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Even with the increase in visibility that crowdfunding and adoption by major console makers has brought to independent games in recent years, it’s still this industry’s Wild West, and the best place to go to find the most unique and creative releases.

This ideal climate has independent games flourishing, creating a hotbed for innovation. The list of nominees for the 17th Annual Independent Games Festival, announced yesterday, makes for one of the most exciting and varied roundup of indie games yet.

Indie outfits can afford to try new, untested approaches to game making as they likely have no one to answer to but themselves. With little to none of the hindrances of traditional game publishing to hold them back, indies have freedom to take wild risks. The hopes are that those risks and new approaches have indie titles standing out on their own among a sea of big-name franchise releases from major game studios.

We’ve sorted through the nominees to pick out a handful of the most innovative of the bunch.

in Visual Art

  • Donut County
    (Ben Esposito)
  • Lumino City
    (State of Play Games)
  • Else Heart.Break (Niklas Akerblad, Erik Svedang, et al.)
  • Memory of a Broken Dimension (XRA)
  • Metamorphabet
    (Patrick Smith)
  • Oquonie
    (XXIIVV and Kokorobot)

in Narrative

  • 80 Days
    (Inkle Studios)
  • Coming Out Simulator 2014 (Nicky Case)
  • Ice-Bound: A Novel of Reconfiguration
    (Down to the Wire)
  • Pry (Tender Claws)
  • This War of Mine
    (11 Bit Studios)
  • Three Fourths Home

in Design

  • 80 Days
    (Inkle Studios)
  • Framed (Loveshack)
  • Invisible Inc.
    (Klei Entertainment)
  • Killer Queen
    (Joshua DeBonis & Nikita Mikros)
  • Outer Wilds
    (Team Outer Wilds)
  • The Talos Principle (Croteam)

Excellence In Audio

  • Ephemerid: A Musical Adventure
    (SuperChop Games)
  • Phonopath
    (Kevin Regamey)
  • Shovel Knight
    (Yacht Club Games)
  • The Sailor’s Dream
    (Simogo Games)
  • The Vanishing
    of Ethan Carter
    (The Astronauts)
  • Thumper (Drool)

Nuovo Award

  • Become A Great Artist In Just 10 Seconds
    (Michael Brough and Andi McClure)
  • Bounden
    (Game Oven)
  • Desert Golfing
    (Captain Games)
  • Elegy For A Dead World
    (Dejobaan Games
    & Popcannibal)
  • How Do You Do It?
    (Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, Jonathan Kittaka & Deckman Coss)
  • Plug & Play
    (Mario von Rickenbach and Michael Frei/Etter Studio)
  • Rooftop Cop
    (Stephen Lawrence Clark)
  • Tetrageddon Games
    (Nathalie Lawhead)

Seumas McNally Grand Prize

  • 80 Days
    (Inkle Studios)
  • Invisible Inc.
    (Klei Entertainment)
  • Outer Wilds
    (Team Outer Wilds)
  • The Talos Principle
  • Metamorphabet
    (Patrick Smith)
  • This War of Mine
    (11 Bit Studios)


Finalist: Nuovo Award (abstract, short-form, and unconventional games)
Developer: Game Oven
Platforms: iOS (iPhone only)

Dance game Bounden has two players holding either end of an iPhone, keeping their thumbs firmly placed on the screen as they move their linked arms around in an effort to guide an onscreen sphere through a series of goal points. Both players move together to manipulate this sphere, which forces them to step around each other. The phone’s motion sensor reflects players movements their arms swing to and fro, over shoulders and heads. Before players know it — like magic — they’re dancing.

Dutch developers Game Oven worked with choreographer Ernst Meisner and the Dutch National Ballet to create the dance stages for Bounden. They utilized the iPhone’s gyro sensors to create their own dance capture software, which helped them overcome some of the challenges they ran into choreographing. This enable the developers to hand off phones to dancers to gather much of the data need to create the game’s dance stages.

Bounden starts out slow, and twisting and twirling out in the open feels awkward. Even the best dancers shouldn’t expect to match the gracefulness of the game’s example videos at first. But the motion-sensing guidance is so well crafted that it isn’t long before the movements feel like dancing. Hopefully, this is just the start of games that take play off the screen and into the real world.

Lumino City

Finalist: Excellence in Visual Arts
Developer: State of Play Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac

Lumino City began with paper, card stock, and glue. Developers State of Play Games put in three years of handiwork to build a 10-foot high model city, packing every little wall and corner with imaginative set pieces. They then uses small motors, lights, and other rigs to power Lumino City’s platforming puzzles, making for some of the most attractive game visuals I’ve seen.

Uncovering new sections of the highly detailed world is just as enjoyable as the platforming is. To build in that detail and realism, London-based State of Play Games says that they called upon prop makers, architects, and animators to help them craft this miniaturized world. The end result is a game that is so intricate and striking that it begs to be explored.

This War of Mine

Finalist: Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Narrative 
Developer: 11 bit Studios
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

War video games put the player in a position of power. Endless weapons, ammunition, and technical advantages have players feeling like a one-man army in the modern first-person war shooter. And if it gets too hairy? Call in an airstrike and blow them all away. While the journey is tough for a one-man army, he’ll eventually rendezvous with the rest of the soldiers and find his way out, marching toward victory.

But what about the civilians caught in this war? How do they win? 11 bit Studios’ This War of Mine has players guiding a group of civilians through the dangers of a war-torn city. These civilians are like your neighbors — a cook, a writer, a sportsman. They have no weapons or training, and in a city under siege, there’s little in the way of resources for them.

The only fighting here is the fight to survive. By day, you’ll take care of the rest of the survivors in your group, doing everything you can to make sure you can make it through the night. Nighttime is the only time you can sneak out to find items you’ll need to continue living. But snipers and traps await, and other survivors are fully prepared to defend their space and supplies.

The constant struggle to survive in This War of Mine makes for a brutal and unforgiving experience. Every night mission to find resources feels like one you should lose, though you’ll never feel fortunate to make it to morning. Difficult choices have to be made to keep the group alive, keeping the tone dark. In stark contrast with most war games, there’s never a time that the player feels empowered in This War of Mine. Feelings of helplessness and dread linger long after the game is over.

80 Days

Finalist: Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Design
Developer: Inkle
Platforms: iOS, Android, Amazon

80 Days puts the player in a Steampunk-themed journey around the world, the result of a 19th century English gentleman’s wager. You think you know this story? Think again.

The innovation in 80 Days is in how the player is able to create their own story. Developer Inkle front-loaded its games with a sharp, beautifully crafted 500,000 word script that tells the story of how gambler Fogg and his mouthy assistant navigate the globe. It piled on it own twists on Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in Eighty Days, adding hints of science fiction. Instead of simply reading, the player guides the story through Choose your Own Adventure-style prompts, which sends the game engine spinning up new possibilities for dialogue or exploration at every turn. Rather than reading about this grand journey, players are guiding it with their own hand.

A resource management subgame complements this interactive fiction, and it brings risk to every choice, making for an experience that has so many paths and possibilities that multiple play sessions are recommended. While the main goal is to make it around the world in 80 days, players find that it really is about the journey.


Finalist: Excellence in Audio
Honorable mention: Nuovo Award (abstract, short-form, and unconventional games)
Developer: Kevin Regamey
Platform: web browser, free

Kevin Regamey’s Phonopath is unique in that you play it almost entirely through sound file manipulation. This game and its creator make no apologies for the focus on charming musicians, sound engineers, and audiophiles. Its password-based progression requires critical listening, sound manipulation, and even some music theory to crack the password codes. Success has players hearing the story unfold via audio vignettes across 28 stages. Examining and manipulating each stage’s audio file is the gameplay.

Phonopath, a web browser game, actually requires external software tools to play (try free, open-source Windows/Mac audio editor Audacity), not to mention a willingness to learn. But even if you’re fully familiar with tools like equalizers and spectrographs, prepare to be amazed at the level of creativity Regamey poured into hiding clues in sound. The steep learning curve is well worth the payoff.

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