Beginner’s guide to indie (2019): part two

It’s time for the second part of my updated beginner’s guide to indie and, if you didn’t find something that tickles your fancy in part one on Monday, then hopefully we’ll manage to put that right today. Once again, a big thank you to Dan from for suggesting I write a follow-up to the original series created around two years ago.

As mentioned in my previous post, it’s pretty obvious from the content here on Later Levels that I tend to favour the adventure genre or titles with strong narratives. The following list is therefore focused on these types of video games – but even if they’re not usually the kind of thing you’d play, I’d encourage you to check them out because they’re well worth a look. Hopefully everyone will find something that piques their interest. Without further ado, let’s round off 2019’s guide!

2018: Unavowed

Wadjet Eye Games takes what we love about point-and-clicks and throws in some new elements to refresh the genre for the modern day in Unavowed – and it totally works. You can choose your past career, which influences how you tackle certain situations and solve puzzles; and a party system allows you to select two members from your group whenever you go out to investigate a supernatural situation. The developer always displays a real talent for creating characters who stick in your head long after you’ve completed a title.

2018: Coloring Pixels

Feeling stressed or anxious? Then head over to Steam and download Coloring Pixels by ToastieLabs as soon as possible. Some may not consider it to be a ‘real’ video game but it’s definitely one of the most relaxing releases I’ve ever experienced. It’s a title you can chill out with when you’re not in the mood for taking down villains or saving the world, something to keep your hands busy while your brain winds down. And if the free version doesn’t offer you enough clicking calm, you can download additional colouring books.

2018: The Gardens Between

The Gardens Between by The Voxel Agents is proof that a video game doesn’t need to tell an epic story, contain dramatic battles or feature hundreds of hours of content to have an impact on the player. It tells a much more personal tale about friendship through a series of puzzles; and it left a mark on me because there were many things I realised long after playing which gave it a deeper meaning. It may be a short title that can be finished in around three hours, but it’s absolutely perfect just the way it is.

2019: What Never Was

If you’re trying to save your money in the run-up to Christmas, What Never Was by Acke Hallgren is one of the best free titles you can download from Steam. Gamers who love things like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch will find plenty to appeal here and you’ll be crying out for more by the time you reach the end of this short experience. The good news is that the developer has confirmed they’re working on a second chapter – and if it’s as excellent as the first, this is going to be an amazing series.

2019: Eastshade

Imagine playing a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim but with no combat; somewhere you can explore without fear of getting attacked, where there are secrets and interesting characters to discover, and where you frequently pull back from the screen to admire the view. That’s exactly what Eastshade by Eastshade Studios is and it has been added to my all-time favourites list after playing it earlier this year. Everything about this title – the artwork, the music, the story – is beautiful. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

2019: Guard Duty

If you like the classic point-and-click adventures and love Simon the Sorcerer in particular, then Guard Duty by Sick Chicken Studios will be one for you. There’s something nostalgic about it which makes you feel as though you’re stepping back to the early 1990s despite it featuring a streamlined interface to bring it up to date. It’s a very unassuming title with pixel-graphics and a light-hearted nature. But these factors actually hide a very touching plot with a great message and you’ll be feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by the final credits.

2019: Ord.

I picked up Ord. by Mujo Games on a whim one evening after it appeared in my Steam recommendations and made me curious. Two hours later, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a release of tiny text adventures: each scene consists of only three words and those you choose affect the outcome. Only one story about defeating an evil wizard was available back in August when I played it, but a big update in August means that three more tales are now available for your enjoyment. I’ll therefore be revisiting this game in the near future.

2019: Flotsam (early access)

When my other-half and I saw Flotsam by Pajama Llama Games at Rezzed in 2017, it really caught our attention despite not being the sort of thing we’d usually play. We were therefore pleased to see the developer back at EGX last year and ended up buying the title after visiting their stand at EGX last month. It’s easy to tell while playing it that the game is still in early access as there are a few quirks that need to be ironed out, and the developer is working on adding further content. It’s definitely one to keep on your radar though.

Hopefully you’ve found an indie release among the 16 I’ve included in this updated guide that has inspired you to give them a try. If you have any other recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments below and give me a few more to add to my wishlist!

Guard Duty: standing to attention

Every so often, a Kickstarter campaign comes along you regret not backing. Sick Chicken Studios’ launched their project for Guard Duty in February 2017 but the first time I heard about it was in January when Emily Morganti kindly got in touch with the offer of a key.

The full game has now been released since that preview and I’ve had the opportunity to play it through to the end. The previous build focused on Tondbert Roughskin, part-time-drunk and three-quarters dwarf, in medieval Wrinklewood. After slacking on his duties at Night’s Watchman as the result of partaking in a few too many birthday beverages, he unwittingly lets a mysterious stranger into the town and wakes up in the morning to a quest to save the kidnapped Princess Theramin.

Now jump a thousand years into the future to 2177 where Agent Starborn is Lieutenant General of the Guardians of New Haven, a resistance group embarking on a last-ditch effort to overthrow an alien-like evil and take back Earth. How are the fates of Tondbert and Starborn intertwined? Can they help each other across the span of time to save humanity? And most importantly: can Tondbert save the Princess and get a kiss from her at the end of the game? You’ll just have to play to find out.

If you like the classic point-and-click adventures and love Simon the Sorcerer in particular, then Guard Duty will be one for you. There’s something nostalgic about it which makes you feel as though you’re stepping back to the early 1990s despite it featuring a streamlined interface to bring it up to date. The visuals certainly help this sensation: for example, the forest reminded me of the similar setting in the first Simon instalment, and some of the characters throughout the title look as though they’re related to those in the Sorcerer’s world.

The Simon the Sorcerer poster stuck to the dartboard in Tondbert’s bedroom that I noticed while playing the preview has sadly been removed, but there are plenty of references to older games and films to keep fans happy. There were a few times I genuinely chuckled after hearing a line from a movie and then the protagonist remark on how cliched it was. It all serves to wrap you up in a lovely warm blanket of nostalgia as you work your way through both Wrinklewood and New Haven for just over five hours.

And what are those hours filled with? Well, it wouldn’t be an adventure without puzzles. The thing that struck me was just how logical they are: use a rope if you want to climb out of a window, grab that hot cup of stew from your inventory if you need to melt some ice. It’s all very intuitive. The gameplay takes a more contextual turn when you step into the shoes of Agent Starborn and this gives is an almost ‘cinematic’ feel, which suits the 80-style futuristic titles and the Lieutenant General’s save-the-world personality.

Guard Duty isn’t as challenging as a lot of other point-and-clicks so if that’s something you’re looking for, then you may come away slightly disappointed. But for me, it was great playing an adventure game that wasn’t trying to be difficult – and it was a pleasure to complete a title without having to turn to a walkthrough once! There’s also none of the mechanics which usually lead to frustration, such as needless backtracking and pixel-hunting, and Sick Chicken Studios have done a good of job modernising the genre.

Adventures can sometimes be overwhelming and the nature of their puzzles can make it seem as though you have an endless to-do list. Fortunately though here, Tondbert is scribbling notes throughout his journey and I found myself looking at these whenever I needed to check my current objective. Having them written in the protagonist’s handwriting, complete with silly doodles and spelling mistakes, was a lovely touch that adds to the personality of his character.

As handy as these notes are, over the course of the game it becomes clear that they aren’t just there for player reference. I don’t want to spoil anything for anybody planning to play Guard Duty – and I’d highly recommend that you do – but it’s revealed just how important they are towards the end of the title. The narrative may be short and players might not get to spend as much time with Starborn as they do with Tondbert, but it’s wrapped up in a way which nicely ties everything together.

In fact, it was the story that was the highlight for me as Sick Chicken Studios’ release sort of takes you by surprise. It’s very unassuming game with the pixel-graphics and light-hearted nature we’ve come to expect from point-and-clicks; and its tale of knight-wants-to-save-princess at first seems like standard genre fare. But these factors actually hide a very touching plot with a great message and you’ll be feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by the final credits.

Hopefully we’ll get to see Tondbert and Agent Starborn in a sequel in the future. And if the developer ever decides to do a Kickstarter campaign for it, they’ve already got their first backer right here.

Adventures: not even their final form

Adventures: video games with amazing stories, colourful characters and challenging puzzles. The genre may have its flaws but it has also been one of the longest-running, giving birth to classics from Zork to Grim Fandango and attracting a following of fans across the world.

For any regular Later Levels visitors, it’s obvious I’m one of them and love a good point-and-click. They’re the titles I’ve continuously returned to for almost 30 years now, ever since finding The Secret of Monkey Island as a young child and realising that fantastic worlds full of extraordinary tales could be told so well through pixels. Even for all their moon-logic and backtracking, there’s just something special and captivating that lies within the puzzles and at the heart of an adventure.

Not everybody agrees with me on this however. Early last month I came across an article on the NewStatesman website entitled The rise and fall of the point-and-click adventure game, in which author Ed Jefferson gave a brief overview of the genre’s history. He rounded off the post by saying: “It’s hard to argue that the genre has much appeal beyond nostalgia at this point… Thanks for the memories, but it turns out that in 2018, maybe clicking on hats just isn’t enough anymore.”

Has the adventure really had its day? This statement surprised me greatly and it was a situation I’d never considered before. Sure, the genre had had it’s ups-and-downs over the years, going through a decline in the early 2000s when it couldn’t compete with louder releases before picking back up again in popularity thanks to crowdfunding platforms in 2012; but was it truly over? Jefferson’s divisive statement prompted me to ask the question on Twitter and see what others thought.

A few days later, an article was published on Rendermonkee’s Gaming Blog called The Rise, Fall and Rise of the Adventure Game. There was an audible sigh of relief when I read this and saw confirmation that there were others out there who still believed in the genre! As written by Rendermonkee themselves: “The adventure genre has undergone incredible hardship over a 20-year period, but I believe times have changed… The future of the adventure game is in very safe hands. Long live the adventure game.”

In a brief conversation with this blogger on Twitter last month, they said something which stuck with me: that the point-and-click isn’t dead. It has simply evolved into new forms, incorporating elements from other genres and changing its appearance depending on the angle of the light. In the same way those louder releases mentioned above have taken narrative design tips from adventures and improved their storytelling, my beloved genre has done the same in reverse and undergone a transformation.

The Red Strings Club, video game, bar, woman, Larissa, bartender, Donovan, android, Akara

There are so many new titles which have kept the heart of the adventure game while adding something new to it. Last year’s Unavowed retained everything we’d come to expect from a Wadjet Eye Games’ release but threw in some ingenious party mechanics. 2017’s Stories Untold recalled the feeling of playing an old-school text-adventure but gave it a twist to create a very unique experience. And The Red Strings Club – possibly my favourite release of 2018 – focused on moral questions asked through conversation and answered through mixing drinks.

There are some who will say that these aren’t strictly point-and-clicks – but wait, there are more examples. Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller from 2012 stays true to its genre’s roots but tells a gritty story which isn’t for children. 2016’s Kathy Rain is great for anyone who loves a Twin-Peaks-vibe and pixel artwork. If you’re looking for something lighter with more comedy, try Maize from the same year. And more recently, the upcoming Guard Duty pays tribute to the classics but gives us an adventure suitable for the modern day.

2019 is looking bright for the genre, and Rendermonkee’s post mentions several future titles which are now on my wishlist. Afterparty by Night School Studio, the developer of Oxenfree, is one of their four picks for the year; and Röki from Polygon Treehouse is showing plenty of promise for a debut title. Then there are the projects that made appearances at recent expos: 3 Minutes to Midnight by Scarecrow Studio and The Occupation by White Paper Games. How can you not get excited by all that adventure goodness?

It may be worth Jefferson playing these titles and finding out for himself what the genre has become. You see, pointing-and-clicking can be enough; but adventure games can also be so much more than that and haven’t yet reached their final form. To quote Rendermonkee once more: long live the adventure game.

Guard Duty: referencing the classics

Since getting back in touch with Emily Morganti, she has put me onto some great adventure games. There was detective-drama Lamplight City which asks some interesting moral questions; Unavowed, a title of character and choice recently nominated for Excellence in Narrative at the Independent Games Festival; and most recently Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements, an upcoming release which cleverly combines point-and-click and RPG elements.

So when I received her email regarding comedy-adventure Guard Duty, I knew it was going to be something I’d enjoy. If Emily’s superb taste in games hadn’t been enough to persuade me to request a preview key straight away then the screenshots she sent over would have given me the final push. There was no way I was going to turn down the opportunity to play something that featured so many little references to classic adventures such as Simon the Sorcerer and The Secret of Monkey Island (more about that later).

This project is Sick Chicken Studios’ unique take on the genre and tells a story about love, loss and the end of the world. That’s exactly what Agent Starborn, time-travelling Lieutenant General of the Guardians of New Haven, is facing in 2177: an alien-like creature is threatening to exterminate all human life and our hero has his gun pointed right at him. But it seems as though it’s too late to stop the monster and disaster is unleashed, as as laser splits the Earth into two and the scene fades to black.

Although players will have the opportunity to also play as Starborn in the full release, the setting then changes to 1,000 years earlier in Medieval Wrinklewood. Tondbert Roughskin, part-time drunk and three-quarter dwarf, is slacking on his duties as Night’s Watchman after partaking in a few too many birthday beverages (we’ve all been there). He unwittingly lets a mysterious stranger beyond the town walls and wakes up in the morning to a quest to save the kidnapped Princess Theremin – along with a raging hangover and missing set of armour.

Adventure genre elements that frustrate a lot of players are obtuse puzzles and pixel-hunting, and I’m very pleased to report that neither seem to be here. In the few hours I’ve spent with Guard Duty so far I didn’t once become stuck or get confused about the solution to a challenge. Everything is logical (in as much as it can be in a comedy game): use a rope to climb out of a window when the trapdoor is stuck, use a net to trap a slippery frog, attach a photo into a library card to make a somewhat-sticky fake ID.

I encountered one dialogue tree puzzle and due to the number of branches available, I thought I must have missed a vital piece of information in another location. I hadn’t however and after thinking it through properly, I realised what the answer was right in front of me and actually made sense. It seems as though the developers have really considered the design in this respect and it’s good to know that gameplay time isn’t superficially extended through needless backtracking.

Guard Duty, video game, pub, inn, drink, Tondbert, knight, stranger, conversations

Sometimes adventures can be overwhelming with what seems like an endless to-do list: go here to get this thing to give it to someone who’ll exchange it for the item I actually need to progress. This is where Guard Duty’s integrated list comes in handy and I found myself referring to it several times throughout the preview whenever I’d lost sight of my current goal. The fact that it appears to be written by Tondbert himself – complete with spelling mistakes and doodles – was a really nice touch that added to his character.

All of the art is impressively created by one person and it’s clear they’re a fan of the classics. I loved the Simon the Sorcerer poster stuck to the wall of Tondbert’s bedroom and punctured with darts; and although I can’t be sure, some of the characters throughout Wrinklewood look very similar to those in that series. There’s references to Monkey Island too: the silhouettes of Guybrush and LeChuck can be seen chatting over a pint in The Drunken Monk, and I laughed when the protagonist enquired about find leather jackets in Sam’s Previously Owned store.

More modern titles make an appearance also, and I couldn’t help but smirk when I saw the Assassin with a broken leg sitting in a pile of hay in one corner of the town square. This character asks you to spare some change and fulfilling his request results in a nice little achievement with a very apt name. Throw in some film references for good measure (‘No time for love, Dr Jones!’) and what you’ve got here is something that combines the best bits of our favourite media.

At three-and-a-half hours in, the preview build ended and left me with a cliff-hanger: is Tondbert dead after falling down a hole while trying to rescue a knight from a huge snapping Wrinkleworm? Is this it just a bad nightmare? Is he going to wake up and save both Princess Theremin and the world? What’s the connection between our unlikely hero and Agent Starborn, and will the events in Wrinklewood influence the future of Neo London in 2177? So many questions yet to be answered.

Guard Duty, video game, knight, Tondbert, Gap, catapult, tree, vulture

The game surprised me in many ways and, while I expected it to be a pleasant enough experience, I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. I’m kind of gutted I didn’t know about the Kickstarter campaign back in February 2017 because it really would have been worth making a pledge. There are a lot of adventure games out there which say they’ve redefined the genre or are inspired by the classics, but it’s been a long time since I’ve come across one which does both as well as Guard Duty seems it will.

The full title is due for release this spring and is on Steam right now for anyone who wants to add it to their wishlist. While you’re waiting, why not give Sick Chicken Studios a follow on Twitter or check out more screenshots on the official website.