2010 still has two months to go, but already I’m starting to contemplate my pick for game of the year. Right now, three of my top candidates are Limbo, VVVVVV, and Super Meat Boy. Aside from being indie side-scrolling platformers, they all have one thing in common: They’re the three most well-designed games this year.
I’m the type of person who gets extremely upset with bad controls, poor design, and most of all, cheap tricks in games that exist solely to crank up the play clock. I’d rather have 10 hours of solid gameplay than 20 hours of frustration. Alan Wake extends its shelf life by having indistinguishable difficulty levels in which the only difference is the amount of ammo you get. Gimmicks like these can turn what should have been a positive gameplay experience into a nightmare.
In the three titles I mention before, when you die, you instantly realize that it might not be an easy task, but it’s possible because the creator designed it to be possible. Limbo was my first experience with this: Every time I would die — which was a lot — I didn’t look at it as an annoyance. Instead, I would laugh and think how clever the trap was. Then I’d figure out how to get past it and move on.
The same goes for VVVVVV, with the main difference being the aesthetic. Where Limbo went for a minimalist, atmospheric black-and-white look, VVVVVV looks like a forgotten Commodore 64 game. Limbo went for quiet and ambient noises; VVVVVV has an amazing chiptunes soundtrack. Limbo is linear; VVVVVV has an open world Metroidvania-type map, although really it’s just a disguise for a large hub that leads to separate linear areas. Either way, each features a massive world. Even when you finish Limbo, which plays like a seamless game, it allows you to select areas as if they were separate levels.
Another element all these titles have in common are the collectibles that are just out of reach. These function as cleverly designed expert modes. A puzzle changes to have two different pathways, with one harder than the other. The harder one has all the rewards. This is a much more effective way of adding a challenge, without sacrificing gameplay to cater to somebody who is looking for a more casual experience. If you can’t reach it, just move on and come back later if you feel like it.
And then there is Super Meat Boy, which takes all to its logical extreme. In terms of design, this is one of the pitch-perfect games I’ve ever played. The controls are very impressive and have the perfect balance between tightness and looseness. The world isn't like VVVVVV and Limbo. Team Meat broke the game up into formalized, individual levels. And wow, are there a ton of them — with more on the way, free of charge.
As with the other two, this game also has collectibles which ramp up the difficulty. As you play it, you’re not leveling up a character with XP; you are leveling up your actual playing skill. After finishing the main story, I went back to some earlier levels that I couldn’t get through, and I flew through them like it wasn’t a challenge at all.
The art of the game is fantastic, with cutscenes referencing classics, even one that is a parody of The Adventures of Lolo. Anyone who remembers Lolo is okay by me. There are plenty of unlockable indie game friends, like Alien Hominid and Commander Video, each playable with their own skills. Also the soundtrack is incredible — one of the best this year.
These three indie games have easily slayed the multi-million dollar titles that have come out this year through tip-top design and personality. And most importantly, they’re tons of fun. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.