Indie darlings: just not getting it

I love indie games. Since being introduced by a friend years ago, they’re the releases I pick up most frequently. They give me more of what I want from my hobby than the triple-A stuff: creativity, great storylines and interesting characters removed from the limited representations.

When Red Metal from Extra Life very kindly nominated Later Levels for a Sunshine Blogger Award last month, one of their questions got me thinking: what critical darling do you feel completely failed to live up to the hype? There have been a number of indie games in the past that the critics have gone crazy for, declaring them to be pinnacles of gaming – but I just haven’t been able to understand what all the fuss was about when I’ve picked them up. Here’s a round-up of some of those titles.

2010: LIMBO

I realised that LIMBO was the game which had spent the longest in my Steam library while hosting #LoveYourBacklog week with LightningEllen from LividLightning in February. So after almost five years, I decided to rectify that by scheduling a stream for #MaybeinMarch the following month. I was looking forward to finally trying out the title critics had said ’empowered players to work through puzzle solutions themselves’ and which ‘offered up what feels like a world of meaningful possibilities’.

Four months later and I still don’t get it. Yes, I like the art-style and the way you can never guess what’s going to happen on the following screen; but it feels as though Playdead’s project is trying to tell the player a message in a vague and slightly pretentious way. I understand that not all games need to be completely explained but unanswered questions frustrate me, and I like at least a nudge in the right direction. I had a go at trying to figure out the ending but I still don’t feel the explanation I came up with truly fits.

2012: Dear Esther

It’s strange this title made it on to today’s list because I absolutely adore narrative games, but Dear Esther was one I didn’t gel with. A friend suggested it to me shortly after being introduced to the indie scene and I’d read several news articles which had intrigued me so I was keen to give it a go. Critics had said it had ‘an impressively ethereal atmosphere’ and were praising it for what it did differently: tap into unhappiness, an emotion that few games at the time dared to approach.

I thought it was boring. It was pretty and the soundtrack was good, but the story didn’t click with me and my main thought when I reached the end was: ‘Is that it?’ I went on to try The Chinese Room’s next release, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, in 2015 and it was the same experience. I still haven’t managed to complete the game because it doesn’t hold my attention – although I keep being told that its storyline is a fascinating one and I should try to stick with it.

2015: Undertale

I ended up playing Undertale long after its release, after so many friends and bloggers had told me I needed to give it a try. I could see why they’d enjoyed it: the twist on gameplay mechanics was clever, the soundtrack was excellent, and its story about determination and never giving up was very sweet. It had quickly gained a cult following, critics had said it was ‘unconventional, clever, and occasionally really difficult’, and more than a few ‘Best Game’ recognitions were awarded.

But it just wasn’t for me. Yes, the 12 hours I’d spent with Undertale were pleasant enough but I couldn’t see why everyone was going so crazy for it – and I certainly couldn’t face repeating the process so I could get the alternative outcomes. I thought this would be an unpopular opinion but when I tweeted a question about unliked indie titles recently, several blogging friends agreed. It seems as though Toby Fox’s game may have won the hearts of many but there are a few of us who it just didn’t click with.

2016: The Witness

I was so looking forward to The Witness. Jonathan Blow’s Braid was one of the first indie releases I ever played and I’d really enjoyed it, finding the narrative twist at the end to be unlike anything I’d experienced in the bigger-budget titles I’d been playing. After waiting eight years for the developer to release his second project, I was incredibly excited because the promotional screenshots looked stunning and critics were calling it a ‘beautiful, powerful and cleverly-designed puzzle game with a wealth of mysteries to unravel’.

And I did enjoy it to an extent. But during the 30 hours we spent playing, I kept telling my other-half that some big secret was going to revealed and he kept warning me to not be disappointed. He was right to do so. There was no big pay-off after completing all those challenges and even the secret ending wasn’t particularly fulfilling. I understand that The Witness is an experience – kind of like a mental holiday – but I came away feeling as though this was a work created by someone who spent too much time in his own head.

One of the best things about video games is that there’s a release out there for absolutely everybody, so I’m sure the titles above made it onto some peoples’ favourite lists! Which indie games have you just not been able to get?

#MaybeinMarch: LIMBO

Following on from #LoveYourBacklog Week with LightningEllen from Livid Lightning last month, I finally played LIMBO for #MaybeinMarch recently. This game had shockingly spent almost five years in my library since being added on 25 March 2013 so after leaving it in a dark corner for so long, it was time to grab the controller and do something about it.

I originally had this article planned in my head as a retrospective review, but conversations with Gao Li from Gao Li Occasionally Reviews along with The Gaming Diaries changed that. These lovely people joined us on Twitch as my other-half and I worked our way through the shadowy world of LIMBO over a couple of Saturdays – and expressed just as much surprise when we reached the end. It’s safe to say that none of us really knew what to make of it (although The Gaming Diaries herself did come up with a pretty good explanation which I’ll share later).

If you haven’t yet played LIMBO yourself and intend to do so, I’d highly recommend turning away now! The paragraphs below contain discussions about the game’s conclusion so you may wish to come back to this post another time.

Here’s part of the plot description from Wikipedia, which we checked while the credits were rolling on the stream to make sure we hadn’t missed something: “On completion of the final puzzle, the boy is thrown through a pane of glass and back into the forest. After he wakes up and recovers from the pain and shock, he walks a short distance until he again encounters a girl, who, upon his approach, stands up, startled. At this point, the game abruptly ends.”

One of the things I love about video games is having the opportunity to investigate unanswered questions and figure out what the developer was trying to communicate through their project. I’ve therefore been doing a bit of research into LIMBO’s conclusion since and have come across a number of interesting ideas… although all of them are somewhat depressing. This fits my conversations with Gao Li, where we both got the impression that whatever happened at the end of the title was likely not to be happy.

In an interview with Gamasutra published on 24 February 2012, Playdead co-founder Arnt Jensen said: “I get a little upset when people say, ‘It was a stupid ending and I don’t know what was happening.’ All those people who enjoyed the open ending, that makes me happy, because it was supposed to be an open ending. What it means, I don’t want to talk about.” He did go on however to say that someone got ‘very close’ but has never provided an explanation – only that the girl shown in the last scene is the boy’s little sister.

It’s pretty much accepted though that the protagonist is dead at the start of the game. The monochrome art-style and dread-filled atmosphere point to this and promotional material also states: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO.” Some further Wikipedia-checking reveals that Limbo is the ‘edge’ of hell and home to those who ‘die in original sin without being appointed to the Hell of the Damned’. This could include innocent children who aren’t deserving of Hell but who also aren’t worthy of heaven.

A point of greater contention is regarding the status of the sister. Some claim that she is dead also based on swarms of flies which appear in locations on the menu screen and correspond to the placement of the characters in the final scene. In addition the ladder is somewhat frayed, the grass has become overgrown and several rungs have fallen off the tree, so many fans believe the siblings passed away after falling out of their treehouse. There is another theory worth covering here however!

Just before LIMBO’s final scene, the boy crashes through what appears to be a huge pane of glass and this could symbolise a windscreen breaking – so did he and his sister die in a road accident? Partway through the title the environment shifts from a sinister forest to a more industrial setting, and some have declared this to be reminiscent of a car losing control or flipping over. This theory is a little abstract but does seem as though it could possibly be correct, so I’m not sure which I prefer.

Here’s The Gaming Diaries’ interpretation: “The boy is stuck in Limbo and has to work his way through so all the deaths don’t really matter. I think the girl signifies the end. The boy has crossed the lengths of Limbo to meet her. This could be that she has joined the boy in Limbo and her entrance shocks him, or that she is the start and end for the boy. Either way this results in the end of the game. So Limbo is never ending, the boy can return to the start and go through it again. Or she signifies the true death for the boy and there is nothing after for him.”

We discussed this theory during the stream and, while it did make seem to make sense at the time, several days of pondering afterwards led me to come up with an alternative. What if there was another explanation in which the siblings aren’t dead (sort of)? Here’s my own idea.

LIMBO, video game, black and white, shadows, boy, girl, brother, sister, treehouse, tree, ladder

The promotional material confirms that the boy entered Limbo – but doesn’t state from which direction. Rather than going there after his demise to meet his final end, what if he were going backwards from death to life? Maybe he and his sister were in some kind of accident (possibly a treehouse fall or car collision) and he’s working back from the end to get back to his sibling. The breaking glass and girl’s surprise in the final scene could signify a change in state: the boy has made it through all the trials of Limbo to return to the land of the living.

So now over to you. Have you played LIMBO and if so, what’s your interpretation of the end? A huge thank you and big hug to the awesome LightningEllen for being my #LoveYourBacklog and #MaybeinMarch partner – who knows, maybe we’ll see you again next year for another event!

Dedicated to my backlog: Kim

On Monday, LightningEllen from Livid Lightning and I revealed the first #LoveYourBacklog Week: seven days of love dedicated to our ever-growing pile of video games. We’re encouraging everyone in the community to show just how much their backlog means to them because the more titles you have, the more chance there is you’ll always have something to play.

The first of these activities was to display a #LoveYourBacklog badge on our blogs with pride, and next up is writing a post about our overflowing libraries. To keep things simple I’ve decided to ignore my PlayStation 4 and physical libraries for now and concentrate on Steam only. I’ve trawled through all 282 of my digital games to highlight unplayed or unfinished titles in the following categories, so it’s time to show that backlog some appreciation!

Game most likely never to be played

The award for the game most likely never to be played is Company of Heroes, simply because it’s not my cup of tea. I don’t like real-time strategy games because I want to get stuck into the action and therefore don’t have the patience; plus the setting puts me off, because I generally don’t enjoy any media where the focus is on the subject of war. This one has been in my library since 14 March 2014 and to be honest, I’m not even entirely sure how it got there in the first place!

It was hard to narrow this category down to only one title so here’s another that won’t get touched: The Gallery. I backed the Kickstarter campaign in March 2013 when the project was being made for standard PC as well as virtual reality, but since then it has been released on Steam with the advice ‘requires a virtual reality headset’. I don’t own an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive and, as VR makes me feel nauseous, I don’t plan on buying either so this is one series which is going to spend an awfully long time on my backlog.

Finally, I couldn’t leave this category without mentioning the original Fallout. I haven’t played it yet because of my weird gaming habit where I have to start a series from the beginning, and so far I haven’t been able to get it working on my PC. Several fellow bloggers have recommended trying the GOG version but I just can’t bring myself to do it now… I’m so sick of seeing so many articles about Fallout 76 in my news feed that I now don’t want to go anywhere near the series any time soon.

Shortest game

According to the HowLongToBeat website, the shortest game currently on my backlog is Spelunx and the Caves of Mr. Seudo. I seem to remember receiving it after purchasing a Humble Bundle of Cyan titles back in November 2013 when the Myst titles were part of the offer. Spelunx wasn’t a game I’d heard of prior to then and it’s not one I’ve had a temptation to play since – and looking at the Steam page now with it’s ‘mostly positive’ review score and ‘educational title for elementary and middle school kids’ description, that hasn’t changed.

Longest game

Using the HowLongToBeat website once again, the longest game on my backlog right now is The Secret World. My Steam profile shows I’ve played five hours but I can’t have made it more than 30 minutes in. I can’t seem to get my fingers around the controls: I’m not the most coordinated person at the best of times, but there’s just something about this title which turns me into a button-mashing-mess. Keyboards have been pushed to the floor and mice thrown across the room in bouts of frustration before ‘uninstall’ is clicked.

Game which has spent the longest time on the backlog

The title that took this award genuinely amazed me: it’s LIMBO. It’s a game I bought on 25 March 2013 after being introduced to the indie gaming scene and hearing so many good things about, but also one I’ve always meant to play but for some reason haven’t yet gotten around to. When you think of the darkest corners of your backlog, you picture something incredibly niche or obscure so to find that my ‘longest time’ entry is something so well known has come as a surprise.

The person responsible for adding the most entries to my backlog

There are so many and most of them I’ve met through blogging! There are two people who deserve a special mention though. nufafitc from Emotional Multimedia Ride is a fellow adventure-genre fan and has put me onto some great point-and-clicks; and more recently, Rendermonkee from Rendermonkee’s Gaming Blog has caused me to add more upcoming releases to my wishlist thanks to their Support Originality posts. If anybody has any adventure recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments below!

That’s it from my Steam library for now – how about yours? To find out how you can join in with #LoveYourBacklog Week, take a look at Monday’s post.