Agenre Provocateur: where to begin with gaming

Agenre Provocateur is a column that explores the best of independent video gaming aimed at those new or returning to the scene.

Man, I can’t really imagine what it’s like to be an adult who wants to give gaming a try these days. I mean, have you seen the controllers for modern consoles? So many buttons that even the control sticks are buttons. PC gaming seems to be even more obtuse. All those folk with the glazed over looks constantly spouting numbers and acronyms ad nauseam. Wiping the crusted snack bits from around their mouths before retreating back to the cave for all-night retreats to a fantasy kingdom, with a crowd you secretly suspect may be death cultists.

Luckily, gaming has being through something of a renaissance in recent years. Thanks to the rise of digital platforms such as Steam and the prevalence of crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter, designers and programmers sick of working on mainstream games have never been better placed to create their own independent companies. With just a handfuls of individuals (or on occasion completely solo) they have been given the opportunity to make the kind of auteur driven, stripped-backed titles that are frankly impossible to achieve in teams of sometimes hundreds of people.

What does all this mean for you though, potential gamer? Well, for one thing, the dreaded question of “What are the buttons?” for the most part won’t require the kind of explanation that’s equivalent to prepping for your driving theory test. Most indie titles only use a couple of buttons or a simple mouse and/or keyboard interface.

Secondly, with the majority of new indie games priced at around a tenner, a foray into the scene isn’t going to break the bank any time soon. Best of all, if you plan to go down the PC/Mac route and you’ve purchased a machine in the last few years, there’s a good possibility that you’re ready to go already!

So where do you start? Well, the aforementioned ease of developing indie games has lead to a deluge of quality that can be intimidating to cut through. However, I’d like you to join me as I brandish a virtual machete and lead you to ‘The Valley of Indie Games I Think Are Quite Good’ (working title).

Braid

Released in 2008 onto the Xbox 360 Live Arcade service, Braid is the brainchild of designer Jonathan Blow and one of the subjects of the excellent documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Looking like a basic platformer on the surface, Braid features time manipulation mechanics that make this feel more like a series of puzzles than a test of reactions. A game that still feels unique despite it’s age, Braid was one of the first big modern indie hits and proof that deliberately eschewing gaming conventions was not necessarily commercial suicide. (Xbox 360, PS3, Windows/Linux/Mac)

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Super Meat Boy

If Braid is a gentle afternoon stroll through the park, Super Meat Boy is talking that same walk but chased by six rabid Rottweilers. Another project featured in Indie Game: The Movie, SMB is platforming at it’s purest. One run button, one jump and the stick or pad to point you in the direction you want to go. It even abstains from the convention of power ups to focus entirely on precision, reflexes and level knowledge. With a difficulty curve that’s just the right side of frustrating this is the peak of ‘one more go’ gaming. (Xbox 360, PS4, PS Vita, Windows/Linux/Mac)

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Hotline Miami

Proof that when it comes to media outrage on gaming-related violence, the indie games scene mostly slips under the radar. Drawing influence from movies such as Cocaine Cowboys and Drive, Hotline Miami dumps your character by buildings set in a surreal 80s version of the titular city, with no other expectation than that everyone in the interior be dead by the time you exit. Rock solid, gloriously over the top and with an absolutely blistering soundtrack, Hotline Miami is not for those of a weaker disposition. (PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Windows/Linux/Mac, Android)

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FTL: Faster Than Light

Another entry from the hard-as-balls camp, FTL is basically a Star Trek simulator where the main threat of that episode happens before the title sequence and things spiral out of control rapidly from there. On the run from the evil rebels (thought you were usually the good guys, rebel scum?) you travel across the galaxy, recruiting crew members, upgrading your ship and trying to stay out of trou….OH GOD WE’VE JUMPED INTO AN ASTEROID FIELD AND ARE BEING ATTACKED BY PIRATES HELP. Adding to that FTL also features perma-death, which means that once your ship or crew is destroyed, you have to start over again. However, every time you start again the universe is randomly generated, leading to almost limitless variation and replayability. Despite having never completed it FTL is one I always go back to for the palpable tension and amazing stories it creates. (Windows/Linux/Mac, iOS)

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Thomas Was Alone

Okay, the last couple are pretty savage so I thought I’d leave you with something that’s just really bloody nice. Thomas Was Alone is the tale of a bunch of shapes who use their respective properties to solve some fairly simple puzzles. The whole thing is narrated by writer and presenter Danny Wallace, who imbues these geometric characters with more personality than it’s reasonable to expect. The writing’s great, the music’s lovely and it’s got charm spewing out of every orifice. If feeling like you’re wrapped in a big warm hug is more important than being challenged, this is your game. (PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Wii U, Windows/Linux/Mac, iOS, Android)

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  • Next time – Roguelikes. What are they? What is Rogue? What IS that coming over the hill? Yep, it’s definitely a monster RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!!!