mantis Bass. And that bassline shows up a ton in the whole soundtrack, but it was really prominent in Mantis.
Mantis (Battle) by Ben Prunty Music
Do you record any of your own samples? I noticed you mentioned some microphones.
There was like, an older project where I recorded my banjo a bit. I haven’t done any real recording except for sound effects. Sound effects for FTL and Gravity Ghost.
So you did all the sound design for FTL?
Right, oh yeah, there's the screams.
Right, if a male crew member dies, that’s me screaming. If a female crew member dies, that’s my roommate.
It’s nice to have resources like roommates.
I’m like, "Hey, Denise! Do you want to go grunt in a closet for me while I record?" Not creepy at all!
So, obviously you love games, since you wanted to compose specifically for games. Do you have any desire to enter development, or do you just plan to stick to music?
So, yeah, actually, for the last year or so I was really trying to learn more about game development and programming. When I was a kid I made a lot of games. I made card games and stuff, I made like--I was a big fan of Jurassic Park and I was 10 when it came out—and I made this Jurassic Park single-player card game that was kind of like a roguelike. I didn't realize at the time that I was going to become a huge fan of roguelikes, but it was already starting there. I made this crazy single-player card game and a whole ton of other ones. "I’m often flying by the seat of my pants, but that’s fun too." I found this old TRS-80 pocket computer made by Radio Shack in the ‘70s in my dad’s basement, and I started learning programming on that, which was a variant of BASIC. So I started making games on that, and I do have this desire to make games, but obviously I’m much better at doing music because I have a lot more experience. And my other real passion is writing, and those things I know I’m decent at, so I think I’m going to stick to that. But I don’t know, maybe something will come up and I’ll have to make something.
So, now you’re working on Gravity Ghost, full time composing. Any other projects?
Not yet, I’m looking for other projects. I’m kind of working on a solo album, but I don’t know how far that’s gonna go.
OK, last question. You call yourself an expert at giving off the appearance that you know what you’re doing. Do you know what you’re doing?
Yeah, I’m really good at making it look like I know what I’m doing, but I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing. I’m often flying by the seat of my pants, but that’s fun too.
Thanks for coming by, Ben! The FTL soundtrack is available for purchase on Bandcamp and Steam.
The shortlist for the 15th IGF award finalists has been revealed. There were more than 580 entries this year, across an incredibly diverse range of genres, requiring the attention of some 200 judges to help pare down the games into seven award categories, with five nominees apiece.
Contenders for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize are as follows:
Meanwhile, honourable mentions went to Gone Home (The Fullbright Company); Thirty Flights of Loving (Blendo Games); The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe); Super Hexagon (Terry Cavanagh); Starseed Pilgrim (Droqen & Ryan Roth).
Head over to the IGF site to see the full list of nominees each of the categories - visual art, narrative, technical excellence, design, audio and the Nuovo award for "abstract and unconventional game development". The winners will be announced as part of the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, on Wednesday 27 March.
I knew the moment the tide had turned. It was 15 hours into my first XCOM: Enemy Unknown campaign, and I’d just outfitted my squad’s psychic soldier with psi armour. I’d only discovered Major Tom’s latent mindbending abilities a few missions before, but he’d already proved himself a devastating anti-alien defence in the field. Kitted out in this gear, he was near unstoppable.
Earlier in the game, I’d hung back. I’d waited it out, luring aliens into laser crossfire, overlapping vision cones and overwatch orders, patiently, eventually clearing out XCOM’s alien infestations. Now, I could sprint psychic Tom out into the open, call out those unknown enemies in droves, and melt their puny brains. I revelled in it. I started talking at the screen. “You think you can run, you horrible bug? I’ll make you eat your friends. I’ll make you stand in the open, rip your disgusting body open with hot plasma. I’ll make you die. I’ll make all of you die.” Then I’d start cackling.
I’d invented a fiction. My soldiers were my action figures, I’d made them run and hide and shoot and watch their friends die, and I imbued them with the heroism and pathos of those events. Graham Smith had been impetuous and aggressive. He died when he strayed too close to a burning – later exploding – car. Owen Hill, once carefree and cheerful, was calcified by his death. He became a dead-eye sniper, silent and stoic, and able to lance a Muton through the eyes with a snapshot from half a map away.
Marsh Davies was relentlessly helpful. My team medic never missed a mission, and reinvigorated everyone else when their resolve slipped or their blood drained out. He never once panicked. Richard Cobbett was insane: a close-range monster, he’d hurtle into combat, heavy alloy cannon acting as far-future shotgun and drawing enemies out for easy shooting. He somehow survived the entire campaign.
Until the turning point, I imagined my women and men daunted by the task of saving humanity. After, with the psychic in their midst, I imagined them standing in XCOM’s home base, grinning. They had it in the bag. They were too powerful, too well-equipped, knew too much about their enemy. Enemy known, now.
I’d led them all the way, but I didn’t feel like it was my victory. It was theirs as much as mine. These action figures were alive. XCOM: Enemy Unknown seduces players with attachment, making you know and care for your soldiers. When they die, a tiny part of me dies. Sometimes they live. I love it when they live. Without that attachment, XCOM is merely a mechanically superb turn-based strategy game that I’d suggest everyone plays. With it, XCOM elevates itself even further, forging player memories that’ll live as long as you play and care about games.
The fact that FTL lets me command a craft called The Space Badger with Don Draper at the helm isn’t the main reason I love it (although it is a factor). Ever since I saw Firefly, I’ve been eager to take charge of a crew and lead them to almost certain death. FTL lets me do that, over and over again.
Your primary objective is to outrun the rebel fleet, which advances like a red wave across every sector. Dozens of jump points form an explorable web in each system. You can encounter anything from a drone guarding treasure to a planetary distress signal or a secret space shop. These quick interludes offer a short list of choices, which may result in a fight, a reward, or nothing at all.
For the first few playthroughs, these little choices formed the narrative of my ship’s journey, but that novelty began to wear off as I saw the same choices repeating. Then I started to game the system. I would always ruthlessly destroy pirates even if they tried to surrender, knowing that the more resources I earned from early sectors, the better my long term chances would be. It soon became obvious that FTL isn’t a game about canned stories or alien encounters, it’s about survival.
Then the important decisions came to the fore. Should I spend precious resources on upgrading my energy drive? Should I repair? Should I buy fuel? FTL’s upgrade systems present a fascinating ongoing conflict between the need to keep the vessel ship shape and a desire to make it better.
It helps that FTL’s most devastating weapons are a joy to use. They let you sketch streaks of laser death across the hulls of your enemies. They can teleport bombs right into your enemy’s engine room. They let you order drones to surgically slice up your enemy’s oxygen supply. You can even see the doors on their ship opening and closing frantically as the crew dash to repair what remains of their vital systems.
Everything you can do, however, can also be done to you. FTL’s campaigns are often tales of continuous, worsening crisis. Like the hero of a hardboiled detective novel, your ship becomes more battered and bruised with every encounter, limping towards the distant final boss with a naïve sense of hope.
FTL’s finely balanced systems deliver great strategy, but it’s in the slow demise of your craft that the game finds its drama. That it manages to do so much in such short bursts of time is remarkable.
Read More: Our FTL review and Tom F's FTL Diary.
Runners Up: Hotline Miami and Thirty Flights of Loving
At the end of each year we hand out awards to honor the experiences that live in our best memories of the preceding months—the games that moved us with their ambition, quality, and pioneering spirit. None of the decisions are ever easy, and there's no secret formula: we pit opinion against opinion with straightforward, old-fashioned arguing until one winner is left standing in the GOTY battle cage. Look below for the first landmark of that exciting week-long debate: a list of our eligible winners in 11 categories, including Game of the Year.
Beyond recognizing what games we loved most this year, though, it’s crucial to call attention to a truth that connects them all: PC gaming is exploding. Our hobby is many-tentacled and unbridled—practically every niche, genre, and business model mutated in a meaningful way this year. Two shooters built on new, PC-only technology released (PlanetSide 2 and Natural Selection 2). Dota 2 grew into its adolescence. League of Legends’ Season 2 Championship drew an audience of 8.2 million—the most ever for an eSports event. Modders resurrected content that was thought to be lost. So many remakes and spiritual successors to old school PC games got crowdfunded that we're sure we’d miss some if we tried to list them all.
That said, the following list marks the peaks of this mountainous year, and you'll find out which games won in the next issue of PC Gamer, and here on the web soon.
Dota 2 Dishonored Mass Effect 3 PlanetSide 2 The Walking Dead Tribes: Ascend XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Crusader Kings II FTL: Faster Than Light Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Guild Wars 2 PlanetSide 2 Rift: Storm Legion World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition Diablo III Mass Effect 3 Torchlight II
Borderlands 2 Dishonored Far Cry 3 Max Payne 3 Spec Ops: The Line
Super Hexagon may have become our fast, frantic and brilliantly soundtracked game of choice, but Hotline Miami remains an excellent acid trip of revenge, violence and talking owl masks. It makes the 80s look cool, which is an impressive achievement in itself.
If you've yet to experience Dennaton Games' brutal top-down murder-ballet, now's the time to take a look. Steam have gone and chopped its price in half, cutting it down to a criminally cheap £3.49/$5.
The store have also got a 40% deal on the marvellous FTL, dropping its price to £4.19/$6. It's a decidedly more strategic affair than Hotline's hyper-kinetic ode to viscera, but still a panic-inducing experience in its own right.
Both sales will run until Monday.
That's enough exceptionally cheap indie games, now let's have an ultimately pointless argument about which song from Hotline's amazing soundtrack is the best. My vote's for El Huervo's Turf. Or maybe Sun Araw's Deep Cover. Ah, they're all good.
Spaceship management roguelike FTL is one of this year's standout games, and also one of the first Kickstarted projects to result in a playable product. Its modding scene centers around new ships, tweaked mechanics, and updated graphics. We've picked out three ship replacement mods by hellcatv, with art in the case of Serenity and the Enterprise provided by MattsterT. Each of these mods swaps out one of the default ships with a new model complete with new equipment and a custom load-out.
Download links can be found below. Check out our FTL review for more on the game.
Grognak's Mod Manager USS Enterprise ship mod (replaces Kestrel) Star Destroyer ship mod (replaces Engi ship) Serenity ship mod (replaces Kestrel)
Tyler, Omri, and T.J. discuss what a wonderful time it is for PC genres that were once considered forgotten. Dishonored brings back stealth simulation, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a sleep-depriving boardgame, Star Citizen asks why resource-intensive PC space sims ever left us, and Project Eternity takes a pre-rendered isometric point-of-view on the whole modern RPG situation.
All that in PC Gamer Podcast 332: Yo genre so old...
(Plus more weird tangents. Like Garfield.)
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