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Under the Radar: Your Weekly Guide to the Games You’ve Never Heard of

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Posted on April 8, 2014 AT 05:30pm

Welcome to Under the Radar, a column designed to expand your gaming horizons by highlighting the most interesting work from small and independent developers. Each week, you’ll get a rundown of indie-centric news stories and announcements, a game recommendation to help build your indie street cred, and the Main Event—a rotating segment featuring developer interviews, gameplay impressions, opinion pieces, or whatever else I feel like sharing.

While you’ll no doubt hear about the aggressively hyped juggernauts of the indie world from time to time, I’ll also strive to give you info on the deep cuts and the up-and-comers, the interesting fringe where weird meets brilliant. Let’s dive in.

 

Main Event: Misfits Attic’s Tim Keenan

This week, I chat with Tim Keenan, one half of the independent studio Misfits Attic about his past, present, and future. At some point, we ride in the Wonkavator.

EGM: How’d you get into indie development?

Tim Keenan: I started at Rainbow Studios in console gaming, and then I got kind of burnt out from that, and then I went to Dreamworks Animation for about 10 years, from Shrek 2 through How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind. Then I saved up and quit that job so I could start my own indie thing. I started full-time in 2011. We made A Virus Named Tom, my wife and I and some contractors.

EGM: What are you working on now?

Keenan: I have three new prototypes up, and we’re trying to just get one of them underway. We made money on A Virus Named Tom and it’s kept the lights on until now, but not enough money to fund an entire other title. Basically, we’re trying to get funding so we can push one of these games. There’s Duskers. I think that’s our strong PC game, lots of atmosphere. The Last Shadow is much more console friendly. It’s multiplayer. And then there’s Chess: The Gathering. That’s just an incredibly geeky game that people really like, but I’m afraid because I haven’t dealt with online lobbies and stuff like that.

EGM: Do you have a favorite? I know I’m basically asking you to choose your favorite child.

Keenan: I think it varies over time. When I was working on each of them, each one was my favorite, because I was working on it right then, and I was like, “Oh my god, this thing is coming together.” Maybe that’s why I’m biased towards Duskers right now, because it was the last one we worked on. But it’s also the most moody, and I think it’s the one that has the most going for it in terms of breaking established norms. It’s got some really quirky elements to it. I joke around that I was going through a design adolescence, where I was just raging against the machine.

EGM: Can you tell us a bit about Duskers, then? Run us through the basics?

Keenan: I’m going through a weird thing with this game where—because it’s different and I feel like it’s kind of an odd child of mine and I think the mainstream might not initially understand it—I’m kind of raging against normal stuff I would do. It’s almost like I’ve taken the producer in my brain and tied him up and thrown him in the back alley. Normally I would have this really slick elevator pitch. I would probably have some cool screenshots and this whole story of the game and stuff like that. I haven’t really done that.

EGM: Well, give me the eight-minute elevator pitch, then. It’s a really tall building and a really slow elevator.

Keenan: It’s the Wonkavator, and we’re going all around town. OK, I’ll break it into two parts: atmosphere and gameplay. The atmosphere of the game: I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to start it out, but I think you’re going to be looking at this blank console and two lines are going to come up. One of them is going to say that it’s been over 300 days since your last contact with a human being. Another is going to say that you only have a couple days left in rations before you’re out of food and water. The universe is a giant graveyard. Every ship that you ping does not return your hail. You’re going to go to these derelict spaceships and try to get supplies and download their logs to try and figure out what the hell happened. You have these drones that you’re going to pilot in there, because you don’t know if it was disease or if there are bad things inside.

You’re all alone. That’s one of the themes of the game, I suppose, this isolation. To get artsy, the game has a survival horror feel, but I think the more difficult thing I want to get at is going to be things like isolation and claustrophobia and this sense that there’s no one to talk to. Another thing that’s kind of odd about the game is you manually control the drones. Instead of being like an RTS, where you just select a unit and tell it to go somewhere and issue high-level commands, you’re actually controlling these guys with [a command-line interface] on the keyboard and the arrow keys. The reason I did that is I wanted you to feel like these are not R2D2. They’re not going to talk back to you. They are just machines. They are just drones. I do give them names, though. I’m hoping to get for the same kind of effect you saw with Wilson from [the Tom Hanks movie] Castaway, where people will start to imbue them with personality because they have a name.

EGM: And from a gameplay standpoint?

Keenan: It’s all about adapting to survive and partial information. You get random upgrades to begin with, the derelict ships are procedurally generated, and there are different enemies in there. But you’re also going to stumble across broken down drones loot their upgrades off of them. You’ll get new stuff, and you’re old stuff is going to break, beacuse it’s old tech. This isn’t a sexy future. This is bleak. You’re just cobbling things together to see if they work. Because of that, you’re going to be constantly shuffling your hand. Even if you have a favorite strategy, you’re going to have to change that strategy. That’s what survival’s all about: adapting.

The other part that I think is really interesting is the partial information stuff. In a normal dungeon crawler, you open the door, you go in, you beat up the things, and you keep going. You get the loot. In Duskers, if you open up the door and there’s a bad guy inside, it’s going to kill you. It’s an unforgiving game. You have to use your tools to avoid the enemies and use subterfuge. If you scan a room and the motion sensor shows there’s something in there, if you power that area of the ship, you can use the ship against it. You can open a door and it’ll wander out, then you close that door, and now that room is safe. But then they might start chewing on that door if they hear you. It’s kind of like this cat and mouse game that you’re going to have with all these things inside the ship. I think the most powerful moments in the game are when you don’t think you can get past a room, and then you have this MacGyver moment and do this really weird thing because you think it might work. And when it does, you feel like a genius. And when it doesn’t, you just die.

EGM: On a scale of Cliffy B to Jonathan Blow, how indie do you consider yourself and why?

Keenan: You know what? I feel like I’ve been getting more indie the longer I do it. I think that when I started, I had a company name and independent contractor agreements with everybody. It was a small business. And then when I met Alex [Austin, programmer and designer on Gish and Bridge Builder] and David [Rosen, of Wolfire Games], they were on the very hippie-dippie indie scale, and they started convincing me. Alex was saying, it’s more like a garage band, where you’re collaborating with people, and that might work or it might not, but you’re keeping it fluid and you’re just kind of trying to jam. I would say that I’m skewing more and more indie every day.

EGM: Last one before I let you go: Favorite game of all time?

Keenan: That’s a really hard one, because different games are awesome for different reasons. What if Zelda and Master of Orion and Oblivion all had a baby? Is that a game?

EGM: I guess we’ll have to take it.

 

News Roundup: A Study in Aftermath

I’m late to this party by a week or so, but I wanted to start off by sharing one of the most horrifying and intriguing stories I’ve had the chance to read in recent memory: The GAME JAM debacle. Late last month, YouTube’s Maker network attempted to set up a reality television–style show featuring indie developers competing to build game prototypes in the vein of Project Runway. The entire production fell apart after a day of filming. I could go into further detail, but you’d be much better off getting the full story from the folks who were there. Indie Statik’s Jared Rosen shared his account as the only journalist in attendance, while participating devs Adriel Wallick, Robin Arnott, and Zoe Quinn offered their perspectives on the trainwreck. All four pieces are worth your time, not just because they help paint a fuller picture of this unbelievably disastrous, intermittently infuriating event, but also because they offer a glimpse into what makes the indie development community such a great place.

If you’re interested in bloody post-mortems of a more literal sort, you’ll be happy to know that Viscera Cleanup Detail has made it to Steam Early Access. RuneStorm’s tongue-in-cheek physics sandbox puts you in the shoes of a janitor on a space station, tasked with cleaning up the aftermath intense sci-fi firefights much like the ones you’ve caused in Halo or Dead Space. Hey, you didn’t think all those alien guts just mopped themselves up, did you? You can pick it up for a paltry $8 and start the intergalactic spring cleaning right away.

In keeping with the theme of messy cleanup, the incredibly different RPG Always Sometimes Monsters from the folks at Vagabond Dog has finally gotten a release date. The game lets you pick your gender, race, and sexual orientation, then sends you on a tailored journey as you make a cross-country trip to confront the love of your life after learning they’re about to marry someone else. No monsters to randomly encounter, no phoenix downs to save your skin, just a lot of the tough, real-life decisions we encounter every day and a lot of time to reflect on the consequences of your actions. It’ll be out May 21, and you can pre-order now through Humble or Steam on the game’s official website.

Finally, I’d like to give a shoutout to The Pirate Bay Bundle, a collection of free games curated by Steve (@moshboy) Cook over on his Oddities tumblr, now available to download over BitTorrent. Don’t worry about the FBI knocking down your door, though—all of the games were freely available before they went up on TPB. Cook just gathered them all in one place and, in some cases, even contacted devs to get them to help out by making standalone versions of browser-only games. It’s a cool, no-risk way to familiarize yourself with some of the talented folks working in indie development that aren’t making headlines. I’ve barely had a chance to scratch the surface myself, but I’ve already seen several promising games with interesting ideas here. It’s definitely worth a look, and it’s hard to beat that price tag.

 

Cred Builder: Starseed Pilgrim

If you’ve already read the latest issue EGM, you’ve seen my evangelism for Starseed Pilgrim in action, but I could not, in good conscience, launch Under the Radar without giving a shoutout to Droqen’s fantastic minimalist platformer. It’s the rare kind of game that shuts up and lets its design do all the talking, allowing you to discover its secret rules and hidden stories for yourself. You can pick it up from the official website or Steam for just $6.

 

Are you an indie developer? Are you making a game about using the power of love to defeat racism? Would you like it to be featured on an upcoming installment of Under the Radar? Shoot a message to josh.harmon@egmnow.net with “UTR” in the subject line and I’ll do my best to make your dreams come true.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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