Toronto might not give its independent game developers the love they so richly deserve, but in a year in which critical and financial successes like Journey and Papo & Yo were released, Toronto’s indie devs hanged with the best of them, delivering some of the best games the medium had on offer in 2012. Below are just some of the games that helped make this year so special.
Analogue: A Hate Story (Windows, Mac and Linux)
Some might object to Analogue: A Hate Story‘s inclusion on this list, as the title’s gameplay consists almost exclusively of reading, typing in command line and answering sets of questions. However, for those that entered the experience with an open mind as to what a videogame could be, Analogue proved to be an engaging experience throughout, illustrating the that heights interactivity and storytelling could reach working in unison.
Set 700 years in future, the player assumes the role of an unnamed investigator charged with finding out what has happened to the Mugunghwa, a spaceship that, in the game’s world, went missing almost 600 years ago but has suddenly reappeared. In trying to find out the fate that befell the ship’s crew, the player discovers two mysterious artificial intelligences that, with the help of several crew logs, tell the story of a ship that reorganized itself according to the societal values of the medieval Joseon dynasty of Korea. It’s an usual setting, but developer Christine Love uses it to full effect as she explores a variety of subjects, including relationships between man and machine and issues revolving around gender. In the process, she gives a voice to a group that videogames have too often ignored: women.
To those that doubt the medium can give a voice to anyone beyond a young-adult male, this is the game that proves that notion wrong.
Dyad (Playstation 3)
Dyad is a game that is difficult to describe, as this is a game that needs to be seen, heard and, most of all, played before one can fully appreciate its strengths. However, on a basic level, Dyad challenges the player to race down 26 colourful cylinder-like levels as quickly as possible. It seems simple enough but, over the course of those 26 stages, Dyad gradually introduces new mechanics that make the proceedings more interesting. And like some of the best mechanically challenging games, Dyad is easy to learn but tough to master. Once you do it master, however, the thrill of completing a level in record time is unlike any other.
Home is a horror-adventure game by illustrator and game developer Benjamin Rivers. In Home, the player controls a man who wakes up to find himself in an unfamiliar place. However, as the player helps the man make his back home, they travel through a variety of locations that are intimately familiar, including the house that the protagonist shares with his wife.
Breaking with genre convention, the player’s character cannot die. Moreover, Rivers chooses to go with a pixel art style that is decidedly not scary. Yet in playing Home, I was left a sense of dread that high-budget scarefests like Dead Space failed to impart upon me. This, I think, is a testament to River’s skill as a writer and designer. And more so than any title in 2012, Rivers showed what a videogame could achieve with a limited palette.
Sound Shapes (Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita)
Like the music scene it is so often compared to, Toronto’s videogame developer community is know for its love of collaboration. In this Sound Shapes developer Jonathan Mak and the rest of Queasy Games are no different. In fact, Sound Shapes would have been a drastically different game were it not for the contributions of Toronto-based musicians Shaw-Han Liem, he of I Am Robot and Proud fame, and Jim Guthrie–and not to mention a host of other musical collaborators, including Deadmau5 and Beck.
Sound Shapes is a music-platformer. Like most platformers, the player is tasked with navigating obstacles, moving from screen to screen, and, of course, making their way to the end of a level. What sets Sound Shapes apart is that it rewards players for their perseverance and success with levels that come alive musically. Each successive obstacle conquered or hazard avoided adds to a level’s melody, so that near silence quickly gives way to a beautiful and full song. In a particularly memorable level, the music of I Am Robot and Proud is paired with an art-style that is reminiscent of Liem’s album covers.
What takes Sound Shapes to stratosphere, however, is the inclusion of a built-in level and music editor that allows savvy players to craft and upload their own levels so that others can enjoy them. This gives Sound Shapes near-endless replayability. It’s this combination of factors that make it one of the best releases of 2012, and my personal favourite among the five games listed here.
Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack (Playstation Vita, Windows and Mac)
As much as Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack is about a handsome and disgusting alien blob’s quest to consume everything around it, it’s also a love letter to the city and community that the game’s developer, DrinkBox Studios, calls home. In the above screenshot, for example, the billboard advertising “Crunchy Critter” is a reference to Toronto’s best known developer, Capybara Games, and their 2008 game Critter Crunch (last year, Capy released Sword & Sworcery EP, a game which Jim Guthrie also scored). Mutant Blobs is filled with inside jokes like this–most of them directed toward Capy, though it seems DrinkBox also has a lot to say about PBR drinking hipsters.
Of course, none of that would matter if Mutant Blobs were not a fun game. Thankfully, Mutant Blobs doesn’t disappoint on that front, as it’s an absolute joy to navigate the game world with your blob, growing it bigger and bigger by collecting all sorts of junk. But it’s that extra layer of charm that DrinkBox adds to their games that makes Mutant Blobs so compelling, and which so many people are excited for the studio’s follow-up, Guacamelee.
Igor Bonifacic is a writer working for the Toronto Standard. You can follow him on twitter @igorbonifacic.