The increasing popularity of indie video games has been great for the industry. Free from the constraints of sales targets and marketing requirements, indie developers can focus on achieving their artistic vision. Sometimes these visions are brilliant. Other times, as the following titles demonstrate, they’re the product of hallucinogens and insanity, driving us all to madness.
8. Mr. Legs.
The relative ease of developing for mobile platforms has allowed countless strange little games to pop up on smartphones. Perhaps none of these is creepier than Mr. Legs, and not just because anything named Mr. Legs has to be either unsettling or gay pornography (or unsettling gay pornography).
In what looks like a 1920s cartoon gone horribly wrong, you lead your titular protagonist on a quest to devour cherries. You do this by lengthening or shortening his legs, either shrinking them down to subhuman nubs or stretching them until they’re the spindly appendages of a human-spider hybrid. But don’t hit an obstacle, or Mr. Legs’ dead-eyed gaze shifts to an angry glare that suggests he’d be just as happy to devour our children as he would fruit.
The twisted piano music only reinforces the creepiness. Sure, he’s eating cherries now, but come nighttime he’s going to be chasing you through your nightmares, happy music tinkling away in the background as his long strides effortlessly defeat your attempts to escape.
7. The Cat and the Coup.
Billed as a “documentary game,” The Cat and the Coup lets gamers play a role they’ve dreamed about for years – Mohammad Mosaddegh’s cat.
Mosaddegh, for those of you not up on your 1950s political history, was a democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran who was overthrown in a military coup organized by the CIA and MI6. He was also, apparently, a cat lover, and your job as his favored feline is to lead him through memories of the most significant events of his life.
The makers of The Cat and the Coup deserve accolades for using video games to examine a crucial, yet often overlooked, moment in history, but the surreal visuals will leave you knowing less about Mosaddegh than when you started. Maybe we just slept through some of our history classes, but we don’t remember Mosaddegh trying to resolve an oil crisis by negotiating with an anthropomorphic rabbit monster. Symbolism is one thing; madness is another.
6. Ulitsa Dimitrova.
There aren’t many games where you play as a child, and those that do exist tend to be light-hearted. Costume Quest, for example, lets you recapture the whimsy and wonder of Halloween. But then there’s Ulitsa Dimitrova, which has you controlling a cigarette addicted seven year old who lives on the streets of St. Petersburg. Because in Russia, even the video games have to be soul-crushingly depressing.
Indulge in all your beloved childhood activities: beg for change, vandalize cars, rob liquor stores, barter with drug addicts and hang out with your alcoholic, prostitute mother. Sound unsavory? Well, too bad; you’ve got to do these things, or your little boy lies down on the sidewalk and freaking freezes to death.
But all games run out of content sooner or later, so no matter what you do, the little guy eventually takes an early trip to the grave. There’s no turning your life around in Ulitsa Dimitrova – existence is cruel, meaningless and short. Happy gaming!
5. Every Day the Same Dream.
Do you work in an office? Does it bore you? If you’re reading this at work, I’m going to assume the answer is yes. So escape the humdrum of the nine-to-five world with Every Day the Same Dream, a game about the humdrum of the nine-to-five world. With a twist!
Each game day involves getting up early, taking a boring commute to your bland office, getting chewed out by your boss, doing tedious work, then heading home and hitting the hay. This process repeats forever (just like in the title!) unless you experiment and fulfill hidden tasks, like skipping work to pet cows or getting fired by showing up in your boxers. Find all these secrets and you’ll go through one final day where you don’t encounter a single person until you see yourself commit suicide. Because that’s deep, man.
Look, nobody’s thrilled about having to work in an office, but if it’s driving you to suicide you have bigger issues to work through. This is a portrayal of an office job by someone who I’m guessing has never had one in their life, and while the hidden tasks are clever the concept is ridiculous. Don’t tell that to the commenters on YouTube though, because to them this is right up there with Nietzsche.
4. Bloody Death.
Remember those old Sega CD games like Night Trap and Wirehead, where bad actors would take you through a blurry twenty minute movie and you’d occasionally have to press buttons? Don’t you wish they’d make a comeback? No, of course you don’t. They’re horrible. But they at least have some ironic appeal as relics of a bygone era, and that’s more than can be said for Bloody Death, a modern take on the genre that looks like it had the budget of a ham sandwich.
Watch in terror as an axe murderer threatens to get ketchup all over four characters who look pretty disinterested in the whole “serial killer chasing them” scenario. Every now and then you’ll be given a generous length of time to press a few buttons, although often instead of making your characters do something heroic, the quick-time events just make the killer get bored and wander off. The fact that he’s pursuing his victims with all the enthusiasm of someone doing their taxes doesn’t do much to up the tension. It’s still better than Resident Evil 6, though.
Actually, you know what? As awful as Bloody Death is, it is kind of nice that someone is keeping this silly genre alive. And Bloody Death does manage to capture the unintentional hilarity that is arguably the genre’s most important feature, so kudos to it.
3. The Marriage.
Think fast! What do you see in this screenshot?
If you said two squares and two circles, congrats on having eyes! If you said “a marriage, obviously,” you’re either lying or the creator of The Marriage. Or both.
Let’s break down the symbolism: the squares are the man and the woman (apparently there’s no same-sex mode), while the circles are “outside influences,” like a job, a friend or your habit of playing terrible indie games instead of going out and talking to girls. Uh, that’s just a hypothetical example. Yeah.
The size of the squares represents how much “space” the person is taking up in the marriage, while their transparency shows how emotionally involved they are. Get too big or too pale and the marriage collapses, at which point it’s presumably off to triangle divorce court. Your job as “the agency of Love” is to maintain equilibrium in the relationship, which is accomplished in much the same way a real relationship is maintained – messing around and hoping nothing bad happens.
As you play geometry Cupid, the background changes color to show the passage of time, and that’s symbolic, too. It starts as masculine blue, representing manly man things like “the club scene” and “exuberant experimentation.” It transitions to pink as the relationship becomes more permanent and “emotionally more kind,” leading the lovers to “fully enter the world of the feminine.” It’s nice that even an artsy, pretentious indie game can have the same problem of casual sexism you see in the mainstream.
2. …But That Was Yesterday.
Much like Every Day the Same Dream, …But That Was Yesterday is indie gaming at its most highfalutin. It seems as though ever since the success of Braid people have mistakenly thought the secret to a good indie game is to wax philosophical. That’s fine, but you need some fun in there too, or else you end up with, well, this.
The game begins with your hero out for a stroll. You’re told to walk into a wall of boiling black goop and, unperturbed by the sight of a space-time rupture in your neighbourhood, you do. Some of your character’s memories flash onscreen, you’re thrown backwards, and the process repeats.
You can do this all day and not get anywhere, but if you disobey the instructions and turn your back on your memories (get it?!) you can make progress. Very, very slow progress: your hero (who looks a bit like Skeeter, incidentally) walks like a depressed zombie.
Eventually the game picks up and you’re able to run, jump and love. You travel through various memories, only to conclude the game as the slow-moving schmuck you started off as. It’s pretty, and the soundtrack is rad, but as a game there isn’t much to it. It’s probably a ton of fun if you’re high though, so there’s that.
Trauma is a game where you “dive into the mind of a traumatized young woman to learn and understand.” And by that they mean you draw lines on photos and listen to vague ramblings.
The young woman in question is recovering from a serious car accident. While in the hospital, she tries to come to terms with traumatic (bam!) events in her life, such as the death of her parents. Both the photos and soundtrack are gorgeous – that seems to be a running theme with weird indie games – but the “puzzles” are insultingly simple, especially since you don’t have your hand held so much as you’re straddled and made sweet, sweet love to. That’s what that metaphor means, right? It’s like a romance thing? Whatever, the point is that Trauma is super easy.
Shallow gameplay is fine if the story is up to snuff: if anyone complains, you just call it “interactive fiction” and make them feel stupid for not getting it. But what you “learn and understand” about this woman is a whole lot of nothing. That our heroine sounds like her lines are being read by a computer emphasizes the narrative failure – nothing says “traumatized car crash victim” like a flat monotone from an actress with the emotional range of a rock, or Kristen Stewart.
And that’s what many weird indie games have in common: someone has an idea for a story, but no clue how to tell it through the medium of gaming. The end result is nonsense, but strangely captivating nonsense. No matter how awful these games are, their creators managed to get their artistic vision out there for the world to see. That’s more than most people can say, and that’s worth celebrating…but not playing. (These games are all free though, so you can check them out for yourself and decide if I’m just too dumb to appreciate them.)