Beginner’s guide to indie (2020): part one

Over the past few years I’ve found myself moving away from triple-A releases and becoming a bigger fan of indie video games. Independent developers aren’t afraid to take risks and they tend to provide more of the kind of experiences I love.

Dan from nowisgames.com asked for indie game suggestions back in 2017 and his request turned into an annual series. In drafting 2020’s edition, I noticed that many of the titles I’ve played recently were actually released this year so it’s those I’m focusing on this time around. I tend to favour adventures and this will be obvious from the following list, but hopefully you’ll find something that catches your eye and persuades you to give it a try regardless of your gaming preferences.

20 January 2020: The Supper

It may be very short and over in less than 30 minutes, but The Supper by Octavi Navarro is one of the best free releases I’ve ever picked up on Steam thanks to its story and artwork. It’s a weird yet wonderful mix of creepy and emotional. You’ll start the game thinking it’s a dark plot about serving some pretty disgusting meals to your customers, and then come out of it feeling a sort of bittersweet compassion for the protagonist. It’s very well done indeed – I’d highly recommend giving this one a try. Just maybe not during your lunch-break.



05 February 2020: The Blind Prophet

The Blind Prophet appeared in my Steam recommendations a while back and I’d ignored it because it seemed too comic-book-like for me. But after completing the demo during the Digital Dragons Indie Celebration in May, I was sold on ARS GOETIA’s project: I purchased the full game and started it immediately. You play as apostle Bartholomeus in this point-and-click and are sent to liberate the corrupted city of Robork, where things have taken an incredibly dark turn.



05 March 2020: The Longing

Studio Seufz’s release definitely won’t be to everybody’s taste, but it’s such a poignant game with an important message that I had to put it on today’s list. Players take on the role of the last servant of a king who once ruled an underground empire and now needs to sleep for 400 days in real-time to regain his faded powers. It’s your duty as the Shade to stay in this earthen palace ready to awaken your ruler at the end of that period; so what are you going to do with so much time on your hands?



09 March 2020: The Escaper

COVID-19 might have stopped us from going to any real-life escape rooms this year but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been able to get our fix in a digital way. The Escaper by Nocturnal Works was a fun experience that was made even better by streaming it on Twitch and involving our friends in chat in solving the puzzles. There are four themed rooms to figure your way out of with a nice level of challenge, and you can either attempt each of them in an hour to add to the pressure or go at your own pace.



19 March 2020: Interrogation Files: Port Landsend

My love for both detective and full-motion video (FMV) games has grown during 2020 and here’s a great title which combines both. Visual Interactive’s Interrogation Files is similar to Her Story in terms of gameplay but there’s more to it than simply entering search terms into a database to discover videos: it’s up to you to put the story together and figure out who the killer is so you’re ready to arrest the right person when you’re given the choice. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the developer comes up with next.



23 March 2020: General Horse and the Package of Doom

When Pete suggested playing General Horse and the Package of Doom, I told him he was an idiot because it looked terrible. But by the time the end-credits rolled, I’d completely changed my mind; I’d had a lot of fun in three hours and was a little bit in love with the protagonist. Sometimes you need something that’s going to sweep you along in its crazy story and cause you to forget about the real world for a few hours, and that’s exactly what Studio Spektar and Porcupine Parkour have given us here.



26 March 2020: The Room VR: A Dark Matter

If you know a non-gamer who loves escape rooms, introduce them to The Room series by Fireproof Games. The thing I love most about it is the feeling of achievement once you’ve figured out the solution to a puzzle. It’s as if you’re the first person to discover what’s in the box and behind the next door – and ultimately, escape from this world and the grip of the Null element. We played the latest release, The Room VR: A Dark Matter, this year and hope the developer treats us to another instalment very soon.



03 April 2020: In Other Waters

Jump Over the Ages’ release is another game which won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I’d highly recommend giving it a go if you’re looking for something atmospheric with a strong narrative focus. When a routine exoplanet study goes wrong and her partner Minae Nomura disappears into an ocean on an alien planet, you must work with Xenobiologist Ellery Vas to dredge up secrets that were meant to be lost forever. Your bond will be tested by what you discover and the choices you make will change the course of the expedition.



09 April 2020: The Procession to Calvary

One of my favourite titles at EGX Rezzed in 2017 was Four Last Things, a quirky little point-and-click adventure created by Joe Richardson. I went on to play it during our GameBlast17 marathon stream that year and then back the Kickstarter campaign for the sequel. If you’re a fan of Monty Python and unique art-styles then The Procession to Calvary is likely to be one for you: players follow the same protagonist after he returns from his brief sojourn in hell and continues his quest for absolution.



30 April 2020: Deathtrap Dungeon

If you like choose-your-own-adventures, give Deathtrap Dungeon: The Interactive Video Adventure by Branching Narrative Ltd a try. A tabletop-RPG-inspired title like this which relies heavily on imagination because it doesn’t show the action shouldn’t work on Twitch but involving everybody in chat in the decision-making turned it into a great evening. The fact this got our character killed several times during the session made it more hilarious and it was a fun, shared experience with friends.



That’s it for now, but the beginner’s guide will be back again tomorrow – with part two focusing on indie games that are due to be released in 2021. If you have any recommendations of titles to look out for, please join in and leave them in the comments below!

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)


Gamers’ Guide to Isolation: working but playing

Welcome back to the Gamers’ Guide to Isolation, a short series here at Later Levels to help you get through this current period of isolation. Here in the UK, we’ve now been inside for over three weeks – but there are still plenty of video games to play to keep us occupied.

On Monday we looked at releases to make you feel like you’re outside even though you’re indoors. If you’re in the mood for stretching your digital legs and hiking through mountains, walking through forests or going for bike-rides, check out the titles suggested by my lovely blogger-friends in this post. Later this week we’ll be discussing games to make you feel as though you’re with friends even when you’re on your own, but first: what have we got lined up for today?

Many people across the country are supposed to be working from home right now, and it’s important to remember to take breaks the same as you would do if you were in the office. If you’re looking for something you take your mind off of that spreadsheet for a few moments – or keep you awake while you’re listening in on that three-hour-conference call you really weren’t looking forward to – here are some games you can play while working (and nobody need know).

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Suggested by The Gaming Diaries

“I struggled with this category as I’m not working from home and was trying to imagine something that would fit in nicely. Then I realised if you just have a little bit of time in between work or a little bit of a quiet period, a game on the Switch could be the perfect remedy. A that is so good in little sessions right now is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Ok, so I know a lot of people are spending all their time in this but I’m playing it slow and steady. I drop by and do a little fishing, or I go hunt for fossils or I catch some bugs. I look at what I can buy and I collect materials. I haven’t got the Able Sisters yet and don’t even have Nook’s shop built as I still need some of one of the types of wood. However, this has been the perfect game for little bursts for me. There is always something you could do from planting some flowers to clearing some weeds. Taking the risk of shaking a tree to see if Bells or items fall out (and quite often having an unfortunate encounter with some wasps). It’s such a nice relaxing game and it gives you options for picking it up and putting it down. You can do a lot in a short space of time so in between working would be possible and there’s nothing that needs done right away so if you end up getting an urgent work call you aren’t going to struggle.”

Civilization IV

Suggested by Quietschisto from RNG

“All variations of Solitaire. Rumour has it this game was invented by a French Noble during the French Revolution while he was waiting to be executed. If that’s not the perfect fit to describe the current situation, then I don’t know what is.

“You could also sink some hours into taking over the world in Sid Meier’s Civilization, if that’s more to your liking. For me, the best one in the series is Civilization IV because it offers the most freedom in organising your civilisation, and allowed for some crazy political combinations. Plus, in the German version, the technologies’ flavour texts are read by Thomas Fritsch, one of my favourite voice actors. The drawback? You might miss all of your meetings because you wanted to play just… one… more… turn…”

DEFCON

Suggested by Luke from Hundstrasse

“Despite working from home a bit (even before this whole… thing) I’m generally pretty good and don’t game on work time. So my entry here is one that I’ve always wanted, and should really try, playing over a working day. DEFCON is a tense nuclear-war strategy game presented via a cold war-room style vector graphics interface. It has a chilling edge as you watch the devastation caused by the missiles raining down in dispassionate numbers. It’s also a game with a few pretty cool game modes including diplomacy where all the superpowers start off aligned and it’s essentially a game of chicken until someone snaps and opens fire or forms a breakaway faction. The reason I picked it however is that it has a dedicated work-mode; a single eight-hour nuclear conflict that plays out real-time with a handy built in ‘hide game screen’ button for when the boss walks past – it’s not a feature I’ve seen in any other game.”

Rollercoaster Tycoon

Suggested by Dan from nowisgames.com

“Still an incredible game after 20 years, yes it has been that long! Hours will evaporate before your very eyes. I fired it up to ‘test’ the other day at 21:00, and by 03:00 the following morning I was sure it was time to stop and go to sleep. I regret nothing. Best of all, this will run on damn near any hardware these days.”

The Longing

Suggested by Solarayo from Ace Asunder

“For the record in case my boss is reading, I’ve been putting in 110% of myself into working from home the 90% of the time I can do that… honest. Okay. I’ve been trying. It’s hard not to get sidetracked and distracted by all the things that aren’t work when you’re comfortably at home. Would the boss really notice if you played a video game for a bit? If it’s The Longing that answer is probably no! Studio Seufz’s indie adventure waiting game seems designed for this purpose. Send your lonely Shade to walk to a random part of his cave complex while you endure yet another conference call with your cranky colleagues… sounds legit!”

The Longing (again)

Suggested by Kim from Later Levels

The Longing takes place over 400 days in real time so there’s no need to rush. The clock continues ticking down while you’re away from the game so you can pop back every now and again while you’re working – but don’t worry, there are different ways to tackle it and you can speed up the clock if you wish! Although this isn’t the happiest title out there, it’s a unique experience. Most of the endings are quite dark but they remind you how important it is that we look after each other, especially now.”

Viva Piñata

Suggested by Dale from UnCapt

“Viva Piñata has recently re-entered my life as a game that’s been on in the background. Well, mostly it is distracting me from my work! It is surprisingly slow-paced and leaving the game to play out on its own for a moment can work in your favour. Of course, the real benefit to the game is the lack of stress-inducing mechanics; it’s a relaxing experience watching your colourful and papery pals live in your garden. Both the combination of the music and the colours are enough to make the most stressful workloads seem redundant.”

Don’t worry: we won’t tell anyone you’re playing video games while you’re meant to be working! If you have any further suggestions please leave them in the comments below, and come back on Friday for titles which will make you feel as though you’re hanging out with friends while you’re alone in isolation. Take care, everybody!

The Longing: knowing Shade

Two months ago I began playing The Longing after kindly receiving a review key from Emily Morganti. This game by Studio Seufz is based on the Kyffhäuser legend, about a former emperor who sleeps in a hidden chamber beneath the hills.

The thing that had intrigued me about the project was the fact it can be played out in real time if you wish. Players take on the role of the servant of a king who once ruled an underground empire but now needs to sleep for 400 days in order to regain his faded powers. It’s your duty as his Shade to stay by his side in this earthen palace ready to awaken him once the final day has passed, waiting out that time in the darkness alone. But will you do as you’re told?

If you haven’t yet played The Longing but intend to do so, I’d recommend navigating away from this post now and coming back later. There are some major spoilers in the following paragraphs which will damage your experience. Please be aware that mental health issues and suicide are also discussed below.

There are a few reviewers who are claiming this title takes 400 days to complete but I can assure you it doesn’t. I managed to finish The Longing earlier this month in just over 24 hours since starting to play on 18 January 2020. There are four endings in total and, although you can choose to simply let the clock run down without any action other than starting up the game, all of them can be reached in far less time if you put your mind to it and are willing to overcome certain obstacles.

In my preview, I explained that the protagonist is the reason why anyone would want to play a title like this when there’s not much ‘play’ to it. It’s amazing how taking away all the standard gameplay elements you expect and making time the main mechanic forces you to concentrate on the main character and their situation. I came to find myself caring for the little guy and wanting to look after him; so much so that I’d light a fire and leave him reading a book in his armchair before logging out.

I’d originally wanted to see all 400 days because it felt as though that choice would yield the best outcome for the Shade. But after several hours of play I started to question my decision: would he be happier if there were a different outcome? I realised that whatever path I took would most likely be permanent because it would take an awful lot of stamina to attempt a second go. In the end, curiosity won out and I led the protagonist in a journey towards the surface.

Do I regret that choice now? Not at all. But I’ve since watched the other final scenes on YouTube and it’s incredibly difficult to say whether there’s any totally positive outcome for the main character. I guess you could say I got the ‘good’ ending: the little guy was adopted by what seemed like a caring family after my escape plan was successful. But the king died alone and asleep on his thrown while his underground palace crumbled around him, with the Shade revealing he’d never be able to see him again.

The Longing, video game, King, Shade, throne room

All the endings are hard hitting but some more so than others. For example, you can follow the same path I did and attempt to make it to the world above through a well, but then be unsuccessful when you’re spotted by the wrong person. In this case you’ll see the Shade falling backwards and hitting the rocks in the cave below. The sense of despair felt by the player at having come so far before witnessing the protagonist’s death as the end credits roll successfully captures how it must feel to be told you’re going to spend 400 days alone.

The saddest outcome is when the main character takes his own life after finding a bottomless chasm. The Longing will prompt you for several responses to make sure you want to make this decision, before giving you a final choice: “End the game. You can’t play again.” Selecting this option causes the little guy to close his eyes and tip his body over the edge, before the screen fades to black and you see the message: “The longing has been wilfully ended. A soul is lost in the abyss and shall forever be alone.”

It’s been a few weeks now since completing the title and I’m still thinking about those endings. It might seem like a small and unassuming game at first, with cartoonish graphics and quirky-looking protagonist, but they hide a work which is far more serious and has left me feeling different. I’m not entirely sure how to explain it; it’s almost as if I’ve realised for the first time how people can be driven to certain actions through their loneliness, and I’m questioning why we don’t do more about this.

The fact that The Longing locks if you choose to follow through with the suicide ending just makes it even more poignant. It’s a difficult choice to make after putting so many hours into the game and, while it can in no way ever compare to what someone going through this in real life is facing, it does give a very small glimpse into what it’s like. The Face character says a line that has stuck with me: “The way to light is blocked by total darkness. You will only overcome darkness if you learn to become darkness.”

Although it’s slowly happening, the way we all think and act about mental health needs to change. Being open to the subject and talking about it frankly doesn’t have to be awkward or tense, and the associated stigma and exclusion will be a thing of the past once everybody realises this. Simply being there for a family member, friend or colleague can make a massive difference to them; solutions are sometimes unnecessary but knowing someone cares is invaluable.

If the little Shade has taught me anything, it’s that we need to look out for each other. And with everything going on in the world right now, that message is so important.

Mind is a charity which provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. Their confidential helplines are available from 09:00 to 18:00 GMT from Monday to Friday, and more details can be found here.

The Longing: growing Shade

The Kyffhäuser legend tells the tale of a former emperor who sleeps in a chamber beneath the hills. When his subjects needs him the most, he shall emerge from under the ground to lead the country back to its former glory – but no other good kings shall reign until that time.

A related poem written in 1817 by Friedrich Rückert mentions a ‘dwarf’ who is sent out every hundred years to see if the time is right for his return. So let’s forget about the king for a moment: what about this servant? Would he be lonely in the cave underground with nobody for company? How would he keep himself occupied during all those hours? What would he have to do to hold onto his sanity throughout the centuries of isolation, and would he find some kind of happiness in his existence?

These questions could be answered in The Longing, an upcoming experimental game by Studio Seufz scheduled for release early next month. Players take on the role of the last servant of a king who once ruled an underground empire, but now needs to sleep for 400 days to regain his faded powers. It’s your duty as the Shade to stay in this earthen palace ready to awaken your ruler at the end of that period; so what are you going to do with so much time on your hands?

What intrigued me after receiving a review key for The Longing from Emily Morganti last month was the fact that each of those 400 days can be played out in real time. You can start the game, turn it off, come back to it three months later and legitimately reach one of the endings. If you’re the more adventurous type however, you can explore the caves and find puzzles to solve or even try to escape – but those thinking of cheating the system by changing the clock on their PC should be warned, for the Shade will find himself sent to a dungeon.

As if that poor little guy wasn’t having a hard enough time already! While the king snores away in his grand hall, our tiny pal gets a small hole carved into the rock by his feet. I felt kind of sorry for him so the first objective I gave myself when starting the game was to try and make his existence a little more comfortable, if not exciting. My initial explorations of the cave system yielded several discoveries and a few items which would hopefully put a smile back on the Shade’s sad face.

These included parts for a trumpet-like instrument which gave him a way to make music; and paper and coloured chalks, so he could create drawings and use them to decorate the walls of his hole. If you’re able to pick up enough pieces of flint and lumps of coal, you can also make a fire that will provide warmth for a few minutes. Time flows more quickly in the Shade’s home than in the caverns outside and you can get him to perform activities like this to speed it up even further.

The Longing, video game, Shade, bookcase, armchair, fire, living room, home, crystals, paintings, table, rugs

Other pastimes include reading books. Five can be found on his bookcase at the start of the game, including the Shade’s journal. In here he expresses his thoughts and it’s a great way of giving objectives to players without making them feel as though it’s a requirement to complete them. You can choose to do something about the little guy’s wish to ‘grow some pretty mushrooms’ or completely ignore it – but if you’re going to fulfil his desires, you’ll need to adventure out into the caves.

The Shade has 400 days to fill so there’s no need for him to move quickly. There’s no run button or fast-travel and, while some may view their absence with frustration, including those features would have taken something away from The Longing’s atmosphere. Here is a game where patience is rewarded. The terrain of the underground cave system changes over time and will reveal puzzle solutions if you wait long enough: moss will slowly grow to cushion your fall, and a drip will form a pond you can swim across.

I’m guessing there are some readers who are asking themselves why anyone would play a title like this, when there’s not exactly much ‘play’ to it. The answer is simple: the Shade. It’s amazing how taking away all of the standard gameplay elements and making time the main mechanic forces you to concentrate on the protagonist and their situation. It’s a risky move by Studio Seufz and won’t be to everybody’s taste, but if you’re willing to give it a chance and plenty of time, there’s something rather special here.

After leaving The Longing running while doing housework one day, I returned to my laptop an hour or so later to find the guy curled up in a ball on the stone floor. How could a video game inspire such a sense of guilt?! I felt so bad that I changed the way I handle it. Before logging out now, I’ll get the Shade to build a fire before sitting him in his armchair and choosing a book so he has something for entertainment, at least for a little while. I can’t really explain it but doing this somehow feels fairer.

The Longing,  video game, King, Shade, throne room

This post isn’t a review because I’ve got a long way to go before I reach an ending. Originally I wanted to see all 400 days because it felt like that would yield the best outcome for the Shade but now I’m starting to question my decision. Would he be happier if he escaped to the outside world? And what would happen if he got impatient and woke the king early? Whatever decision the player makes is likely to be permanent, because it’s going to take an awful lot of stamina to attempt a second go.

The Longing’s strength lies in the way it makes you care for the character. It’s difficult not to think about the Shade occasionally when I’m not at my laptop and wonder what’s going to happen to him. ‘Wait…’ says the loading screen, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

We’re taking part in GameBlast20 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)