Since download services became mainstream, every year has lead to the rise of a new poster child for indie development; and so, after the likes of “Braid” and “flower” came July’s “LIMBO”. Arnt Jensen’s platformer hangs at that unstable line halfway between art and game – an aesthetically rich experience that still wears a polished game design. The tragic tale of a little boy trapped at the edge of hell, endlessly roaming in search of an elusive spark of hope that is always out of reach, condemned to die innumerable deaths in a menacing environment with no escape. The metaphysical considerations of its fictional background mirror game logic, with trial and error cycles symbolizing trapped souls’ endless torment. Meaning is imbued in gameplay but also in the minimalist details and narrative sketches, heralding the legacy of Chahi’s superlative “Another World”. Its aesthetic corpus is stunning: computer generated visuals reference profusely German expressionist and noir’s chiaroscuro, embodying its mysterious aura and mellowing it with fantastical elements, in a stark dance of light and shade which finds natural solace in the haunting score, as elusive and eerie as the otherworldly scenery. “LIMBO” stands on the verge of greatness, and misses it by little – its drive towards the indie cliché of physics and environmental puzzles ends up transmigrating the experience from artful consideration on the afterlife to elegant game with an enticing background narrative – too little, given how much potential there is to find here. Nonetheless, pay no heed, for how often can one mention a game worthy of an “Another World” citation?
October’s “Deadly Premonition” is no masterpiece. Had it appeared five years prior and it would be a most welcome title, but hardly worth of such notice (just as “Spy Fiction” was). Let’s be frank: it isn’t even that great a videogame. But its relevance for this generation cannot be overstated, for it bears a standard of creative quality that is becoming ever rarer. Middle sized ventures are those that end up driving medium’s forward – free from the commercial pressures of big budget titles and with financial leeway for some technical progressivism, they can harbor creativity without cramping it with marketing stances or lack of money. “Deadly Premonition” is one such work, a mirror of an author that needed not compromise, a hark back to the days of oddball Japanese titles that still came West. Whether one deems it moronic or genial is, in all fairness, irrelevant, for it touches us with its absurdity and surrealist bizarrerie in more ways than any mainstream game could ever hope to achieve. That SWERY cares so much for his little Greenvale town – its inhabitants, back-story and procedural rules – to the point of blowing such life and personality into it, is proof that he is an author proper. And that, these days, is really hard to come by.
And, to end the year, what better than another art title? “Dinner Date” is what Tale of Tales would (for the lack of a better word) call a not-game. And truthfully, one cannot argue with such an attribution, for Jeroen Stout’s intimist revel on life has as much in common with games as a film, a play or a poem. And poems are indeed “Dinner Date’s” next of kin – browsing the subconscious thoughts of one Julian Luxembourg (Jeroen’s alter-ego), one finds a literary poise that enchants us with its melody and rhythm, and strikes us with its intensity of declamation. Beneath the lyrical prose are the musings of a bitter young man of significant intellectual character, a lover of Byron faced with life’s excruciating demands: a boring job, an idiot boss, a pushy friend and a seductive femme who he sexually craves for, but is nothing other than a thin shadow of a concocted poetic fantasy. We learn of these as he eats and drinks and eats and drinks and drinks yet again, layers and layers of event rationalization peeling away with his intoxication, his primal personality and instincts slowly becoming ever clearer, as he finds himself pondering on his fate with growing ire and contempt for its stupidity… and his own. This romantic sensibility is clearly meant as homage to the poet he so loves, and which now finds such perfect embodiment in an interactive experience. The single scenery where action takes place – a small kitchen – is crafted with a striking atmosphere and sprouts superb attention to detail, so much so that we comfortably indulge in its worldly sights and sounds, lulling away whilst simply listening to Julian’s cooking and eating and ranting, delightfully conjuring mental images of the smells and tastes of this sensory play. To find such delicate strokes of technical finesse with such depth of discourse in this one-man interactive poem is a joy, one which warrants continual exploration of this grand little piece in the future, shining brightly as this year’s greatest revelation.