Escape Doodland

Escape Doodland, you may have gathered, is a game about escaping Doodland. More specifically, it's a co-op 2D auto-runner with art straight out of the notebook of a bored art student with too much paper on hand. It's also on Kickstarter, with developer appSide Down asking for $7,838 to bring it to life. At the time of writing, its campaign has raised $1,989 and will run for another 26 days. 

The best doodles are simple, silly ideas taken way too far, and Escape Doodland nails that bonkers look. Everyone has too many eyes and also precisely enough eyes, environments are Alice in Wonderland-esque oddities, and you can often literally see the graph paper in the background. It works because it's everywhere, and there's a surprising amount of detail to it. The devs said they "wanted to combine absurdity with diversity," and only settled on doodles after trying more traditional art styles. 

The game's 10 playable Doodlers all show the same weirdness, from the irresponsibly happy potato to the good old-fashioned blobs. You can play Escape Doodland with up to four people at once, so it's important to have varied characters. You don't want to lose track of yourself, for one, and you're escaping Doodland in the first place because a big red monster is gobbling it up, so you're going to want to know who invariably throws you to the monster in co-op. 

The devs say the bulk of Escape Doodland is finished, and that the Kickstarter money will mainly be used to cover multiplayer and music costs. Depending on the success of its campaign, it will release in mid- to late-2018. 

Braid

Braid's protagonist Tim, seen here mid-jump. Art by Michael Fitzhywel

Braid is one of those games that rolls lazily off the tongue in conversations about the most influential indie games of all time. Depending which of the many breathless pieces you've read about it over the years, Braid was either an "enormous leap towards realising the potential" of videogames that "ripped away…years of gaming blinkers", the "Sex, Lies and Videotape of indie gaming", or possibly even gaming's "Easy Rider" moment. It has a reputation as more than just a clever puzzler with a mind-bending rewind mechanic—it was seen as a changing of the guard, a signal that independent games could finally compete with their big-budget counterparts.

Even today, it's still on people's minds. Developers I've spoken to over the past few months have managed to slip it into conversations about seemingly unrelated topics, mentioning its brilliance or commercial success. But how influential was it actually? Did Braid directly inspire a generation of indie developers? Or was it just one indie project among many that managed to find an audience at a time when distribution platforms like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade were making games more accessible?

"In terms of graphics, aesthetics and emotion it was not particularly influential [on] me," says Dino Patti, co-founder of Playdead, who now works at a new studio called Jumpship. Playdead developed Limbo, a game that's often mentioned in the same sentence as Braid. Patti says that though he "really enjoyed the puzzles" and the way the time manipulation mechanic forced players to think "out-of-the-box", it didn't stick in his mind any more than other games at the time. 

He was, however, keeping close tabs on its commercial success. Braid sold well when it came out in August 2008, shipping 55,000 copies in its first week on Xbox Live Arcade, and its numbers only ramped up when it came to Steam in April 2009. Jonathan Blow spent $200,000 making it, and by 2015 he'd raked in nearly $6 million. "I personally spent a lot of time analyzing [Braid's] numbers," says Patti, who was eager to convince investors that independent games could make money. Patti even spoke to Blow in 2009 about the ins and outs of releasing without a publisher. "We were looking very closely at how well it was doing," he says.

We were not influenced directly by its game design, but we were closely watching how games like Braid or World of Goo managed the business and marketing

Jakub Dvorsk , Amanita Design

But that success wasn't unique. Patti says the team were watching "anything that did reasonably well back then", including Castle Crashers, which came out in the same month as Braid and sold better, racking up 103,000 players in its first three days. It would go on to be the best-selling Xbox Live Arcade game ever. 

Hearing Patti talk about Braid as just one game in a crowd surprises me, because out of all the indie games that found an audience in the years following Braid, Limbo is arguably the most directly comparable: it's a puzzle-platformer that relies on atmosphere to tell a subtle story that's open to interpretation. But I get the same message from Jakub Dvorský, chief executive and founder of Amanita Design, which released Machinarium a year after Braid first came out.

Dvorský calls Braid a "very smart" puzzler and notes that it was "one of the first really successful indie games" but again, he sees it as part of a "wave of games"—which also includes the likes of World of Goo and Windosill—that started grabbing the attention of players and other developers.

"We were not influenced directly by its game design, but we were closely watching how games like Braid or World of Goo managed the business and marketing," he says. "Both World of Goo and Braid had an impact on us mostly in how they broke into the games market, how their developers handled communication with players and media, and what business decisions they made."

And even when Braid's success did influence Dvorský, it was largely confirming "what we already felt, that it's possible to avoid publishers and use only storefronts who agreed on 70/30 or better revenue share". Before those games came out, Amanita had "already decided" its direction of travel, having released point-and-click adventure Samorost 2 in 2005, which was successful enough for it to develop Machinarium independently. 

It's hard to disconnect the success of Braid and its contemporaries from the rise of platforms like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam, which made it easier than ever for indie developers to get their games in front of players. "The development became easier, and maybe even more importantly it also became possible to distribute and monetize games directly to players without having a publisher," Patti says. "All of a sudden making smaller, low-budget games started to make sense."

Some people were able to succeed while making games they really believed in, that was inspiring

Greg Kasavin, Supergiant Games

It's a thought echoed by Greg Kasavin, writer and designer at Supergiant Games, developers of Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. "Independent games were being created long before the success of something like Braid," he says. "Kongregate launched in 2006, and [there was] stuff like Newgrounds, which Super Meat Boy came out of. There was always this scene of independent game creators making weird platformers and adventure games… but something like XBLA helped to make it a viable commercial business, and then it caught on with Steam."

But Braid had more of an impact on Kasavin than it did on Dvorský or Patti. It was on a "shortlist of games" that made the Supergiant team realize that "small groups of people can make impactful games that could feel very meaningful and personal, as well as being high quality." That list games included Plants vs. Zombies, World of Goo and, Castle Crashers, but Braid was "emblematic of both that era and the style of game."

Without the success of Braid and other games of the time, Kasavin says Supergiant wouldn't exist. The fact that Braid and other games like it found a large audience gave the team confidence that there was a possibility for indie development to be financially viable. "Supergiant was self-funded, it was people drawing into their savings or asking their family for help, things like that, and we couldn't have done that for fun. Even though we knew the chances were terrible, there had to be some sense that it was possible," he says.

"There was no part of us that thought we could be the next Braid or the next World of Goo, but the fact that these games did exist, that some people were able to succeed while making games they really believed in, that was inspiring both creatively and from the standpoint of trying to create a small studio."

When I ask Kasavin how Braid inspired him personally, it's clear that it's a game close to his heart, and one that he feels shouldn't simply be lumped in with others that came out at the same time. "I wouldn't call it a narrative game, but there's absolutely the sense that it's about something. It's not just a platformer for its own sake. Its mechanics and aesthetics are in service of a greater experience," he says. 

"Every ounce of that game felt like it was richly layered with subtext, that it was a deeply personal work, and a poetic work. I'd been playing games with impactful narratives since I was a kid, but the way in which Braid was able to take every aspect of its presentation and use it in service of a meaningful experience where every detail was intentional, that to me was inspiring."

It's easy to overstate the influence that Braid had on indie gaming. To some in the industry, it's just one game (albeit it a memorable one) among many that happened to flourish in the indie boom of the late 2000s, which is itself tied closely to improvements in distribution through platforms like Steam.

But that doesn't mean you should completely dismiss it. Without Braid, there would be no Bastion. There would be no Transistor, and no Pyre. And while Supergiant is just one studio, I have no doubt that others owe Braid a similar debt. 2008 and 2009 were years in which many talented developers were floating in the wind, having lost jobs at companies that were struggling with both the global financial crisis and the rising cost of making games. "You're left with all these skilled developers wondering what they're going to do, and they start seeing games like Braid, and they're getting inspired," Kasavin says. 

Braid's release may not be the singular defining moment for the indie gaming explosion, but who knows how many games wouldn't exist without it?

This article is part of the Class of 2008, a series of retrospectives about indie games that were released 10 years ago. 

Overload Playable Teaser 3.0

Overload, the 6DOF (six-degrees-of-freedom) shooter from the folks who made Descent, was successfully Kickstarted in March 2016 and hit Steam Early Access in March 2017. Today, developer Revival Productions announced it will officially release on Steam and GOG May 31, and that it will launch with the multiplayer which was originally going to be added on later. 

The full game boasts a 15-level campaign plus 12 challenge mode levels, Revival says, with 20 different enemy robots and three boss fights between them. As you progress, you can outfit your spaceship with 16 different weapons. You can get a sample of all that in Overload's free Steam demo, or you can buy the full game for $25 before it jumps to $35 once it leaves Early Access. 

Descent's official sequel, Descent: Underground, was made by Descendent Studios, confusingly enough. The team at Revival, meanwhile, consists largely of devs who worked on the first game at Parallax Software back in 1995. 

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS

The PUBG Global Invitational 2018 will bring the world's top 20 pro PUBG teams together in Berlin to do battle in "the first major PUBG esports tournament officially hosted by PUBG Corp," with a total prize pool of $2 million up for grabs. 

Teams taking part will be selected through a process of regional qualifiers to be held in July in North America, Europe, and Asia. The finals, which will take place in July, will feature four-player squad battles, with separate winners declared for third-person and first-person gameplay.  

"The PUBG Global Invitational 2018 is a landmark moment for PUBG Corp. as a showcase of the potential of PUBG esports,” PUBG Corp CEO Changhan Kim said. "The team at PUBG Corp. is working tirelessly to ensure that the PGI 2018 exemplifies the pinnacle of PUBG competition and brings to life all of the excitement, tension and exhilaration of the highest level of PUBG play, not only to the fans attending the PGI 2018, but also those watching at home." 

This isn't the first pro PUBG tournament—a 2017 PUBG Invitational took place last summer at Gamescom—but this is the first hosted by PUBG Corp itself. Hopefully the viewing experience will be improved over what we saw the last time we looked: Brendan Greene acknowledged that changes needed to be made earlier this month, when he said that the company is aiming to establish itself as a major player on the esports scene, "with events taking place in big stadiums and sort of year long leagues."  

Details about the PUBG Global Invitational 2018, including information on venues, regional qualifiers, and ticket availability, will be announced at a later date. 

BATTLETECH

BattleTech lore spans over 1,100 years of wars, events, people, and space exploration, from an alternate version of the Cold War era to the far-flung future. Harebrained Schemes' BattleTech is set in the year 3025, a critical epoch where humanity has been in fractious decline due to centuries of continual warfare with no end in sight.

Like many games that come from tabletop beginnings, BattleTech world-building is split between a variety of novels, sourcebooks, and other supplements—enough to satisfy any lorehound for a lifetime. Here's a brief smattering of recommended readings to really get you invested in the universe of BattleTech.

The Warrior Trilogy

(Warrior: En Garde, Warrior: Riposte, Warrior: Coupé)

This series takes place across the 3020's and establishes a number of characters and organizations that become continually important for the BattleTech timeline. Written by Michael A. Stackpole (who also wrote the special novellas released with HBS' BattleTech), these books deal with the political and military machinations taking place in the core of humanity known as the Inner Sphere. There are also awesome mech battles, of course.

The Blood of Kerensky Trilogy

(Lethal Heritage, Blood Legacy, Lost Destiny)

Another era-defining series, these three books capture a picture of the Inner Sphere and its warring Great Houses immediately before the apocalyptic Clan Invasion and their response to the threat of total annihilation. Continuing with the approach of the Warrior trilogy, Stackpole introduces new scions of previous heroes and villains and advances the political landscape. The Clanners and the strangeness of their society and obvious military might are also introduced here.

Illusions of Victory 

A personal favorite, Illusions of Victory skips forward over a decade after the start of the Clan Invasion and centers on the game world of Solaris VII. Solaris is a political microcosm of the rest of the Inner Sphere, and rumblings of civil war within neighboring Great Houses has everyone on edge. This book is notable for its entirely standalone nature, being supported by existing lore but not requiring previous knowledge to become immersed. It's a good sampling of everything the BattleTech universe has to offer in terms of action, suspense, intrigue, and giant robot duels. —Ryan Burrell

Technical Readout: 3025

Nominally a resource for tabletop gameplay stats, TRO 3025 is chock full of lore write-ups and full page illustrations for mechs, vehicles, and even spaceships present in the BattleTech universe. Many of these military assets are downgraded remnants from the glory days of the ancient Star League, with in-world deployment histories and notable pilots. This book established the format for all later Technical Readouts as a mixture of mechanics and storytelling. 

Sarna.net

No article about BattleTech lore would be complete without mentioning the definitive BattleTech wiki, Sarna.net. I made heavy use of Sarna in researching story elements for the BattleTech: Restoration campaign, and it's quickly become one of my favorite resources for deep-diving into the lore and history of the setting. —Andrew McIntosh 

Ryan Burrell is a systems and UI/UX designer at Harebrained Schemes, working primarily on its combat gameplay and MechLab experience. He's been enthralled with BattleTech for over 20 years after grabbing his first Technical Readout at the age of 10. His favorite mech is the appropriately named "Awesome." Andrew McIntosh is the principal writer of BattleTech, and has been writing games for HBS since Shadowrun: Dragonfall. His favorite mech is the humble Urbie, a 30-ton trashcan with an enormous gun and stubby little legs.

Editor's Note: You can find many of these books on Amazon or eBay, although they vary in rarity, format, and corresponding price.

DOOM

One of my odd little videogame quirks is that I always try to wait for new enemies I encounter to take the first shot. As a child, I had this strange, faint idea that maybe if I didn't shoot, they wouldn't either—that maybe my restraint would lead me down some super-secret path to videogame glory that all the trigger-happy chumps out there (which is to say, everyone but me) were too dumb to figure out.   

It never worked out that way, obviously, and 95 percent of my videogame problems continue to be solved at the end of a virtual gun. But a new Doom mod called Mr. Friendly, created by former 2K and Double Fine developer (and noted Doom fan) JP LeBreton, delivers that sort of fanciful outcome by converting one of the most notoriously violent FPSes in history into an opportunity to talk it out. 

The titular Mr. Friendly—that's you—is a demon too, but one of the good guys: A Guardian Demon who talks with the other demons to help them chill out, and maybe work through their feelings a bit, after the Doomslayer has rampaged through the area. Instead of killing things, "the point is to chill out, do quests, interact with stuff, and more": One such quest involves catching a Dopefish for an imp named Hylozoist, who's looking for a low-maintenance first pet for his kid. (All the demons in the mod have names, and yes, you can go fishing.) 

Switches, doors, and level exits work as they normally do, but there's also an inventory, crafting, a "to do" list that tracks quests, and a walk/fly toggle that doesn't require an "IDsomethingsomething" cheat code. It's almost a total conversion, and it will work with any Doom Iwad and "a majority of user-created vanilla Doom levels."   

Mr. Friendly is a "playable alpha" and so there's still some placeholder art and a few known bugs and missing bits. LeBreton said on Twitter that there are roughly 10,000 "joyful, goofy, densely referential" works of dialog in the mod, and the "known issues" page promises "tons of writing" to come, including "variations for quest briefings, monster names, item descriptions, [and] monster small talk." It requires GZDoom 3.3 or later to operate, and can be had for free from Itch.io

The Swords of Ditto

Devolver Digital's "compact action-RPG" The Swords of Ditto, which as we noted last year stands out from the crowd by rejecting the retro-pixelated look in favor of a sharp, more detailed visual style, will be out tomorrow. To mark the coming of the big day, Devolver and developer onebitbeyond have whipped up a launch trailer that shows off the lovely look and teases its promise of "unique adventures linked together." 

The game's description is a bit vague about how those heroic tales will come together, only saying that each adventure will become a legend "distinct from those that came before it and part of a heroic legacy that bind together. The deeds, successes, and failures of each hero's adventure have implications for those that follow including the ability to find weapons and recover loot from history’s fallen heroes." 

Swords of Ditto writer Ed Fear revealed more about that aspect of the game on Twitter. He described it as actually having two stories tied together in a sort of before-and-after format, but added that if you don't care about such things and just want to bang around inside some pretty dungeons, that's fine too. 

"The story has been designed to be unobtrusive, because this is a rogue-like, and not everyone cares about that stuff," he wrote. "But it is there! A dark underbelly, hiding just beneath the cute-as-pie surface."

Aside from the usual dungeon-splelunking gear like swords and bows, The Swords of Ditto will offer up more exotic items including vinyl albums (something by Dire Straits, I would assume), a magic golf club, and a colossal foot from the Heavens. You can also bring a friend along for some co-op play, if you don't want to go alone. The Swords of Ditto is available for pre-purchase for a 20 percent discount off its regular $20 price on Steam, GOG, and Humble.

PC Gamer

"I wish everyone was just like you," I mutter to my steampunk automaton as it stiffly lurches toward my coal mining plant, leaving big, round footprints in the deep snow. I have grown weary of the humans inhabiting my city. They're frail. They're fickle. They get hungry and angry and sad, they fall ill from the cold and skip work, they lose limbs to frostbite and can't work. They suffer and die, and worse than that, they make me suffer because they have thoughts and opinions and most of all, fears. My steambot, though: it just works, only pausing occasionally to refuel. These humans need hope to survive, but my robot doesn't. It's an ideal citizen.

Frostpunk is a city-builder and a society simulator, but most of all a crisis management game where the crisis doesn't end until the game does. A few hours with Frostpunk and the tornadoes and tsunamis of Cities: Skylines seem like minor inconveniences. The traffic jams and noise pollution you used to fret over are now an utter fucking joke. In Frostpunk, if citizens are unhappy enough they'll banish you from your own city to die despised and alone. They might leave town if you fail them, but first they'll spend days trying to convince others to join them in mass exodus. Frostpunk is a tense, gripping, and often stressful survival strategy game filled with difficult, sometimes unthinkable choices. It's tough to play but even tougher to stop.

Steam building

In Frostpunk's version of the 1800s, the entire world has become a sub-zero, arctic wasteland. After fleeing London, the only hope for the survival of your few dozen followers is a massive coal furnace standing in the center of a crater. You'll build a small city that huddles around that towering furnace for warmth: a handful of tents, a hunting lodge, a mess hall. Resource gathering is initially limited to sending your citizens pushing through chest-high snow drifts to pick coal from the frost and bust up old crates and scrap piles for wood and steel. Build a lab and staff it with engineers to begin researching new tech: sawmills for cutting down frozen trees, mines to unearth resources from the floor and walls of the crater. Streets will eventually form spokes radiating out from the furnace and you'll line them with buildings and steam towers to keep the ice melted—at least until the temperature plummets even lower.

But that's later. In the early days your city is sparse and the situation is grim, with resources so scarce—and labor power to collect them scarce as well—that simply seeing the sun rise after a night without a casualty feels like major victory. Each new building and item on the tech tree needs to be carefully considered and weighed before spending resources on it. Constructing a pub will lift people's spirits, but that wood is also needed for a medical center to treat the ill. Assigning more hunters to gather food means pulling workers off coal gathering duty, solving one shortage by creating another. Saving up resources to build something important tomorrow when people are homeless or sick today feels cruel and heartless and completely necessary. When asking 'What do my people need most?' the answer is usually: everything. 

In the hours before I grew to hate every last one of them, I was constantly torn between short term fixes and long-term solutions for my citizens, feeling guilty for extending work hours to mine a few more chunks of coal to keep the furnace running all night. Wonderfully difficult choices await at every turn in Frostpunk, with precious few being clearly right or wrong.

While my eyes flick restlessly over tiny meters at the top of the screen—how much wood and coal and food is left, and how long will it last—I spend more time staring at the bigger meters at the bottom: discontent and hope, the true gauges of my city's health. Call for a 24 hour work shift and discontent will rise sharply, even as the additional labor saves lives. Sending everyone to bed with full bellies will give them hope, even if they're sleeping in freezing cold tents. If discontent gets too high, or hope too low, you may be notified you only have a few days to reverse the trend by accomplishing a specific goal. Fail to deliver, and those meters will take a hit, creating a tricky balance. That lumber you used to construct a steel mill instead of new homes might make your city ultimately stronger, but you broke a promise to provide shelter for all, so people lose faith in you. It's a masterful expression of the burden of leadership.

You'll be alerted from time to time of some grim events in your city. A child was found nearly frozen sitting next to the grave of his parent. A citizen committed suicide by leaping into the furnace. Someone pulling a double-shift worked himself to death. Sometimes there's nothing to do about it: it's just a little moment the game offers up to make you feel like absolute shit. (To be fair, someone occasionally thanks you for something, but kind words are quickly forgotten when an automaton accidentally crushes someone underfoot.) Sometimes you can make a choice: between forcing an exhausted worker to continue or letting him rest, or choosing to believe (or not) a citizen asking for extra food who may not actually have a hungry child. You're told in advance how your choices may result in a small bump to discontent or hope in either direction, but the reality is that you'll often have to make everyone unhappy to keep them alive. And you'll make more meaningful choices, and more difficult ones, by passing laws.

Human resources

At times I felt like a villain for doing the right thing or a hero for doing the wrong one.

You can pass a new law every 18 hours, and very few of them feel like triumphs of legislation. To make sure everyone has enough to eat, you can cut the food rations with sawdust. To keep production up, you can put children on work detail. Should the deathly ill be treated or just kept comfortable so you focus on the people you know you can save? Nearly every law has a downside: I mean, obviously, children shouldn't have to work, they're children. But try saying that when you've only got enough coal to last an hour and night is about to fall. It's harsh to send a kid out to gather resources from the snow, and even harsher to have him work in dangerous coal mine, but isn't that preferable to letting his parents freeze to death?

Eventually you'll have to choose how to keep your citizens motivated in the face of endless winter. Will it be with order and discipline, or faith and spirituality? Both paths of law can build hope in your population, mainly by exerting control, which can eventually turn you into a despot or false god. A neighborhood watch sounded like a fine idea to me since thieves had been plundering city supplies and rations. Guard towers felt like a natural choice to cut down on troublemakers. Patrols led to arrests, arrests led to prisons, and soon I found myself mulling over building a propaganda center to issue leaflets to reassure everyone I had our problems handled. They needed to believe everything was going to be OK, or at least I needed them to believe it. So I forced them to believe it, I made them be hopeful. It was that or risk losing everything.

The faith path, meanwhile, gives you shrines and temples to comfort citizens, but again, it's a small step from encouraging a little praying to stomping on competing faiths and declaring yourself an infallible leader. You may think you'd never consider rounding up anyone who speaks out against you or publically executing a troublemaker in the middle of town, but in desperate times, when you're on the brink of being cast out of your city or abandoned by the dozens, ruling with an iron fist doesn't feel like the worst option, just one bad option among several. These choices aren't pleasant ones, but Frostpunk is excellent at making you balance being a good leader against being an effective one. At times I felt like a villain for doing the right thing or a hero for doing the wrong one, something few games are bold enough to allow.

Ice fishing

Frostpunk isn't contained to your chilly little city: there's a big frozen world out there, and once you've constructed a lookout station you can rise above the rim of your crater and have a look around, then send scouting parties out to investigate new areas of interest. It's a welcome change to widen your view from the sooty smokestacks and narrow streets and explore. Locate survivors in desperate need of help, find the frozen remains of another city, look for other pockets of life that might be fighting to survive. Like much in Frostpunk, the results of expeditions can be a glorious relief or a terrible burden. Sometimes your scouts will find resources and deliver them back to your city, additional coal or wood you need to complete a project or heat your generator for a few extra, crucial hours. You can even establish outposts to keep wood, food, or other resources arriving in your city on a regular basis.

Every pair of hands that can solve a labor problem is attached to one mouth that can cause a food shortage.

But while finding new citizens means more workers and engineers, it also means more shelters need to be built and heated, more food hunted and cooked, and more sick filling your already crowded medical buildings. Every pair of hands that can solve a labor problem is attached to one mouth that can cause a food shortage. At one point, several big waves of refugees arrived, most of them terribly ill, which meant either a mad rush of new construction or the brutal choice of turning some or even all of them away. An earlier law I'd passed saying working children get double rations, an act of mercy to make up for an act of cruelty, meant the choice to rescue dozens of abandoned kids in the wild wasn't an automatic yes. Frostpunk is startlingly adept at making your doubt, and even regret, acts of decency.

Your scouts also gather information about what happened to the world, why it happened, and more disturbing: what is going to happen next. None of it is good news.

In cold blood

The first time my scouts delivered some really bad news, my city was humming along, if not perfectly then at least adequately. I was building storehouses for stockpiles of coal and wood. I'd replaced tents with real houses, kept warm by steam towers, which meant no one was getting sick. A supply line for extra lumber was in place. I had a factory in place to build robots that could work around the clock, and was even planning to build a robot that could run my robot factory. Discontent was low and hope was sky-high. The news, which I don't want to spoil, changed all of that in an instant, and my city's hope meter drained almost entirely, taking a lot of my own hope with it. I wanted to continue on with my efficient city planning, but now I had to cast those plans aside and focus only restoring hope or face complete failure.

It felt unfair at first. Deeply unfair. I'd worked hard to make my city safe, habitable, and functional, and my reward was that half my population abruptly deciding they'd be better off leaving. Structurally and strategically I'd done everything right, but people were still miserable, and it took me a while to accept that Frostpunk, as a game, could be allowed to betray me like that. But it's not just about building a city, it's about dealing with society, and real society can work like that sometimes, like when scientists develop life-saving vaccines only to see parents turn to Jenny McCarthy for pediatric advice. When you give society the tools to survive, they might just fling a wrench into the gears. Society sucks. Automatons would never do that. 

End of days

Frostpunk isn't an endless city builder: the campaign lasts about 45 days (which took me roughly 12 hours), culminating in an event that will put your fragile city and citizenry to the test in unthinkable conditions. It does feel a bit strange when the game ends. I'm used to open-ended city builders that let me play as long as I want, and I certainly would have enjoyed to opportunity to continue to tinker with my city after the final curtain, so that's a bit disappointing. There's some replayability here: choosing different laws the next time, trying to avoid the mistakes of the last campaign, though the major events and discoveries will be the same each time. One full game is enough to unlock nearly everything in the tech trees, so a replay won't be a wholly different or surprising experience.

Frostpunk keeps your view several stories above the frosty misery of the city, so you can never really connect with your citizens.

There are a couple other scenarios to try, however (with more planned, according to the menu text): in one you're challenged to build a city that can support hundreds of refugees and deal with major social unrest as a result. In the other your task is to keep several seed storage vaults warm enough to protect their contents with very few human workers, relying instead on building an army of automations. I've played a bit of both scenarios and the challenges are significantly different from the main campaign.

Frostpunk also has extraordinary style and and art design. I love the way notifications and menus spread across your screen with the sound of cracking ice, the way steam rises when the sun hits your city after a long cold spell, beads of condensation forming on your screen as you sigh in relief at having survived another day, and the way your tiny citizens wade through waist high snowbanks leaving trails of black tundra behind them, only for those grooves to fill back in as more snow falls. It's beautiful and engrossing in its grim depiction of a world gone cold.

I only wish I could zoom in closer. Frostpunk keeps your view several stories above the frosty misery of the city, so you can never really connect with your citizens. Sometimes instead of looking at labeled meters to tell my how my people feel, I wish I could just peer into their faces and read their expressions, to see their hope or misery for myself. Then again, who has time to take the temperature of the masses? I've got coal to mine. Get to it, my dear automaton. You might break down from time to time, but you'll never lose hope.

Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia

Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia recently teased the uglier side of battle, but today showcases the prettiest. Named 'Land of Hope', the war series spin-off's latest cinematic looks at pre-invasion England—moments before Viking longboats breech its shores. 

On St. George's Day, Thrones "pays homage to its English heritage", so reads a statement. Twitter also reliably informs me Kate Middleton has given birth to another sprog. Topical celebrations all round.

"It was under Alfred the Great and his immediate successors that a unified Anglo-Saxon kingdom was first forged," says game director Jack Lusted. "As the only major kingdom left standing after the Viking Invasion, it was under the banner of Wessex that the lands the Great Viking Army had conquered, known as the Danelaw, were retaken. The name of this kingdom changed from Wessex to England."

Creative Assembly teased the King of Wessex in action earlier this year. Lusted adds that the reconquest of Danelaw "led to an adoption of many elements of Viking culture," some of which are still prevalent today. 

Lusted adds: "A number of towns across Northern England bear Viking names for instance, and there are well over a hundred common English terms that can be traced back to Nordic origins. This new English kingdom would go on to be seized by William the Conqueror in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings."

Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is due May 3, 2018. Before then, check out its system requirements—and read Tom's tragic but humorous tale of betrayal and collapsing kingdoms

AudioSurf

Ninja Mono, Audiosurf's most popular mode, poses for a yearbook photo. Art by Michael Fitzhywel

A telling difference between today's indie games scene and that of 10 years ago is how excited Dylan Fitterer was to hear his game was going to be on Steam. 

Audiosurf had just been nominated for three IGF awards in the categories of Technical Excellence, Excellence in Audio, and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. As Dylan tells it, "Then I got a call from Jason Holtman at Valve who said, 'Hey, you want to sell this on Steam?' That blew me away. That was crazy to get an offer like that."

Audiosurf went on to win the audio category as well as the audience vote, but the bigger prize was that it became February 2008's top seller on Steam, both by number of copies sold and revenue, despite being an indie rhythm game that cost 10 bucks. It eventually sold over a million copies. Of course since this was 2008, it was one of only five games released on Steam that month.

Best Game Ever Dot Com 

Getting to that point was a road as bumpy as any of the rollercoaster levels Audiosurf makes out of the music you feed it. Like a lot of designers, Dylan's first game ideas were way beyond his capabilities. "I was trying to build the biggest videogame possible, that incorporated everything," he says. "My first game I was working on was like Magic: The Gathering meets first-person shooter meets something else. Had everything in it, the one game that was all games. That was what I figured I'd just build, by myself."

After a couple of years hitting his head against that wall he changed tack and went as far in the other direction as possible. From then on he only worked on games that could be finished in a week. "What I did is I launched this website called bestgameever.com and put up this promise that I'm gonna release a new game every Friday just to see if I could actually finish some things. And one of the things that I finished on there was called Tune Racer."

The original Tune Racer, which can still be found on archive.org

Tune Racer auto-detected whichever CD was in your drive at the time—this was 14 years ago, so of course you had CDs near at hand—and then matched the tempo of that music to a simple game about a car racing along a tube, overtaking other cars. Two sequels followed, tweaking the idea so that cars had to be dodged around instead of just overtaken (an idea that would return as Audiosurf 2's Dusk skin). 

There was clearly something to the idea, something that kept drawing Dylan back. When he eventually decided it was time to invest more than a week in one of his concepts, to monetize one of those bestgameever.com prototypes, it was Tune Racer he turned to. He figured he could turn around a deluxe version in "like a month." 

Spoiler: it took longer than a month.

"You should probably usability test your game" 

Dylan wasn't alone. His wife Elizabeth, who had a day job at Microsoft, helped him over the course of what turned out to be several years of work. The two encountered plenty of dead ends along the way. They even tried to give Audiosurf a plot for a while, though he doesn't recall the details. "My wife and I worked on a story, and I don't remember if the motivation was like as an extended tutorial, or if it was just this lack of confidence that a game with no story would be compelling for people," he recalls. "I'm not sure. It didn't come together. It wasn't a good idea."

That is so hard. Watching people play your game that you think is almost there and you discover that you're not even close.

Dylan Fitterer

What was a good idea was letting people use their own mp3s. Rhythm games with original scores have a hurdle to get over because players need to get used to the music before they can tap along with it, and even something like Rock Band can fall flat with players who don't listen to the bands it favors. Audiosurf's algorithm matches the curves of the track, the speed of your craft, and the placement of blocks to elements of the songs you choose, songs you already love. It transforms your mp3 collection into an explorable space.

"My absolute favorite thing was to play this track from OCRemix in the game's Mono mode. The simplicity of Mono mode and the intensity of the track made for a great flow experience."—Ben Prunty, composer of FTL and Into the Breach

The big beat

But for most of Audiosurf's development, the placement of blocks wasn't in sync with the beat. "Those were basically random," Dylan admits. "I had convinced myself that didn't really matter. The track was shaped to the music and you just had these random patterns and you could maybe see the music in the patterns if you look hard enough or something. It made sense to me but Elizabeth, my wife, finally convinced me that was not a good idea." 

The extra effort was worth it, although even then it wasn't a game that clicked with everybody. Some people sat down to play and don't feel the connection between the game and the song, no matter what music they choose. There just seems to be something in the way people are wired that determines whether it works for them or not. "We noticed that early on at trade shows. I think most people would see how it worked right away once they played, but some people get in and play and say, 'I don't see how it's synchronized to the music.' We'd be in there clapping and stamping our feet."

Another worthwhile idea was thorough playtesting, and not just at conventions. The value of seeing how new players react to a game repeatedly over the course of its development is impossible to overstate. "My wife did a lot on it before anyone else," Dylan says. "Toward the tail end she was working at Microsoft as a usability engineer in the Xbox group and so one night she comes home and says, 'You should probably usability-test your game.' 'Oh, yeah. That's a good idea.' We just hired friends and different people to play it and watch them play, and [we would] not talk. See where they get hung up. That is so hard. Watching people play your game that you think is almost there and you discover that you're not even close."

"I'll always connect Audiosurf to the voluptuous hillsides produced by Wuthering Heights, specifically the swell into the orgasmic walls of red. A decade on, I still shiver."—Kieron Gillen, former PC Gamer editor and Audiosurf leaderboard champ

Going ninja 

One of the ways Audiosurf began to differ from Tune Racer was that it wasn't just about avoiding obstacles. It stopped being a game about weaving between blocks and became a game about collecting them, matching three of a kind into the grid at the bottom of the screen. "Through that usability testing that my wife and I did, we discovered that that was really hard to teach," Dylan says. "It was hard enough explaining to people that you use your own music, that was foreign, then this other thing where you're playing a match-3 game on this racetrack to music, it was too much to teach."

Our timezones were so different that we'd have a call at midnight and tell them what we thought about the last batch of stuff and what we wanted the next day

Dylan Fitterer

The optional mono mode was the solution. It simplified things by reducing the blocks to two varieties, one to collect and one to dodge. "I thought that would just be a stepping stone or maybe just a tutorial mode and then that ended up being super popular." Players wanted it to be more than just an introductory way of playing, so Dylan created 'ninja mono' as the hardcore variant, and it became the way most players experienced Audiosurf.

The Fitterers were helped across the finish line by several contractors, including artist Goran Delic who drew characters like the ninja for the select screen, and Paladin Studios, who built various 3D assets. "They did the vehicles and the geometry that's alongside the track and the squid that's at the end," Dylan says. "That was a week or two weeks of work, right before launch. That was a lot of fun. Our timezones were so different that we'd have a call at midnight and tell them what we thought about the last batch of stuff and what we wanted the next day and we'd get up in the morning and check it out and put new stuff in the game." 

And finally, there was Valve. Their involvement went beyond just putting Audiosurf on Steam—it was the first third-party game given access to Steamworks, the full suite of tools Valve's games use for everything from leaderboards to achievements. It also shipped with the soundtracks to The Orange Box games packaged in, and selecting certain songs from Portal triggered a "secret level" where you have a portal gun and some of the blocks are companion cubes.

On Audiosurf's release those songs immediately became the most popular on its leaderboards, but competition broke out wherever players found songs that made particularly fun levels. So did arguments about which genres suited it best. "I don't think there is an objective best or anything," Dylan says, although he notes that his preference is for bands like Tool and Nine Inch Nails. "One of the things I like about industrial, Nine Inch Nails kind of stuff is it tends to have very big changes very rapidly, so a slow part, a very intense part, and that creates very cool moments."

Those moments of drama and intensity when everything lights up and the track swoops around at speed are key to the appeal of Audiosurf, and when you find out a song you love hits one of those it's even better. But as well as connecting you with music you're already into, Audiosurf has helped players discover new music. Dylan himself learned a lot about what was popular in 2008. "I was a little behind the times I think. Like Dragonforce, that was huge. 'What is this song everybody's playing?' Podcasts were funny, there were people playing podcasts. I hadn't thought to try that."

The Fitterers followed Audiosurf with a sequel and a VR spin-off called Audioshield. But some day, Dylan says he'd like to go back to bestgameever.com and see what other forgotten treasures it holds. "I still have the domain, I just have this lame little placeholder on there right now. I have that site backed up I keep meaning to get it back online. That'd be fun."

This article is part of the Class of 2008, a series of retrospectives about indie games that were released 10 years ago.

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