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by John Lichman
December 28, 2012 9:00 AM
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From 'Slender" to "Fez," The Top 10 Indie Games of 2012

An image from "Fez."
As film gets deeper and deeper intertwined with digital culture, gaming continues to grow as a related art form. For gamers, things aren't as cut-and-dry as they were in the eighties and nineties when all we needed to know from the instruction booklet that B meant jump and A meant shoot (plus whatever that C button did on the Sega Genesis).

The cross-pollination between film and games has evolved steadily from use of first-person action sequences in "The Hobbit" and last year's "Kick-Ass," which went as far as reusing the same reloading animation as the shooter "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" during a rescue scene. More recently, "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" included an exclusive tie-in map based on events in "Zero Dark Thirty."

What makes an indie game? It's about as unclearly defined as what makes an indie film. Rather than drawing the line around any specific budget size, this list of 2012 indie games sets no barriers except that they're all worth getting lost in.

10. "Slender: The Eight Pages"

If you’re not aware of the Slender Man, you've got some catching up to do. He's the type of monster that pops up behind you and does something--no one has ever figured out just who or what his motivations are. "The Eight Pages" is a simulator for living out that terror. The purpose is to wander around a nondescript wooden area filled with ominous locations and find eight pieces of paper--while you avoid being devoured or captured by Slendy. There are no weapons aside from your flashlight, which occasionally has to recharge and which you can't use while running. Chime sounds hint how close The Slender Man is and he only gets faster as you find more pages. Despite being a single player experience, half the fun involves how players react, so it's helpful have a companion on this one.

Available for Mac and Windows.

9. "Journey"

The follow-up to thatgamecompany’s 2009 release "Flower" follows a similar plotless-yet-compelling narrative: move forward and meet people. Instead of collecting petals like players did in "Flower," you play as a character with an ever-growing scarf who can only communicate in notes that sync up with the hypnotic soundtrack. Co-op players can join your game, allowing you to help one another while relying on the characters' musical way of talking instead of hearing actual voices. "Journey" obviously falls into the more artistic and creative side of gaming versus the questionable future of "triple-A" franchises like a "Call of Duty" or "Final Fantasy." The point of the game is implied by the title. The ending includes an enticing option found in most "sandbox" games: to start over at the beginning. Could you play it differently on a second run? Of course. That's the whole point.

Available on Playstation Network.


8. "Minecraft" for the Xbox 360

Minecraft has been around since the dawn of gaming on the internet (which isn't exactly that long ago unless you put it in historical conext). But the Xbox 360 version of Minecraft released this year is a welcome addition that simply built upon the cult appeal of the game by making it more widely available.

Available on iOS, Xbox Live, and PC.

7. "Fez"

Profiled in the Sundance-acclaimed documentary "Indie Game: The Movie," this long-awaited game follows a 2-D sprite named Gomez who happens upon the magical Hexahedron, which brings him crashing into a mixed-up 2-D and 3-D world. The design presents a fascinating experiment in the use of depth in a platforming game, but it also plays with structure, shape and how much one can experience in a game of this sort beyond running and jumping ad infinitum.

Available on Xbox Live.

6. "Spec Ops: The Line"

Borrowing heavily from "Apocalypse Now" rather than gaming precedents, "The Line" isn't a traditional Spec Ops game. In fact, it may be one of the few games about warfare and military that doesn't involve winning in the traditional sense. As Captain Walker, you lead a three-man squad into Dubai after an epic sandstorm that has turned the city into a desert graveyard. You're constantly hounded by the radioman as he mocks your moves and desperate to find the lost Colonel John Konrad. "The Line" inspired a caustic review in The New York Times -- frankly, because it doesn't glorify violence and strongly suggests by the end that playing Walker is like experiencing a virtual PTSD. Not since the great "Bioshock" has it become so disturbing to find out you've been a willing participant in a thought experiment -- even if this one just happens to have Alice in Chains on the soundtrack.

Available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Windows.

5. "Train Simulator 2012"

Yet another annual addition to a game franchise that is both boring and agreeable: You drive a train. You can't crash or add anything of merit aside from being late or missing a stop. And yet "Train Simulator" still inspired someone to take a novel approach to one of the funniest YouTube videos of the year:

Available on Steam.

4. "Dear Esther"

Open world puzzle games like "Myst" became increasingly rare as shooters and adventure games because they're tough to market. Yet, like "Slender," "Dear Esther" doesn't focus on anything aside from pushing the player to explore a narrative rather than hunt for puzzles or keys. Remastered from a mod originally produced in 2009, "Esther" allows the player to explore an island in linear fashion and learn what happened to a woman named Esther as themes of drunk driving, regret, multiple narrators and even questions surrounding the player's identity come up. The game engenders a substantial amount of dread that makes it near-impossible to keep pressing forward without keeping the lights on.  A sequel, "Everybody's Gone to the Rapture," is set to be released next summer along with "Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs." Rather than drawing from the horror-survival or puzzle genres, "Dear Esther" proves that innovative plot and minimal control can be more disturbing than anything in the "Resident Evil" franchise.

Available on PC, Mac, Steam, and Linux.


3.  "Fix-It Felix, Jr."

Is a simple java game built for a major studio release truly indie? This one's an exception. Released to emulate the game structure of the "Fix-It Felix Jr.," the fictional game at the center of "Wreck-It Ralph," the game's point is simple: fix it while Ralph wrecks it. Modeled after "Super Mario Bros.," "Donkey Kong" and the endless parade of eighties arcade games, "Felix" delivers more nostalgia than the film that inspired it.

Available on iOS and Android.

2. "The Walking Dead"

Episodic content is definitely entering a new phase. While Telltale Games has used the method previously with its serialized games like "Sam and Max," "Tales from Monkey Island," "Jurassic Park," and "Back to the Future: The Game," this one strikes a major chord by capitalizing on the appeal of "Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman's zombie apocalypse. As Lee, a convicted criminal, you move through Georgia with Clementine and struggle to stay safe from walkers and other threats. Just like Kirkman, players are forced to choose between who to save, how much personal story to reveal to other characters and -- most importantly -- how to play Lee: Is he honest with others about his past? Does he choose not to speak at all? All are viable optionsand encouraged throughout the five episodes, the first of which is currently available for free on iOS and Android. The point-and-click drama and dialogue choices add levels of complexity that make "Mass Effect" look childish. And since this is a Kirkman joint, good luck keeping a dry eye during the fifth episode.

Available on PC, Xbox Live, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Steam, and Mac.

1. "DayZ"

Zombies are a staple for shooting and strategy games, but rarely in a realistic fashion. So Dean "Rocket" Hall created the "DayZ" mod for open world military shooter "Arma II" and let folks go wild. The zombies are nearly blind, but scarily fast if you make a sound; your characters bleed until their wounds are dressed, get dehydrated and it becomes impossible to see at night without the moon. Beyond the zombie threat, there are also bandits -- other players who hunt down folks for their looks or just to kill them -- and hackers. Players obsessed with "DayZ" branched off into a new collective, which even inspired its own sub-Reddit over the summer. People began role-playing and spawned stories like the "No" man (listen close and you’ll hear a familiar John Williams tone). The game also inspired a stand-alone game, “WarZ,” which is still having the bugs removed after a “premature” launch on Steam.
Mods being transformed into stand-alone games, or even spiking the sales of unknown games, is a trend that definitely needs to continue. Whether it be for genre or, like with Valve’s Source Filmmaker, being able to turn gaming into legit films.

Available on PC and Steam as a mod for "Arma II."

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