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A Year With Indie Cup

"If you find yourself a bit bored while playing the next AAA title, thinking something like “I’ve seen this so many times before”, open a search engine of your choice, type “indie games” and press enter."

Marian Pekár

January 9, 2024

8 Min Read

At the end of February 2023, I received an email from Arsenii Tarasov of GTP Media that ended with a postscript, “We love cats (and games about cats) too! :)”. Although I do love both cats and games about cats, these lines won’t be about our quadrupedal friends that unintentionally(?) dominated the Internet in less than a decade. Instead, these lines will focus on the vast field of the indie gaming scene, which I recently had the opportunity to explore to some extent.

When Arsenii introduced me to the Indie Cup and offered me a place on the jury for the Central and Eastern Europe edition of this event, I responded enthusiastically, “That sounds fun, and I'd definitely like to be a part of that.” As it turned out, when the CEE edition finished, I continued by joining the jury of the United Kingdom edition, then Germany, then Canada, and last but not least the Ukraine edition.

In less than 300 days, I discovered 453 games. The first-round pitch usually consisted of a gameplay video, a short description of a game, and a studio or developer’s introduction text. And I played, rated, and wrote feedback for around 60 of those that made it to the second round.

Before I start, I need to say honestly, I’m a bit out of my element here. As a programmer, I usually write technical stuff like tutorials and documentation, but it would feel like a missed opportunity not to try to turn an experience of juroring five Indie Cups in a row, evaluating such a plethora of games, into a little contemplation about indie games while pointing out projects I personally find interesting in some way, with a strong emphasis on the word personally.

Indie game development is truly a frontier of innovations, bursting with originality and creativity. You might have heard that indie developers can try new things because the cost of failure is much smaller for them than for well-established players, but I don’t think that’s the case. Solo developers and small teams often find themselves in a make-or-break situation, but it seems they don’t focus on failure much; rather, they focus on success. They work hard, go all in, and that’s a kind of bravery I have huge respect for.

One of the games that definitely deserves to be labeled as innovative is called Paper Trail. It’s a beautifully painted top-down puzzle game where a player advances by folding a backdrop to merge its two sides to beat various obstacles. It’s simple and elegant (in the same meaning in which the word “elegant” is used by Tynan Sylvester in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences).

Another simple and elegant puzzle game that caught my eye is Oberty. Its core mechanic is based on XOR-blending shapes, and the minimalist art style that fits the game so well is a nice example of a golden rule, especially for indie game development, that less is often more. 

A different yet equally elegant puzzle game that impressed me is The Cable Guy. In The Cable Guy, the player needs to connect nodes in a constantly growing, procedurally generated network to "keep everyone from losing their cool," as stated by the developers. There are various tools at the player's disposal, but they all come with a price tag, which cleverly weaves in mechanics from the management games genre.

There were actually a handful of management games submitted to all five Indie Cups. Like Tiny Bookshop, a very slow pace, rather casual game where, as the name suggests, the player manages a small bookshop on wheels, traveling through different locations, selling and restocking books based on current demand and occasionally selling a cup of coffee or just talking with locals.

But let's go back among puzzle games to grab one last example, let’s look at a game with a catchy name It’s a Wrap!, where the player has to figure out the perfect timing of props, actors, and special effects as the Director and then jump into the scene as the movie's star in a traditional 2D platformer. This puzzle game is a perfect blend between something new and something well-known.

Another interesting blend, this time between a turn-based strategy and a puzzle game, offers Chicken Empire: Wiesel In Shadows, where the protagonist infiltrates a chicken empire, looking for clues that would help him find his friend, lost after the last chicken raid. Chicken Empire requires a sense for good timing and a strategic thinking as the player needs to carefully plan optimal steps on a grid based playfield.

Blending mechanics from different genres together is something I’ve seen a lot among games submitted to the Indie Cup. Another game definitely worth noting in this context is called Liberté. This game mixes roguelite gameplay with deck builder mechanics and brings a narratively rich, visually stunning and unique world that combines real historical events with Lovecraftian horror fantasy.

Luna Abyss is another great and completely different example of this common indie games phenomenon. The story-driven sci-fi game seamlessly combines FPS with a 3D platformer and bullet hell. At first glance, it seemed to me like an artsy version of DOOM Eternal, the aesthetic of Luna Abbys is something that pleased my eyes very much, but while playing the demo, I found out there’s actually so much more in this game.

Some indie games even go further and break the borders of the media itself. For example, Spirit City: Lofi Sessions is a blend between a game and a productivity tool! And Neurocracy is a game and a Wikipedia, or a game implemented as Wikipedia, it’s really hard to tell, you just need to play it for yourself. If you like reading and digging in deep lores, you’re going to love it.

Though not every indie game tries to be too innovative, and that’s fine, when an idea is well-made within the boundaries of a well-established genre, it can make a noticeable game too. One such example is Full Void. It’s a classic 2D platformer, but very well executed with a great story, beautiful pixel-art, and stunning post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

Speaking of highly atmospheric games with easy-to-be-immersed-in story, I can’t forget to mention The Darkest Files, a game where the player puts on the shoes of an investigator shortly after World War II to reopen cold cases of the Nazi era based on true crimes. What a heavy topic. The game also comes in beautiful retro comic-like art-style. Something that Andy Warhol might like, I guess.

Other indie games, on the other hand, play heavily on the humor card. These games don't take themselves too seriously but bring a good laugh. Like a game called Inkulinati, described by developers as an ink-based strategy straight from medieval manuscripts, where a rabbit’s bum can be deadlier than a dog's sword. This game is not just humorous; it also offers well-crafted strategy mechanics. While playing Inkulinati, I reminisced about countless hours of playing the legendary Heroes of Might & Magic III.

And then there’s a game called Do Not Buy This Game, a game that might be described as experimental, but its whole deal is that the game ticks you, makes fun of you, of itself, and of its author at almost every single step. Some might say this game takes it too far, but is there really such a thing as “too far” among indie games? I think not.

Another great example of a slightly dark humorous game is Death of the Reprobate, a point-and-click adventure with visuals that resemble late medieval paintings. This game is worth mentioning not just for its original art style but also as an exemplar of a once-beloved genre that is, thanks to indie developers, gaining in popularity again. Though I wouldn't go as far as saying we're living in a renaissance of point-and-click adventures, it’s still a rather niche genre as it always was, but there’s definitely a clearly visible uptrend.

From point-and-click adventures submitted to Indie Cup, I’d also like to point out a creepy-but-cute black and white and full of dark humor game PRIM, and another one called Phoenix Springs, which, with minimalist UI and a great voice over made entirely by a single person brings a breathtaking (no pun intended) atmosphere.

Last, but not least, I’d like to mention an adventure named by its protagonist Harold Halibut, mainly for its unique stop-motion aesthetics; as described by developers: every element in Harold Halibut is tactile and meticulously hand-crafted using traditional sculpting and model-making techniques. Besides, Harold Halibut offers full voice acting and a truly captivating story.

There were a plethora of other games that would deserve to be mentioned, but I think it’s time to wrap it up here, to not make this post too long and boring (hopefully the post is not boring already). Being a part of those five Indie Cups was an enriching experience that brought me not just discoverage of the abovementioned and many other fun games, but also yet another perspective on and thoughts abouts game development itself.

If you find yourself a bit bored while playing the next AAA title, thinking something like “I’ve seen this so many times before”, open a search engine of your choice, type “indie games” and press enter.

Author is not associated with any of the above mentioned game projects and did not receive any incentive to mention them in this post.

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