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Work / Digital

Five super-creative indie video games to check out after the V&A’s new exhibition

Running ’til February 2019, the V&A’s new Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition represents a significant step into new territories for video games: the first attempt by a major gallery to widen the horizons of those with (deliberately, or otherwise) blinkered perspectives on gaming.

The design-focused show covers the gestation processes of big-budget action games like The Last of Us – but, more importantly, it showcases a host of smaller, independently made titles, several of which are designed to poke and prod at contemporary socio-cultural issues and arguments, while others merely exist to entertain, interactively, in ways that don’t involve (simulated) violence or sports.

You’ll hopefully leave inspired to seek out more games that offer experiences beyond what gets advertised on TV or receives supermarket racking. If so, here are five amazingly creative video games, made by independent studios or individuals, that can be played on today’s array of gaming platforms – consoles, handhelds, mobile and PC.

Thumper

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Thumper: Drool

Rhythm-action video games – where the objective is to hit musical cues in time with on-screen prompts – aren’t as popular today as they were during Guitar Hero’s mid-00s pomp. But Thumper, developed by the two-man team of programmer Marc Flury and artist/composer Brian Gibson, the drummer in Lightning Bolt, attacks the rhythm genre from a very singular direction – and “attacks” is entirely the right word, here.

Despite its surreal aesthetic, Thumper is initially simple – steer a sci-fi space bug, hurtling down a track, responding to environmental prompts when they appear. But with Gibson’s soundtrack (check it out on Spotify) dominated by thundering percussion and eerie synths, and the game’s visuals turning ever-more aggressive, it’s a massive challenge to keep up with its incessant assault on your senses. It’ll all be too much for some – but if you’ve got the stomach for it, Thumper will set your adrenaline coursing like no other music game.

Available on: PC (VR compatible), PlayStation 4 (VR compatible), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS.

Gorogoa

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Gorogoa: Annapurna Interactive

The work, largely, of just one – Jason Roberts toiled at it for six years – Gorogoa is a deceptively diminutive puzzle game that hides, beneath its four interactive tiles, a story that transcends history, stretches physics, and ultimately touches you emotionally. It’s story of struggle, and of war; one that Roberts’ own development obstacles can’t possibly parallel, but you sense that the contrasted beauty and ruin of his exquisite pencil drawings couldn’t be as potent as they are, had their maker not navigated his own testing times.

How Gorogoa plays is elegant and effortless – slide parts of the tiles onto others, to create new spaces to venture into, zooming in and out of scenes as you go. It constantly surprises, perplexes while never frustrating, and regularly rewards player curiosity. It’s the most gorgeous little toybox of a video game, a patient and quite unprecedented joy to just spend some time with, and within. But do please play it on a touchscreen, or with a mouse, if possible – control pads rather strip away this game’s more tangible qualities.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS.

Florence

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Published by the same company as Gorogoa, Annapurna Interactive, and developed by the small Australian indie studio, Mountains, Florence was released on Valentine’s Day 2018. But this short mobile game, featuring elementary puzzles to drive its progression, isn’t exactly a happy-ever-after love story. Rather, it’s entirely, unashamedly rooted in the relatable reality of so many relationships – and to say much more is to spoil one of recent memory’s most sincere meditations on what it’s like fall into love, bumps and all, in the modern world. Play it on your lunch break – it won’t take much longer than 45 minutes. But do play it.

Available on: Android, iOS.

Her Story

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Her Story: Sam Barlow

For a time, in the early 1990s, it felt as if games would embrace film footage as the next step of their evolution. Today, the full motion video (FMV) revolution is barely a footnote in the medium’s history – but just as rhythm action flickered out only for Thumper to kick it somewhere new, so Her Story reintroduced interactive movies to gamers, with award-winning results.

Her Story was developed and published by one man, Sam Barlow, and stars a single actress, Viva Seifert. It’s a narrative puzzle that tasks the player with piecing together archive police interview footage to reveal the truth behind a murder, and the real identity of the woman in the frame. To take the thought-dead FMV genre and weave a compelling mystery around it, underpinned by what proves to be a fascinating story, was quite the leap of faith by Barlow – but how it paid off. With three BAFTA wins and countless more accolades to its name, Her Story is one of the greatest indie game successes of recent years. It will leave you feeling like a real detective as you thread its numerous loose ends together.

Available on: iOS, Android, PC, Mac.

Yoku’s Island Express

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Yoku’s Island Express: Villa Gorilla

If you’ve never played a pinball-based platform game in which you’re an ant postman who’s also charged with saving the future of a tropical island beset by a legendary misfortune, then you’ve never played Yoku’s Island Express. Because as far as I know, that’s the only game, ever, to match said description. It’s also a platform game, ostensibly, in which the protagonist can’t actually jump – which is unheard of, and where the pinball element becomes so essential, with flippers and ramps propelling Yoku across its world.

If some of the previous games sounded a little heavy, rest assured that Yoku’s is a breezy and bright adventure where originality meets accessibility quite wonderfully. It’s incredibly easy to pick up and have a ball pinging Yoku this way and that, regardless of actual story progression. Swedish developers Villa Gorilla’s pitch would have had most publishers running a mile, or laughing in their faces; but venerable British institution Team17 – who released their 100th game in September 2018 – gave them a chance, and their risk is gaming’s gain. Yoku’s is one of 2018’s most playful and picturesque 2D releases and a great alternative for fans of Mario and his ilk.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch