With the Smithsonian kicking off its The Art of Video Games exhibition, the recent release of games-as-art standard setter Journey (seriously…look at that shit), and the discussion of artistic integrity and precedent surrounding fans’ tooth-gnashing and demands over the—uh—unpopular resolution of BioWare’s Mass Effect series, March seems like a perfect time to revisit some arty indie favorites. I didn’t need a reason, but I did need an intro. So now that that’s over with…
If I had to marry a free indie video game (it’s a wild world out there, guys…you never know), it would be Paper Moon. And I’m cool with sharing, because no one should have to miss out on this gem, which is a collaboration between Infinite Ammo, Adam Saltsman, and Flashbang Studios.
Paper Moon is a sidescrolling platformer offered in the finest monochrome. Aside from being adorable, perfect, etc., its unique draw is a mechanic that has the player “pop” different parts of the scene forward and backward, like cutouts rigged up to something on the Z axis (they even make a squeaking noise when you move them, as though someone’s operating a rope and pulley off-screen). Needing to ensure the next platform you hop on is actually lined up with you rather than lurking in the foreground or background adds a fun challenge, especially when you can knock yourself (or enemies) off the screen, depending on your timing.
There are multiple paths and a lot of room for exploration—provided you don’t run out of time. And even if you do run out of time, you will want to come back and start over. Paper Moon is drowning in charm, from its cutout aesthetic to its nickelodeon-era piano soundtrack to the sweet little expressions on the player character’s face. It’s so heartbreakingly precious, you should be prepared to confess your love to it, spend the rest of your day musing about it, and then replay it when you have a chance.
Enter Coil with an open mind. It involves fetal development. It’s possibly about rape, definitely about death. I don’t know much about pregnancy, but I’m willing to guess the in-game embryo we’re dealing with is alien.
If my stuttering and shuffling has not made this clear, Coil is a little weird. Each level is a unique minigame involving tasks like guiding sperm to an egg, separating cells, or feeding the babything using its umbilical cord like a lasso (I assume this is how it works with human babythings as well). The controls walk that familiar line between intuitive and baffling—if it takes you a few seconds too long to get off the title screen, don’t worry…you’re not alone. The wobbly soundtrack is reminiscent of the collective brain of Danny Elfman and Tim Burton, so if nothing else about the game causes you discomfort (see: those text screens), it should do the job.
I may have played Coil with a raised eyebrow and wrinkled nose, but I write this with love and wonder. After all, it’s not easy to get nominated for an IGF Innovation Award, which Coil most certainly did.
Hippolyta, a free indie by Evil-Dog, depicts the Amazon legend’s escape from slavery. I don’t think magic girdles or A Midsummer Night’s Dream ever factor in, but I don’t know for sure because I never got to the end. This didn’t surprise me. Evil-Dog points out right away that “This game is hard! Your reflexes will be brutally tested.” So, watch as I wrap my lack of natural skill in an almost-legitimate excuse: I did not have time to become good at this game. You can reuse that one if you want.
Still, don’t be discouraged! You should at least try the first level. For a little browser-based game, the graphics are intense—the colors are rich, the scenery seems infinitely layered, and everything moves at full charge. If parallax scrolling woodlands aren’t a big thing for you, take a moment to appreciate the epic music and breast physics.
As with any difficult action game, your victories are always sweet. As the levels progress, you’re forced to adapt Hippolyta’s fighting and fleeing style, making longer jumps, timing the arrival of arrows, and determining which enemies to spear, block, outrun, or trample (practice yelling “EAT HORSE”). The game is so pretty that you’ll want to improve so you can progress to the next color scheme and set of shouting Athenians.
Give it a go! And tell me how far you get.