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Once every twelve hours in the Frostpunk demo I've managed to get my hands on, I can open the Book of Laws and issue a new decree. It's all treated very gravely—Frostpunk, from 11 bit Studios, is a tough and gritty game about building and managing a city in a hostile, frozen environment—but it's hard not to laugh a little when my first law involves soup.
I get the gravity of the situation, I really do. My small collection of citizens are starving and freezing and miserable. Resources are in short supply. My generator is barely keeping people warm, many are sick and injured, and night is falling which will bring even colder temperatures. Cooking soup—and only soup—means being able to feed more people with less food, which makes sense.
Still, it's a soup law. It's a law about soup. It's hard to take myself seriously as the leader of the last civilization, one on the brink of doom, when I'm opening a big law book, probably while surrounded by my most trusted advisers, and writing the word 'soup' in it. Maybe in capital letters. SOUP.
That's the first and last laugh I get in the Frostpunk demo, which gives me ten days of in-game time to play. Those are ten incredibly stressful, horrible days full of tough choices and tougher laws. Much tougher than my Law Of Only Soup.
I begin with just a generator and a few dozen cold, hungry survivors. I assign some to collecting coal, wood, and steel from the crater my city sits in, and watch as my tiny workers push their way through chest-high snowdrifts. They all leave grooves in the snow behind them, which fill back in when more snow falls. It's a really nice touch and makes me wish the zoom could push in all the way. I want to see my miserable, soup-sucking civilians up close as they shoulder their way through the frost.
With some resources gathered I can turn on the generator for warmth (the snow around it melts away, another lovely detail) and begin to build the handful of structures available, which will crowd in a circle around my massive generator. At first there are just tents and a shelter, a hunting lodge and cookhouse, but more are added as I slowly progress through the first few days. If I keep the city together through its shaky first week I'll be able to add a building for tech research, a medical building, sawmills for harvesting trees, a coal mine, and other structures.
Aside from shelters, buildings need to be staffed with workers who are pulled from gathering duty, which means fewer resources. All the while, there are two meters at the bottom of the screen: discontent and hope. They fill and empty depending on the current circumstances and my decisions. One of those meters, like the bellies of my citizens, is always just about empty.
I regularly get to open my Book of Laws and make a decision, like about how to care for the ill, how to dispose of the dead (build a cemetery or just dump 'em in the snow), and whether or not children should be given jobs. Well, forced into jobs. Safe jobs! But still, jobs.
I do have one bright moment amid the grim and cold days. When I finish researching scouting, a balloon slowly lifts from the city which I can use to examine the surrounding map. It's small beacon of hope (for me, at least, as I'm too busy watching the balloon to notice if it lifts the spirits of my citizens as well). Having spied a few new locations in the world from the balloon, I can send small scouting parties out.
This results in more decisions. First, which workforce do I draw from to create my scouts in the first place? Every person I reassign from a task leaves me short-handed. My scouts, once I've assigned and dispatched them, find other survivors on the map, who I need for my labor pool but who will also deplete my meager soup reserves and take up space in the shelters. I also have to choose if I should have my scouts accompany them back (thus costing my scouts some valuable time) or hope the survivors can find my city on their own (thus risking some of them dying along the way). Every choice has a downside.
As my city slowly grows, more decisions crop up. Should I enact a law that says I can force people to work at night during an emergency? Yes, definitely, though mainly because I'm frustrated when the work stops at night anyway, especially when my latest tech research is 94% complete. I know, you're all tired and cold and hungry, but things need doing and the longer things take to do the more of you will die and the even longer things will take. To do. So do 'em.
I find that forcing children into labor is a pretty easy decision. This comes after noticing that one kid's status is that he is on his way to play. Play? In a frozen city of death? Trust me, kid, you can make a game out of gathering rusty, jagged steel from a snowbank. It'll be fun! A little later, I'm asked to decide if kids should perform more dangerous jobs. Um... yes, but let's not issue a press release on this one, fellas. I'm beginning to feel like a pretty terrible person.
I've already had to pull staff from the medical building to gather more coal, and this is with my sick numbering so high I've run out of beds and they're lying on the floors. I can't afford the resources for a more advanced medical building so I've told my doctors to start cutting off limbs (their patients' limbs, not their own) if it's more efficient than longer, kinder treatments.
Meanwhile, the consequences of my terrible decisions begin arriving like snowfall. The people whose legs I've been sawing off can't work, but they sure can still eat. One kid I've forced to work hurt himself, and I'm torn between giving him a day off (he is a kid, after all) or reprimanding him (look, I can't have other kids deliberately hurting themselves to get out of coal duty, right?).
As I approach day 7 of the 10-day demo, things really begin falling apart. I haven't built enough housing for everyone and half my population is homeless. My hunters aren't gathering enough food and the cookhouse is empty. People are sick and cold and dying. Research on new tech is happening too slowly. Every person who dies means fewer resources that can be gathered, but not enough of them are dying to solve my housing shortage. I'm mulling over a decision to make cannibalism a city-sanctioned activity (should spice up the soup, at least) when I'm told my generator, which I've been running on overdrive for more warmth to combat dropping temperatures, has gone critical and needs to be repaired.
I'm told the only one who can fix it is someone small enough to crawl inside. Yes, yet another child whose life I've ruined is my city's only hope. I send her in, and she fixes the generator, dying in the process. Little Hattie Ridley, you will be remembered as a hero, because I stuffed you into a generator hatch and crossed my fingers. And then probably ate someone else's fingers.
We don't yet know Frostpunk's release date, but boy I hope it's soon. Those ten days (well, eight—my generator wound up exploding the next day anyway) were filled with challenging decisions and grim stories, and it's a gorgeous looking game to boot. The demo, as far as I know, isn't available to everyone, but if that changes I'll be sure to let you know.
It's sometimes hard to let things go, especially when the things in question are as fantastic as The Witcher. But all good things come to an end, including the saga of Geralt, and so it shouldn't be surprising that Doug Cockle, who gave voice to the character, said at EGX (via VG247) that he knows "nothing about The Witcher 4." But he did have some interesting thoughts to share about some of his experiences in the role.
You may or may not be aware, but Geralt is famous for his prowess with the ladies—so much so that CD Projekt recorded 16 hours of sex-scene motion capture data. (He also inspired a sexy cosplay calendar.) And of course that means that Cockle not only has to sound tough and rugged when he's fighting monsters or confronting corrupt Nilfgaardians—he also has to lay it down (so to speak) during those tender moments of bumping uglies.
"It’s a bit like being caught masturbating by your mom. But it’s kind of fun," he said. "It can be really challenging, you’re naturally embarrassed. You’re having to show whoever's in the booth that side of your personality."
As for the future, Cockle said CD Projekt is "very much focusing on Cyberpunk ," the futuristic RPG that the studio steadfastly refuses to talk about, and that he hopes to be involved in it somehow.
"What I have discussed [with CD Projekt] is the idea of me being involved somehow," he said. "Whether that’s a major part or just an Easter egg. I hope so, I really enjoy working with them. But I haven’t had significant contact. We have jokingly talked about it."
I think it's a good bet that it will happen. The Witcher trilogy wasn't just a surprise RPG hit, it's a series that, over the course of a decade, turned a small Polish developer nobody had ever heard of into a legitimate gaming juggernaut. As the memorable voice of its lead character, Cockle played a big part in making that happen, and I'll be honestly surprised if he doesn't turn up somewhere in its next big thing, even if it is only as a little bit of fan service.
We ran down everything we know (which isn't much, I have to say, but it's what we've got) about Cyberpunk 2077 right here.
I was surprised yesterday when Divinity: Original Sin 2 producer David Walgrave told me that the damage loop seen in the video above would not be removed. "It appears that it is not a never-ending loop and you're not doing anything else while you're doing it," he wrote.
As you can see in the video, however, the trick cycles through a feedback loop that drains a troll's entire health bar. (Head to yesterday's story for an explanation of how it works.) So even if it is within the confines of Original Sin 2's spell logic, it's just a tad OP.
I followed up with Larian, and today the developer informed me that after looking into the trick further, "the team determined that this is in fact an unintended bug, for which a patch will be issued ASAP."
Despite this particular instance of clever spell synergies being identified as a bug, Larian reiterated what it told me yesterday, saying that it "applauds creative approaches to the game" and only 'fixes' one if it "really breaks the fun of the game or something goes wrong at some point."
So while there are many, many allowable—and possibly very powerful—spell synergies accounted for, this was apparently one that slipped through testing undetected, and wasn't intentional. Personally, I didn't plan to pursue the trick, as wiping 6000 HP with a few spells doesn't feel quite like it's in the spirit of the tactical turn-based combat I've been enjoying so far. Though if you were enjoying the trick, I'm sorry to say it's on its way out.
With or without the Soul Mate loop trick, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is one of my favorite games of the year. Fraser digs in to why in his review.
Ruiner thrusts me into the shoes of a masked killer with one objective: KILL BOSS. There's no fanfare, just a cacophony of thumping electronica and brutal kills. As I cleave through enemy after enemy and peel away the layers of what I think I know, one thing becomes clear—someone is definitely being played. Is it me?
Developed by Polish team Reikon Games (ex-Witcher and Dying Light devs) and published by Devolver Digital, Ruiner is top-down and faux-isometric, and so will immediately draw comparisons to games like Hotline Miami or Hyper Light Drifter. But there's more to it than that. It's set in a futuristic city inspired by Bangkok that's absolutely drenched in the cyberpunk aesthetic, and it explores topics even more disturbing than the kills you'll engage in.
The lead character is decidedly robotic, but there’s a soul beneath the helmet and a reason for the madness. The nameless player character’s brother has been kidnapped by Heaven, a menacing megacorp that's taken on virtual reality in a sinister way. There's also a hacker known only as “Her” with whom you share a goal, a story that will unfold throughout the rest of Ruiner.
So far it’s a darkly comedic, action-packed story. Ruiner opens up crimson-soaked industrial corridors as it eases me into combat, at first armed only with a melee weapon. From there, I face off against baddies wielding everything from melee weapons to SMGs to tricked-out shotguns, which can be taken and used against them.
Using the keyboard to control movement and the mouse to aim in a way reminiscent of Alien Breed, I run across platforms, dodge mines, and exterminate everything that stands in my way.
Combat is by far the most satisfying aspect of Ruiner, a veritable ballet of bullets and projectiles whizzing past as I mow through each wave of bad guys. Zipping around the screen feels natural and satisfying, especially when time slows down for some brief moments of bullet time. It's a smooth, unflinching system. Miscalcuate once and it's curtains, over and over again.
Luckily, there are special abilities to keep me from dying too often, like the Energy Shield. Triggered by the space bar, it's a portable field of energy that can block projectiles like bullets and is toggled on and off. It’s an absolute boon for charging through areas where turrets pepper me with projectiles.
I can also use a quick dash ability either as a one-off sidestep, or to set targets while my character moves between them automatically. Used in tandem, these abilities kept me out of the line of fire. The challenge lies in learning to string them together, which can be a little unintuitive at first.
As I play I acquire skill points to spend on newer abilities and upgrades that’ll help keep me alive longer, like a pulse of energy that can be used to stave off enemies. These actions can be swapped in and out via the radial menu in the wild. If I make a mistake while spending skill points on new abilities in the future, I can deactivate any previously unlocked ability or upgrade and change them out for new ones. So that's nice.
The very first brush with a small-fry security chief boss is difficult enough even while pirouetting with an LMG, dodging and weaving bullets, but a later encounter with a bigger boss is even more of a thrill ride. I take out baddies right and left and siphon their health and energy drops as if they were krill to a whale, keeping myself alive and upping the timer. It's a frenetic, blood-soaked party, with one hell of a hangover.
One half of Ruiner is this perfectly tuned combat. The other half slows things down a bit for small hubs in the city where I can chat with citizens, purchase items, and get into trouble. There’s a form of currency called "Karma," gamified citizenship points for city-dwellers awarded for completing various actions.
Some locations require a high level of Karma to interact with, such as a club in the first area of the game, South Rengkok. There's room for the rest of Ruiner to deal with social commentary. If you come for the combat, you’ll definitely want to stay for the interactions, dialogue options, and colorful cast beyond the immediate lead characters.
The prologue and opening level show Ruiner to be a twitch action game stitched together with satisfying hub areas that exude style. There are plenty of secrets hidden within Rengkok, a mystery to solve, and plenty of hacker slang to pick up along the way. It’s going to be a wild ride.
Come back to PC Gamer Indie next week for our full review of Ruiner.
Grand Theft Space transports players from GTA 5's urban sprawl to the cosmos above. At present, it boasts a functioning space shuttle, 11 planets, three moons and scant alien life. It's modest—but should it realise its potential, this work-in-progress open-source project could become the fully-customisable space sandbox we've always wanted.
"When I first started making the mod I wanted it to be: You go to the moon, you fight some aliens, you come back to Earth," the mod's creator Soloman Northrop tells me. "But then we came up with the idea to make it an API, whereby anyone can add anything they want and change every single thing without touching code. I played around with the code and eventually came up with the structure, and we made it work."
First announced in January, Grand Theft Space was formally revealed in July alongside an impressive Rockstar Editor cinematic. It launched its first in-development version 1.0 earlier this month, and, within just one week, was downloaded over 15,000 times.
Overnight, hours of poring over pictures and data from the NASA website—not to mention a fair whack of artistic license gleaned from science-fiction—had paid off. With an interested playerbase, growth was something Northrop and his team could now pursue.
As a hobbyist group made up of students and graduates, Northrop and his peers aren't building a GTA-driven No Man's Sky or Star Citizen, but are instead championing a platform for players to experiment with their own scripts, missions and scenarios. A heartening chunk of the mod's newly-launched Discord channel appreciate its potential, against the tide of irrational demands for seamless space landings and thriving intergalactic colonies from the outset.
The former attitude underscores Northrop and his team's raison d'etre: Grand Theft Space is a work-in-progress in the truest sense—one that will live or die by how much or how little its community supports it.
"It would require a lot of developers to chip in, but if we had a community, a place where the Grand Theft Space community could go to talk about ideas and stuff, it could very well end up like Kerbal Space Program," says Northrop. "If we do it well enough, that is, if we figure out a system that's similar to KSP, where you can orbit and do all that stuff, then people would love it. That's what people want: They want to play GTA and play a game that they can't afford—really, that's what mods are."
So why hasn't anyone tried this before? Grand Theft Auto 5 is one of the most modded PC games around and while a multitude of both realistic and sci-fi-inspired space mods already exist, no one has successfully recreated the final frontier with such wide-reaching scope.
"I was asking myself that," admits Northrop. "Most people try to do it conventionally, without making a bug into a feature. So, people might have been like: Oh, I can't change the skybox or, oh, I can't remove the map so there's no way to make space. What I did was went into 3DS Max and I created a big sphere, inverted it and attached it to the player. It looked exactly like I was in space.
"I thought: Maybe I can actually expand on this. Eventually that's pretty much what happened. I'm guessing that's the reason why no one has attempted it so far, that they've wanted to do it conventionally. At some point that will be possible and we'll update the mod when that's possible."
Northrop suggests he'd eventually like to see other players adding more galaxies, or the ability to leave the current arena to further flung solar systems. He'd also like to see a survival script implemented that would force players to track their hunger levels, food supplies and fuel management while on out on expeditions.
Nicholas Kjellman, the mod's map and web developer, agrees that a survival script would be a welcomed addition to Grand Theft Space, but that he's also keen to see real life discoveries applied to the mod, similar to how EVE Online blends reality with its fiction. Mod packs in line with famous franchises is something else Kjellman pines for.
"Since it's an add-on, the survival could be implemented to the regular game too," he says. "I'd also like to see people working on things that overlap the game with reality. If you tune into science news, you constantly hear things about scientists finding Earth 2.0—if that could then pop up in the mod that'd be great. Or even nearby star systems like alpha centauri, it'd be cool to add in that. I'd also like to see Jupiter or Saturn's many moons too. Mod packs themed after certain franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, that'd be really cool."
Vehicle developer Lukaz, aka Skyline, suggests the introduction of a mod shop would allow players to customise their own spaceships, which would in turn encourage the GTS team to produce more models. At this stage, the possibilities far outweigh what Grand Theft Space is capable of, but it's nevertheless hard not to feel inspired by Northrop and his colleague's eagerness.
In the immediate future, the team plans to add and alter a number of models, paying particular attention to planet surfaces. Terrain variation is top of this list, so as to add character to foreign planets.
"Eventually, we want a base game. Like GTA 5, you can play it forever, you can mod on top of it—we want a base game that you can just literally spend your entire time in GTA in space and just do whatever you want," says Northrop. "It's sort of like that right now but it's too buggy and we need to just add more stuff so that they don't lose interest too quickly."
One particular feature that is repeatedly requested is seamless transitioning when entering and exiting planets. Kjellman loves the enthusiasm the mod's community brings to the project, however is equally keen to highlight the limitations of working within such a small, hobbyist team.
"People want to ask us for the seamless transitions but it's not possible for us to edit a mesh at runtime, just like Kerbal Space does (when you enter a planet it actually unwraps the sphere so that it's not loading the entire planet at the same time)," Kjellman says. "We can't do that in GTA so we have to consider different workarounds in order to get it working. It's really difficult to do and people post blanket statements like: why didn't you do this or that. It's like, we're trying our best, we don't really know how to do all of this stuff. There's only eight of us."
But crafting something with lasting appeal like Kerbal Space Program, like Garry's Mod, like Multi Theft Auto is well within their sights. I ask Northrop if he thinks players will still be playing Grand Theft Space in years to come, should it take off as planned.
"If people do expand it, if we figure out a way to increase the render distance too—that's the only thing that's holding us back right now—there's no reason people won't be playing Grand Theft Space several years from now. If we actually figure that out then the possibilities are endless. Completely endless."
Divinity: Original Sin 2’s first challenge is getting safely, or at least successfully, in and out of the Fort Joy prison camp. You may have noticed there are quite a few ways to crack that particular egg. Here’s every way to get in, and more importantly, back out of Fort Joy. You can mix and match to your heart’s content or pick up every quest along the way if you want. There are a few ways to escape without getting into a fight, but you’re going to have to handle some combat, one way or another, to get in.
To make it easy, we've described the set up and outcome of each relevant questline, so there are spoilers ahead for the early game.
The Magister’s key
Magister Yarrow’s father is missing and if you can reunite the two you’ll be rewarded with Yarrow’s key to the fort. Either talk to Yarrow on the North wall of the fort to start the quest or find her father, Migo, on the Southeast beach. Migo is half out of his mind and eager to rip you in half when you find him. The only way to stay out of a fight is to talk to him armed with a Yarrow Flower. Fortunately, Yarrow flowers are all over the island (they're purple, and we found one near the man with the coffin). Give him one to remind him of his Yarrow Girl and he’ll give you his ring. Present the ring to Yarrow as proof her father still lives, follow her to the family reunion, and she’ll give you a key to help you escape before you turn into as sorry a sight as her father. The only problem is, the key goes to a door just south of the main fort gates on a catwalk whose ladder is propped up out of your reach. To put the Magister’s Key to use, you’ll need to teleport up to the catwalk with the Teleportation Gloves.
In the Strange Cave on the South beach is a small group of elves who’ve made a sort of hideaway from Griff and his bullies. The kids playing hide and seek off to the side can reveal a hidden passage if you talk to them. With high enough Wits, you can discover it yourself without their help. You'll need a shovel, and you can find one just outside the entrance to the Fort Joy slums (where you first approached from the beach), on top of a ruined wall where there's also a bedroll. Down the hatch is a long-undead Skeleton named Lord Withermore. If you agree to take on a quest for him in Fort Joy’s basement, he’ll reveal a hidden route into the dungeons. In the waypoint statue at the entrance of the camp is a switch revealing another secret door. If you climb inside, you’ll find yourself another waypoint and an entrance to the dungeons. A locked door blocks your way but if you look closely there is a lever nearby to open it.
From there, you'll find a locked door up some stairs. You'll either have to pick the lock, or get into a fight. Note that the key doesn't drop from one of the Magisters—it's sitting on a stool where you fight them.
The Teleportation Gloves
An enterprising human named Gawin who hangs out near the Northwest wall will tell you he has a teleportation scroll to help get out of the island. He needs an accomplice who also possesses the powers of teleportation. If you want to come along, you’ll have to find yourself the Teleportation Gloves. Don’t worry, Gawin informs you, they’re just in the stomach of a furious crocodilian. You’ll find them on the beach north of the boat where you first encounter Beast. Watch out, those crocs have a teleportation skill of their own. Why wouldn’t they, right? Once you pry the Teleportation Gloves out of their cold, dead jaws, you can go help Gawin with his scheme outside the North side of the fort walls. He claims that only one of you can come along but that isn’t entirely true. Gawin will double-cross you as soon as you send him across to the opposite ridge, leaving you in the dust. Send your party over after him with those gloves anyway. You’ll still be close enough to one another that you can send the gloves to the inventory of your party members on the opposite side. Teleport the last poor member of your crew over and get going. This path will lead you to the docks. If you’re alone and unable to follow Gawin, you can smash the trunk on the ridge to bits and fall down the hole to the beach. After that, a cave below the opposite ridge will take you into Fort Joy’s dungeons.
The camp’s resident gang boss, Griff, has an elf named Amyro locked up in the kitchens. If you free Amyro, he’ll show clue you in on a secret passage into the fort. To free him, you’ll need to prove to Griff that the elf isn’t the one who stole a shipment of oranges. The real culprit, Stingtail, is on the Southwest beach. Be careful about approaching him because you can wind up putting a damper on two companion quests by accident. The Red Prince needs to speak to Stingtail and Sebille needs to kill him. Let them both do their thing, in that order, separately. Don’t worry about Stingtail winding up dead. You can grab the oranges out of a nearby crate and give them to Griff in exchange for Amyro’s freedom. The path Amyro shows you will eventually lead you to the dungeons, with some gags in between that I refuse to spoil. Suffice it to say, you’ll want to either bring a character with the Pet Pal perk or make sure to hug the east side walls and look for vines to climb to get through the passage safely.
The arena of Fort Joy
The fighting ring beneath the kitchens is another tough fight. If you plan to take this one on, I recommend starting each of the other quests to get the experience first. Not only that, but if you do choose to play for a win in the arena, your reward will be having your collar removed, which the Magisters will promptly throw you in the dungeon for. This will force you to exit the fort by fighting your way out of the dungeons, so wrap any other matters of interest up first.
If you took an entry route that leads to the dungeons, prepare to fight your way out. When you do, you’ll exit from a staircase that takes you to the main floor of the Fort. Otherwise, you’ll have found yourself on the main or second floor of the fort with all of the following escape routes:
The drawbridge at the back of the fort can simply be lowered with a lever nearby. To reach it, you may have to fight a few Magisters on the north side walls. You can reach this area either by walking up the outer stairs within the fort’s courtyard or by entering the second floor and walking out the North door where Paladin Cork is already confronting them. Alternatively, you can sneak out the back door of the same room, lower the drawbridge unnoticed, and get gone fast.
The broken ladder
On the second floor, East of the Hall of Penitence where High Judge Orivand is lecturing some poor prisoner, there’s a small, circular room that looks like a guard tower. There are some barrels blocking your exit onto a wooden catwalk. Simply move the barrels out of your way and you’re home-free. At the end of the platform is a broken ladder. You’ll land on your rear, but that isn’t so bad as far as escape attempts go.
If you painstakingly teleported your party across the cliffs where Gawin so thoughtlessly abandoned you, the docks will be your escape route. When you arrive, Gawin is getting what he had coming at the hands of the Magisters on the docks. You can either take out this group yourself and simply walk out or do some sneaking. It is possible to sneak behind the main dock area and teleport your party one-by-one onto the beach below. It takes time, but was worth it for a coward like me.
Han the Ferryboy
If you got onto the second-story catwalk of the fort but don’t have the Magister’s Key, you can climb down the ladder inside the courtyard while sneaking and enter the main fort doors. Conveniently, those aren’t locked. Once inside, head immediately to your right to confront two Magisters harassing a young boy named Han. The kid was sent in to rescue someone else who, if you explored the dungeons, you can tell him won’t be making it. After taking out the Magisters, Han will help you escape in his boat.
Also on the main floor of the fort is a torture area. Instead of heading for the docks where Han is waiting, take a left and make your way back. You can fight Kniles the Flenser if you really want to, but be warned that the Silent Monks in the room, who are passive elsewhere, will join him. Instead, you can sneak around the left side of his room and out an unlocked gate leading to the sewer drainage pipe. Freedom!
Last week, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds . The previous record-holder, Dota 2, while admittedly made by one of the world’s biggest and most powerful games companies, began as a Warcraft mod. These days, we barely blink an eye at the idea that a game can come from nowhere and shake through word-of-mouth, clever concepts, a bit of cool technology like Portal’s… well, portals… or simply by hooking into some reservoir of good feeling, and accomplish more than any marketing budget can dream of. Minecraft is this generation’s Lego. Undertale is one of its most beloved RPGs.
Indeed, the world of indie development is now so important that it’s hard to remember that it’s only really a decade or so old. That’s not to say that there weren’t indie games before then, as we’ll see, but it was only really with the launch of Steam on PC and services like Xbox Live Arcade that the systems were in place to both get games in front of a mainstream audience, and provide the necessary ecosystem for them to quickly and confidently pay for new games.
The massive success of indie games on Steam has of course come with attendant pitfalls. The early access program gave small studios the ability to beta test their games with player numbers they would not otherwise never reach, and gave players the ability to take part in shaping games. However, a lack of guidelines left players and developers with very different expectations as was seen in the reaction to a paid expansion being released for Ark: Survival Evolved while it was still in early access. Steam Greenlight made it easier for indie games to get on Steam but became a popularity contest that was easily gamed, leading Valve to replace it with Steam Direct.
All this is largely taken for granted these days, with the big challenge for modern indie games being to stand out. Simply getting onto Steam back then could set a studio up for life. These days the market is full to bursting, with most new releases disappearing from sight almost at once.
In both cases though, it’s a world away from how the market began.
The exact definition of ‘indie’ has never exactly been cut-and-dry. To some, it’s an aesthetic, best summed up by the classic bedroom coder. To others, it’s a more commercial distinction, of working without a publisher. To others, it’s ultimately about the work, with an indie game standing out more for being not the kind of thing you get from a commercial company, rather than really focusing on who made it.
There are many definitions to play with, and few hard lines to draw. The poster-children of ’90s shareware, id Software (who you may know courtesy of a little game called Doom), began working under contract for a company called Softdisk, cranking out games like Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, Hovertank 3D, and Catacomb 3D, before moving on to make games with/for shareware giant Apogee.
In the very early days of gaming, just about everybody was indie to some extent. In 1979 Richard Garriott set out on his path to buying a castle and going into space by selling copies of his first RPG, Akalabeth, in ziploc bags at his local computer store (one of those copies then ended up in the hands of California Pacific, who offered Garriott a publishing deal). Sierra On-Line began in 1980 as just husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams, making simple adventure games like Mystery House that nevertheless pushed the boundaries of what people expected from games at the time—like having graphics—before booming to become one of the biggest and most important companies in gaming history.
Companies could emerge from almost anything. Gremlin Interactive began as a computer store called Just Micro, while DMA Design, originally Acme Software, which would make its name with Lemmings and much later become Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar, began from its founders meeting up at a computer club in Dundee and ultimately signing with Psygnosis. Whole genres were created from a single game, such as Football Manager in 1982.
The speed of all this took many by surprise, with Balance of Power creator Chris Crawford saying in 1984, "We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospect. It’s much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don’t try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone."
But of course, people continued. The PC was largely left out of much of it, however, due to the relatively high cost of disks and its general perception of not being a gaming machine. In the UK, the main indie scene in the ’80s was on cassette based 8-bit systems like the ZX Spectrum, with publishers happily accepting almost any old tat, recording it to a tape, sticking it in a box, and selling it for a few pounds at newsagents, game stores, and anywhere else that would take copies. They were cheap, sometimes cheerful, and allowed for endearing weirdness like 1985’s Don’t Buy This—a compilation of the five worst games sent to publisher Firebird.
It would be many years before most indie PC games could get that kind of placement. Instead, there was shareware. The concept dates back to the 1970s, though it was popularized by PC-Write creator Bob Wallace in 1982. Rather than having a central distributor like a regular published game, users were encouraged to copy software and pass it along. If they liked it, they’d then send the creator a check to unlock the full thing or get more of it.
In the case of Apogee Software, and indeed what became known as the Apogee model, a game might have three parts. The first one would be free, and free to share, the other two commercial and only for registered purchasers to enjoy. (Not that anyone really listened, as the vast, vast numbers of pirated copies of Doom probably shows better than anything.)
The beauty of the system was that anyone could distribute these games, with the rule being that while you weren’t allowed to sell the shareware version, you could charge for materials. That meant games could appear on magazine cover disks and later CDs. They could be on any university server or dial-up BBS or services like Compuserve and AOL. If you wanted a relatively full choice however, you often needed to send off for them. Whole companies were set up to sell just the trial versions, sending out printed catalogues of their stock and charging by the disk.
By the mid-90s of course the popularity of CD had rendered this relatively pointless, with ‘1000 Games!’ CDs available in supermarkets and bookstores and anywhere else there might be an audience, rarely mentioning the part about them being glorified demos. Much like on Steam today, at this point most smaller games got lost. Still, as a player, it was an almost inexhaustible feast.
As crazy as sending off a check to get a game might seem, it worked. In a few cases, registered shareware games even made the jump to boxed products in stores, though that was relatively rare. Either way, shareware was hardly a license to print money for most, but it supported many a developer throughout the '90s and made others their fortunes. Epic MegaGames began with the text-based RPG ZZT before becoming the company that made Unreal. Duke Nukem began as a very simple 2D side-scroller, notable mostly for oddities like the main character wearing pink and just wanting to save the world so that he could get back to watching Oprah, but nevertheless blossomed into Duke Nukem 3D before publicly wilting into Duke Nukem Forever.
And there were many more stars too, regularly appearing in new games or simply popular ones that kept showing up, like Skunny the squirrel and his awful platforming (and ultimately karting adventures), Last Half of Darkness, and Hugo’s House of Horrors, much beloved by magazine and compilation editors for its extremely pretty first screen, and never mind that it was all made of clip art and every other room in the game was barely MS Paint-level scribbles.
Shareware's big draw for players was, inevitably, free games. The downside of the Apogee model and others that erred on the generous side was that a whole episode was often enough—especially as that’s where the developer’s best work tended to be. Compare for instance the deservedly beloved shareware episode of Commander Keen: Goodbye, Galaxy! where you run around a beautiful, varied planet, with the dull space adventure of its commercial sequel. Not every game could be Wolfenstein 3D and promise a fight with Robot Hitler if you paid.
Less cynically though, shareware gave many genres their home. The PC was typically seen as a business machine, with its commercial successes often adventures, RPGs and other slower and more cerebral offerings. There were platformers and beat-em-ups and similar, but they were usually poor conversions from other platforms at best, with few worth taking a risk on.
Shareware removed that risk factor for customers, while letting developers show off. The original Commander Keen, while simplistic to modern eyes, was proof that the PC could do console-style scrolling, even if it wouldn’t be until 1994’s Jazz Jackrabbit that anyone could seriously claim to be doing convincing 16-bit console-style arcade action and visuals. (Even then it wasn’t a very strong claim, but luckily by this point the PC had Doom and so didn’t care.)
This led to a flurry of games you really couldn’t get elsewhere, or that were in very short supply on the shelves, from vertical shooters like Major Stryker, Raptor, and Tyrian, to fighting games like One Must Fall, to quirky top-down RPGs like God of Thunder, and racing games like Wacky Wheels. It offered a great split. When you wanted a deep, polished experience, you had the commercial game market. For action fun, there was shareware, not least because when we did get big games like Street Fighter II, they tended to stink. Shareware supported the industry through much of the '90s.
By the mid-90s though, there was a problem. Commercial games began rapidly outstripping what bedroom teams could do, both in terms of technology and complexity of content. While there were engines available, they were mostly poor quality, with nothing like Unity on the market and the likes of Quake and Unreal costing far too much for anyone but other companies to license.
If you wanted to play with that kind of technology, you were looking at making mods instead. This was the era that gave us the likes of Team Fortress (1996) and Defense of the Ancients (2003), but also where the indie scene became largely forgotten. This wasn't helped by the fact that indie had essentially no place on consoles at all, despite a few nods over the years like Sony’s Yaroze console, a development PlayStation aimed at hobbyists released in 1997. The PC saw its own push towards home development with tools like Blitz Basic/BlitzMAX (2000) and Dark Basic (also 2000), with the goal of inspiring a new generation of bedroom coders. However, despite selling reasonably well, none of them gained much traction or saw many releases.
The indie scene as a whole ceased to be a big player in the market—which isn’t to say that it vanished. Introversion’s Uplink for instance was a big hit in 2001. Jeff Vogel’s Spiderweb Software started releasing old-school RPGs like Exile and Geneforge in 1995. PopCap began in 2000, becoming the giant of casual games like Bejeweled, Peggle, Bookworm Adventures, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Chuzzle—not bad for a company that was originally called ‘Sexy Action Cool’ and planned to make its debut with a strip poker game.
And of course, there are other notable exceptions, such as Jeff Minter, who never stopped making his psychedelic shooters both for himself and others. However, it wasn’t until 2004 when Steam nailed digital distribution that the market had a chance to explode and offer a real chance of going it alone.
Steam wasn’t the first digital distribution system, and at its launch it wasn’t even popular, with Valve forcing it on players for both Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike. However, it was the first major attempt that nailed the details, like being able to download your games on any computer you owned rather than having them locked to just one, and being able to do so perpetually, rather than simply for a year, as was the case with most of the competition.
The results spoke for themselves. When Valve was a lot pickier, and being backed by a publisher was a distinct advantage to getting onto the system, any developer who managed to get onto Steam effectively received a license to print money. Farther afield, though games not on Steam were at a distinct disadvantage, the legitimisation of digital distribution as a concept certainly raised most boats.
And with all this came something just as important: the indie game ecosystem. With money to be made and developers flocking to indie for all sorts of reasons (being tired of the big companies, wanting to make a go of an independent project) it became viable to create tools and systems to help make the scene. Game Maker for instance, and Unity and Flash. Today, would-be indie developers have the tools to go head-to-head with even the biggest studios, albeit typically on a smaller scale, as well as explore more cost-effective options like pixel art and procedural 3D, while services like Kickstarter and Fig offer a way of seeking funding without immediately selling out.
This also opened the definition of ‘indie’ even further, with companies seriously able to consider going it alone, without a publisher. Not everyone could be Double Fine, raising $3.5 million for Broken Age, but many have had huge successes—Pillars of Eternity pulling just under $4 million, the Bard’s Tale getting $1.5 million and in the height of Kickstarter fever, even Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe managing to raise $650,000 for a remake of the first game.
It’s at this point that the word 'indie' really catches on. Again, it’s not that it was never used, but until this point the scene wasn’t big and important enough to warrant a position as basically a shadow industry in its own right. The release of Cave Story in 2004 was where people really started talking in those terms, with Indie Game: The Movie in 2012 cementing this, highlighting three of the most successful titles of the time—Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy.
Microsoft embracing the scene via Xbox Live Indie Games played its part, as did their XNA development system, and attempts to make a big deal out of indie launches during its "Indie Game Uprising" events between 2010 and 2012.
Elsewhere, the IGF (Independent Games Festival) launched in 1999 was also going from strength to strength, drawing more attention to the likes of Darwinia, Monaco and Crayon Physics Deluxe. We also saw more overtly indie friendly portals like itch.io, and the Humble Indie Bundle, offering new marketplaces and ways of selling games—even if many later bundles proved a dead-end.
Perhaps most excitingly, it’s now that we start to see whole genres and styles largely associated with the indie market either flourish or come into existence, not least the ‘walking simulator’—games primarily about exploring a space and a story through environmental detail and voiceover. The first big name here was Dear Esther, a free mod released in 2008 and later remade in 2012, with later examples including Gone Home, Firewatch, and Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture.
There’s also the pixel-art aesthetic of games like VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, and the original Spelunky, and for many old-school gamers, a return to brutal old-school difficulty. And somehow I doubt we need to say much about Minecraft. (It’s been quite popular, and influential.) Classic point-and-click adventures also saw a resurgence outside of Germany, largely spearheaded by the Adventure Game Studio creation engine and the success of Wadjet Eye Games’ The Blackwell Legacy, Gemini Rue, Technobabylon, and the upcoming Unavowed.
But it’s of course reductive to pick specific genres. The joy of indie games is that as long as the money can be raised somehow, a passionate team can take on more or less whatever they like, free of publisher interference or perceived wisdom, allowing for arty games like Limbo and Bastion (distributed by Warner Bros, but only as a publishing partner), throwbacks to lost genres like Legend of Grimrock, exploratory pieces like The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide, or completely new concepts like Superhot, where time only moves when you do, and the ferociously complex Kerbal Space Program, where difficulty really is a matter of rocket science.
The downside is that as ever, it’s not enough to simply make a game. An indie title buffeted with word of mouth can sell millions, but far more are doomed to languish largely unplayed and discussed in the depths of Steam’s increasing piles or other services’ far less traveled shelves. The initial gold rush is very much over. Still, plenty of gold remains. It’s impossible to predict what game will be the next Spelunky, the next Minecraft, the next Undertale, or the next Super Meat Boy, but absolutely no risk at all to bet that whatever it is, it’s already on its way.
After describing themselves as "huge fans of the Battle Royale genre", Epic Games unveiled Fortnite Battle Royale last week—a new free-of-charge mode that'll drop 100 players into "one giant map" in a bid to become the last person standing. It's due to launch this coming Tuesday, September 26.
Now, it appears Bluehole has taken issue with perceived similarities between Epic's incoming mode, and its own similarly structured megahit PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.
"We've had an ongoing relationship with Epic Games throughout PUBG’s development as they are the creators of UE4, the engine we licensed for the game," says Bluehole VP and executive producer Chang Han Kim in a statement. "After listening to the growing feedback from our community and reviewing the gameplay for ourselves, we are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known.
"We have also noticed that Epic Games references PUBG in the promotion of Fortnite to their community and in communications with the press. This was never discussed with us and we don’t feel that it’s right. The PUBG community has and continues to provide evidence of the many similarities as we contemplate further action."
We'll have more on this story as it develops.
I've hardly hidden my admiration for Grand Theft Auto 5 stunt performer Ash Skyqueen in the past, but her stunts never fail to surprise me. She's been messing around with machinima creation of late however, as you can see below, she's clearly not lost her knack for stunting in the interim.
Best known for her Mount Chiliad pylon and Liquor Hole skydiving ventures, Ash's latest combines the latter with some impressive swirling and swooping atop an Oppressor custom sports bike. Look, see:
As if Ash's Opressor skyscraper glances and crane junction ducking weren't extraordinary enough, topping the performance off with a variation of her Liquor Hole finish—the history of which we covered over here—is top drawer.
Catch more of Ash's work via her YouTube channel, and read about the spectacular feats of the Grand Theft Auto stunt scene by way of that there link.
In March, new images from Junction Point's cancelled Ravenholm-set Half-Life 2 episode emerged. Led by Warren Spector, the studio's take on the eerie zombie town was said to include a Magnet Gun—a twist on Freeman's iconic Gravity Gun—and the creator has now explained what its function within his game would've been.
Speaking in this month's PC Gamer UK magazine, Spector affirms Ravenholm was not simply an outpost in the ill-fated story's campaign, but that the episode was to be set there entirely.
"We wanted to tell the story of how Ravenholm became what it was in the Half-Life universe," Spector tells us. "That seemed like an underdeveloped story that fans would really enjoy. In addition to fleshing out the story of Ravenholm, we wanted to see more of Father Grigori and see how he became the character he later became in Half-Life 2."
Speaking to the Magnet Gun, Spector explains how it would use projectile magnetic balls to attract metal objects from a remote location. Even in writing the examples he describes sound like great fun.
"It went through several iterations, but the one I remember was one where you'd fire a sticky magnetic ball at a surface and anything made of metal would be forcefully attracted to it," says Spector. "You could fire it at a wall across an alley from a heavy metal dumpster and wham! The dumpster would fly across the alley and slam into the wall. You can imagine the effect on anything approaching you in the alley—either squashed or blocked.
"Or you could be fighting two robots and hit one with a magnet ball and they’d slam together making movement or combat impossible for them. Or you could be trying to get across a high-up open space with an I-beam hanging from a cable in the middle. Stand on the I-beam, fire a magnet ball at the far wall, the beam swings across the gap, walk off it, done."