Dear Esther

Introduction

In the mid-2000s, a professor and lecturer from the University of Portsmouth named Dan Pinchbeck had an idea for an experimental video game. Creating mods using Valve Software’s Source engine became a favorite pastime of many PC enthusiasts at the time – Mr. Pinchbeck included. He then realized he needed someone to score the game. For this task, he turned to his wife, Jessica Curry. Ms. Curry had earned a Bachelor of Arts for English Literature and Language at the University College London in 1994; her postgraduate work saw her earn a diploma in Screen Music from the National Film and Television School. Using her experience, she was more than happy to help her husband with his project. Thus, in 2007, the couple founded their very own independent game studio they dubbed The Chinese Room – named after the famous thought experiment devised by philosopher John Searle in his work “Minds, Brains, and Programs”.

Being a research project at the university, it received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mr. Pinchbeck conceived the script, citing the works of William S. Burroughs as an inspiration. He sought to capture a poetic use of language while drafting the script, contrasting the descriptive tone typically found in the medium. The game, entitled Dear Esther, was originally released as a free mod in 2008. It was later selected for the Animation Exhibition at the Prix Ars Electronica. There, the website Mod DB selected it as one of the best mods of the year, placing it on their top 100 list. The following year, Dear Esther won the award for Best World/Story award at the IndieCade festival.

Like many successful mods, Dear Esther went on to receive a commercial release. This Landmark Edition was released in 2012 on the digital distribution platform Steam. An artist of renown within the independent circuit named Robert Briscoe had the honors of completely redeveloping Dear Esther from the ground up. As the original mod, though praised, was also criticized for baring numerous glitches and a poor level design, Mr. Pinchbeck gave Mr. Briscoe his full blessings for the redesign. As a standalone release, Dear Esther received positive reviews overall. When the original mod was created, the independent gaming scene had started gaining traction. Even now, it is considered one of the scene’s early hallmarks. How, exactly, did it capture such a profound amount of critical attention?

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Tacoma

Introduction

The year 2013 marked the debut of Gone Home – the inaugural project of The Fullbright Company. The team, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by one Steve Gaynor, who began his work in the industry as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment before designing stages for BioShock 2. Gone Home was a resounding critical success. The most notable piece of praise it received was from Polygon when critic Danielle Riendeau awarded it a perfect, ten-point score, calling it a “quiet triumph in storytelling”. Despite its universal critical acclaim, Gone Home struggled to find an audience outside of its proponents due to its short length and lack of gameplay.

Despite its overall mixed reception, Fullbright would use their success to fund their next project. Keeping true to their Pacific Northwest roots, they conceived a story taking place in a home in Tacoma, Washington. However, they backpedaled from this idea when they felt it to be too similar to Gone Home. While Gone Home sold itself as a slice-of-life story told within a video game, their next product would incorporate science fiction elements by being set in a space station. The team would name their game Tacoma as a nod to its original setting.

Tacoma was originally announced at The Game Awards in December of 2014, though it wouldn’t see its release until August of 2017 due to their playtesters’ feedback. Released across various platforms, Tacoma received favorable reviews. Eurogamer notably ranked it twenty-second on their list of the best games of 2017. Despite its favorable reception, Tacoma went on to sell fewer copies than Gone Home. Mr. Gaynor himself attributed its modest performance on the sheer number of games released in 2017, believing by that it was harder for indie titles to break out into the mainstream by then. Regardless of the exact reason, they realized Tacoma wasn’t the success story on the same level of Gone Home. Was it truly a step down from their thunderous debut?

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Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

Introduction

Although Westone’s Wonder Boy series garnered a following, its association with the popular developer Sega arguably ended up being its undoing. This is because 1991 marked the debut of Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. Seen as their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut game proved to be a gigantic hit. As a result, Sega began primarily focusing on their popular character. The game marked a stark paradigm shift in Sega’s output, causing many of their older franchises to fall by the wayside. This included their former mascot, Alex Kidd. Despite not having been developed by Sega themselves, Wonder Boy was afflicted as well. With Sega electing not to export what would end up being the final installment, Monster World IV, to the West, the series quickly fell into obscurity.

Sixteen years later in 2010, an independent developer in Paris, France named Game Atelier was founded. They made their passion for the medium clear from the beginning, wishing to one day create a surprising, joyful, thrilling game everyone can enjoy. One of their first games was Flying Hamster – a colorful horizontal shooter. Their effort was a success, being downloaded over one-million times across the various active platforms at the time. Game Atelier took this opportunity to set their sights higher when it came time to make a sequel. To fund the game, they looked to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Helmed by one Fabien Demeulenaere, Flying Hamster II was to provide a completely different experience from its predecessor, being an action-RPG platforming game with a shapeshifting protagonist. Parallels to the Wonder Boy series – more specifically, the Monster World installments that followed the original arcade game – were not a coincidence. Mr. Demeulenaere and his team were big fans of the series, and Flying Hamster II was to be both a loving tribute and a spiritual successor to those games with a projected release date in mid-2015. Before it could be determined if the creators reached their funding goal, the project was suddenly cancelled. The developer announced a partnership with FDG Entertainment, a company founded in 2001 that specialized in producing and publishing games for Java-compatible hardware. For the next year, no new information would be revealed.

Game Atelier then broke their silence by announcing their newest project: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Although Westone had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated their assets in 2014, Sega only owned the names of the games. This meant that series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to retain everything else. As fate would have it, Flying Hamster II caught the attention of Mr. Nishizawa, who was flattered that his work struck such a chord in Game Atelier. From there, he used his ownership of the series’ rights to transform what would have been a spiritual successor to Wonder Boy into a canonical installment. Collaborating with Mr. Nishizawa, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team finished and subsequently released their game in December of 2018. Twenty-four years had passed since the release of Monster World IV when Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom saw completion. Outside of the comic book industry, not many people can claim to have directed an official installment of one of their favorite series. Was what Mr. Demeulenaere created worthy of marching under the Wonder Boy banner?

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Jumper Two

Introduction

Fledging independent game developer Matt Thorson made his first significant mark on the medium in February of 2004 with Jumper. Though not quite his debut effort, it was the first one he felt worth mentioning in retrospect. This minimalization of the platforming games he grew up with was highly praised in the independent circuit. Shortly after the release of Jumper, he teamed up with another Game Maker-user who went by the name Dex. The game that resulted from their collaboration, Dim, drew a lot of inspiration from Jumper while also giving its protagonist the ability to hop between dimensions in a manner reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This game also found an audience and would be referenced in later editions of the Jumper level editor. As Mr. Thorson gained more experience programming, he used what he learned to fine tune the physics in Jumper and create a sequel. This game, simply entitled Jumper Two, was released in June of 2004 – a mere four months after the release of the original. Being his third game in the span of a year, what does Jumper Two bring to the table?

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Jumper

Introduction

On November 15, 1999, Dutch computer scientist Mark Overmars released a piece of software named Animo. It was a graphics tool that featured limited visual scripting capabilities. Within the next few years, the tool was renamed GameMaker to reflect its specific purpose. Before the internet age, creation tools such as Mr. Overmars’s were difficult to get ahold of. You either had to specifically go out and buy them or work for a big-name developer. However, with advent of the internet, people could distribute such software far more easily. Therefore, it was no coincidence that when the internet became commonplace, gaming began cultivating an independent scene.

One of the people who utilized Mr. Overmars’s GameMaker program was one Matt Thorson. Going by the e-handle YoMamasMama, he began making games as early as 2002. After finishing his first game, The Encryption, in 2003, he moved onto a new project: Jumper. He completed the game in February of 2004 at the age of sixteen. Though not a viral success like Cave Story, which was released in the same year, Jumper managed to find an audience and is considered an admirable freeware title. Speaking retrospectively on his website, Mr. Thorson would consider Jumper the first game he was truly satisfied with. Was Jumper a strong debut for a budding indie developer?

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Eversion

Introduction

Following in the trail blazed by the word-of-mouth success of Cave Story in 2004, an entire scene for independent games began to grow. Many independently produced games had existed before 2004, but Cave Story showed the world that they need not settle for being lesser than studio-backed efforts. In the following years when digital distribution platforms became more commonplace, it wasn’t uncommon for these games to appear alongside AAA efforts on popular consoles. The year 2008 is considered something of a watershed moment for the independent scene. It was the year that saw the release of Braid and World of Goo – both of which were critically acclaimed even when held to the same standards as AAA titles.

Nearing the end of 2008, Zaratustra Productions, the alias of Brazil-born British developer Guilherme Töws, released a freeware game named Eversion. Thanks to two prominent internet personalities at the time, one a Let’s Player and the other a webcomic artist, Eversion began spreading over the internet like wildfire. Owing to how it made its way to hard drives around the world, Eversion could be seen as one of the earliest instances of a game being exclusively spread through the use of memes. What, exactly, about Eversion allowed it to enjoy this unexpected popularity?

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VVVVVV

Introduction

Shortly after graduating from college, a man from Ireland named Terry Cavanagh began working in a bank. He considered it a fine job, but he wasn’t happy with his work. Citing the games he grew up, he constantly thought about creating one of his own. He had experimented with the medium while in school, creating small QBasic games, but now that he worked a job, he couldn’t find the time. Believing he wasn’t ever going to achieve anything if he did nothing, he carefully began saving up money to fund a new project. His tenure with his company ended in a rather abrupt, unexpected manner. He became intoxicated at a staff night out and told everyone present that he wanted to quit and spend all his time making games. Mr. Cavanagh’s boss quickly found out, and when he asked him about it, he impulsively gave him his notice – despite not having saved nearly enough money at the time.

Mr. Cavanagh’s first title was a platforming game made playable through Adobe Flash entitled Don’t Look Back. This simple game, originally launched in 2009, combined two concepts. He wanted to create a “silly shooter” where the events were shown from a different perspective and a narrative in which the gameplay acted as a metaphor for the player’s actions. Though few formal reviews were written due to it not being a commercial release, journalists praised it for eliciting different responses from its players. In particular, the staff of the online video game magazine The Escapist found the game addictive and “a perfect example of doing more with less”, making sure to highlight its “wonderfully haunting aesthetic”.

Around this time, Mr. Cavanagh decided to participate in a game jam held by the website Glorious Trainwrecks. Every month, the site would hold a jam called the Klik of the Month Klub. The event was named after Klik & Play, a script-free programming tool developed by Clickteam in 1994 that allows its users to create video games of their own. Mr. Cavanagh sought to enter the competition himself with his own entry: Sine Wave Ninja. It was, in his words, “a simple action game that didn’t really work out”. Nonetheless, he had developed something about the character’s basic movements that he wished to explore. Specifically, this got him thinking about a gravity flipping mechanic, how it’s usually handled in games, and what new directions to which he could take the idea.

From this line of thinking, his next project began: a platforming game in which players had to constantly reverse gravity and avoid hazards. Admitting he didn’t have a knack for naming things, he settled on VVVVVV as a title. This decidedly unconventional title is a twofold reference. It alludes to the spikes that serve as the primary hazard players have to avoid as well as the names of its six main characters – all of which begin with the letter “V”. There was one key difference between Don’t Look Back and VVVVVV; the latter would be Mr. Cavanagh’s first commercial release.

Understandably, going from using the Flash model wherein his woes ended when he found a sponsor to deciding how much he was willing to charge people to play his creation terrified the new indie developer. In interviews leading up the release of VVVVVV, he was taken aback after making a blog post asking for donations to help him submit his work to the Independent Games Festival. He never suspected that in the first few days, he would have dozens of donations, exceeding what he was asking for. He had over one-thousand dollars by the end of the week. As it turns out, these donations were well timed, as his finances had been dropping rapidly. He admitted that he was only a week or two away from having to beg his friends and family for money to get him through Christmas.

Despite these numerous setbacks, VVVVVV was released in January of 2010 for personal computers everywhere. Though it didn’t quite amass the universal acclaim Braid and Limbo enjoyed, VVVVVV is considered one of the premier indie titles that helped the scene blossom into a formidable force in the 2010s. Did a gem arise from the decidedly tumultuous development?

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Rakuen

Introduction

To the Moon proved to be a hit in the independent circuit upon its 2011 release. Using RPG Maker, the creators opted to create an experience devoid of combat. In a sense, Freebird Games followed in the footsteps of the cult classic Yume Nikki in how they did not use the software for its intended purpose, yet created something more memorable than many games that treat combat as their bread and butter. Though critics admitted the gameplay was lacking, they had a lot of praise for both the story and its soundtrack. The theme song, “Everything’s Alright”, was written and composed by one Laura Shigihara.

With a French-American mother and a Japanese father, Ms. Shigihara grew up in both the United States and Japan. She had been classically trained on the piano for eleven years, and taught herself how to play the guitar and drums. In her college years, she was given an old version of Cakewalk. From there, she learned about mixing, arranging, and production through recreating video game soundtracks, eventually leading her to create her own songs. A friend ended up leaking her original material to Japanese record companies. She was offered contracts to become a singer, but she turned them down for personal reasons.

When she returned to the United States, she took a job as a sound director for a company that produced an audio talk show and English learning programs through Apple of Japan. During her tenure there, she cut a studio album and composed her first soundtrack for small game called Wobbly Bobbly. Such was the extent of her excitement that she told them she would work for free. They liked her music so much that she was paid to create music for subsequent projects. From that point onward, her portfolio blossomed, with one of the most notable projects she contributed to being the highly popular 2009 tower defense game, Plants vs. Zombies. Her continued success saw her participate in a compilation album arranged by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka entitled Play for Japan. It was a charity effort in response to the devastating Tōhoku earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 15,000 people. The album also included contributions from other prolific game composers such as Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yasunori Mitsuda.

Ms. Shigihara’s submission for the album was a song called “Jump”. She had written the song some years before 2011, but didn’t arrange or produce it until that moment. Writing the song made her think of two things. She thought about the many times in life one must go forward and hope for the best and how everyone has a child inside that just wants to be told everything will be alright. From there, she was struck with inspiration. Ever since she was a little kid, she had always wanted to create a video game. She would design Mega Man levels on paper and write stories for hypothetical RPGs. As she composed “Jump”, she imagined a boy living in the hospital. His mother helped him cope by taking him on a grand adventure right where he was. Ms. Shigihara’s friend, Emmy Toyonaga originally wanted to help her make an animated music video for the song. However, Ms. Shigihara was captivated by her friend’s concept art, saying at that exact moment, “We should turn this into a game!”

Using the same software Freebird Games used to create To the Moon, Ms. Shigihara, along with Ms. Toyonaga and an artist by the name of Matt Holmberg set forth on this new project. The game was named Rakuen after the Japanese word for paradise. Four years in the making, the project saw its completion in January of 2017, seeing its official release in May of that year. The game was met with a reception not dissimilar to that of To the Moon. Critics praised its heartfelt story in particular, believing it to be a step forward for the medium as a whole. In the 2010s in particular, many developers tried to tug at their audience’s heartstrings with their narratives. How did Rakuen fare against these myriad competitors?

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OneShot

Introduction

The early internet age gave rise to the popularity of a piece of software called RPG Maker. Though builds of this program had existed as early as 1992 on various Japanese platforms such as the Super Famicom, it would gain international popularity when the first Windows version was released. Its greatest appeal was that it allowed anyone to craft their own experiences in the medium. Before, one would need a degree of expertise to even entertain the idea of making a game. In spring of 2014, a gaming community centered on the software, RPG Maker Web, held a contest for aspiring indie developers. Dubbed the Indie Game Making Contest, the rules were simple: the entrants needed to create a game using RPG Maker, and they had from May 29 to June 30 to complete this task.

Among the entrants was a duo of programmers: Eliza Velasquez and Casey “Nightmargin” Gu. The former focused on writing the scenario and coding while the latter served as the main artist, contributing character designs and music, though there was a lot of overlap. Created in RPG Maker 2003, they named their work OneShot. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the two of them did not win the contest. The contest was won by Red Nova for his RPG, Remnants of Isolation. Not letting the defeat damper their spirits, Ms. Velasquez and Nightmargin decided to remake and expand their creation. To this end, they upgraded to the more advanced RPG Maker XP, and recruited a third person by the name of Michael Shirt. He proved immensely helpful debugging the code, resolving many game-breaking issues during development. When their work was finished, they made the improved version of OneShot available for the popular digital distribution platform Steam on December 8, 2016. Upon its official release, it quickly became a hit with the reviews on Steam being described as “Overwhelmingly Positive” – a rare achievement in the community. How did this game resonate so deeply with those people?

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Braid

Introduction

In the early nineties, a man named Jonathan Blow began studying computer science and creative writing at University of California, Berkeley fresh off his high school education. One of his most notable achievements during his tenure there was being president of the Computer Science Undergraduate Association for a semester. Despite this and somewhat ironically, he left the university mere months before he was slated to graduate in 1994.

He then started doing contract jobs, one of which was with Silicon Graphics to port the immensely popular Doom, the game responsible for fully codifying the first-person shooter genre, to a set-top device. Shortly thereafter in 1996, he along with Bernt Habermeier formed Bolt-Action Software, a game design company. Their first project was to be a tank combat game named Wulfram. In an inventive twist, the vehicle was capable of hovering. However, during this time, the medium was in the process of a paradigm shift. In September of 1996, Super Mario 64 was released in North America. Though earlier efforts such as the aforementioned Doom projected the illusion of 3D, Super Mario 64 provided the genuine article. This was the beginning of a revolution that would see 3D gaming fully embraced by the industry to the point where many quality console 2D titles fell by the wayside. This did not bode well for Mr. Blow and his team, and progress slowed to a crawl. These matters were exacerbated further in the wake of the dot-com bubble’s collapse in the early 2000s. With nothing to show for their four years of work, Bolt-Action Software opted to fold in 2000, leaving them $100,000 in debt.

Following this failure, Mr. Blow continued doing contract work for companies such as Ion Storm, and started writing for industry publications – one of them being Game Developer Magazine. He also worked on a project for IBM to create a technology demo similar to his scrapped Wulfram concept. It showcased the capabilities of the cell processor IBM was collaborating on that would become a key component of Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. Mr. Blow sought funds from Sony and Electronic Arts to turn his demo into a full game, but his proposition fell on deaf ears.

In December of 2004, Mr. Blow took a trip to Thailand when inspiration struck. Upon his return, he created a prototype in a week and sent it to his friends who told him they liked it. With newfound determination to bring this vision into reality, his passion project began in earnest the following April. By the end of the year, the gameplay had been polished to his liking. However, there was a problem: the graphic art consisted mostly of placeholders, lending an amateurish presentation. To resolve this issue, Mr. Blow began looking for graphic artists. He found this to be a daunting task, and has since emphasized the difficulty of “[finding] someone who is talented and willing to sit down and really understand and care about your game, even if you are willing to pay a lot of money”. Eventually, he two people were referred to him: Edmund McMillen and David Hellman, the former of whom would contribute character designs while the latter of was hired by Mr. Blow as the lead artist.

Over the next three years, Mr. Blow put $200,000 of his own money into his game’s development – a majority of it went towards Mr. Hellman’s artwork and living expenses. In 2008, the game was at last finished; all they needed now was an opportunity. Fortunately for them, one presented itself fairly quickly in the form of the Xbox Live Arcade. By this point in gaming history, all of the consoles – the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the Wii – had their own download services while PC users had access to Steam, the quintessential digital distribution platform in many players’ eyes. The Xbox in particular started promoting games through its own service with its first annual Summer of Arcade event. Among its titles was Braid, the game Mr. Blow and his team lovingly crafted. On a day after not receiving any money, he was taken aback at the number of zeroes displayed in his bank account – his work had sold more than 55,000 copies in its first week alone. Suddenly, in a year that saw the debut of many big-name, AAA efforts such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV, Braid managed to rise to the top in many circles. Long-time enthusiasts rejoiced, as there was another game they could highlight to demonstrate the medium’s artistic merits to a skeptical public. To this day, Braid is heralded as a hallmark of the independent gaming scene and one of its greatest success stories.

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