Welcome back to the Indie Highlight Reel, single players. Only two games are being featured in this latest installment, but both hold the promise of being a breath of fresh air thanks to their stripped-back ideas. The first casts players as a young boy in the middle of an alien invasion, while the second is an artsy student-designed game about an African mother and the process of overcoming grief.
First breaking onto the scene in early 2015 with a successful Kickstarter campaign, Orphan is a dimly-lit 2D platformer following a young boy presumed to be the sole survivor of a devastating alien incursion in the Appalachian Mountains. After gaining enough attention to surpass the initial USD$30,000 funding target and the $36,000 goal to also bring the game to PlayStation 4, Brandon Goins, the solo developer at Windy Hill Studio, went quiet, only sporadically updating backers. Alongside the relative silence, the game has slipped from a projected release date of January 2016 to winter 2017, which may be considered cause for concern.
Rather than trying to pass the blame or downplay the significance of the delay, Goins is upfront about the reasons why Orphan remains yet to see the light of day. “Orphan has been my first foray into game development and the easy answer would just be to say that I was not prepared for what I was getting myself into… I have found that my ideas were often not always thought through as much as needed and things took more thought and time to implement than I expected. On top of this has been the snowball effect of going beyond schedule and the money that was raised, meaning I’ve been working a part time job most of the time and recently took on a second.” These issues have been compounded by working on the game alone, and, although Goins says that he had plans to get external assistance, the barely-there funding of the Kickstarter made doing so unfeasible.
Furthermore, the creator set out with a particular vision that would hark back to the glory days of Nintendo and Sega, when games were more frequently designed with children in mind. This trait, he says, is something that has been neglected in recent years as developers “make the games they want to play, and as the generation that grew up on Nintendo and Sega continues to age, I think they are just making games for people as old as them. After all, when you spend 3 or 4 years working on something like this, of course you are going to make it the way you want and nobody should criticize you for that.” That being said, the likes of “Contra, Metal Gear, [and] Jackal [are] the equivalent to a lot of today’s FPS games, but of course the level of realism has changed. Now blood and body parts are flying everywhere and games are dropping the F-bomb all the time and are generally not kid-friendly.” Goins flatly rejects the idea that violent games increase the likelihood of children becoming violent, but states that coarse language “can be a little trickier as people do pick up and repeat things they hear.”
These sentiments manifest in Orphan, as the game will feature some action elements, but more as a means of progression than a primary mechanic, similarly to Playdead’s breakout hit Limbo. The art style and child protagonist have also caused frequent comparisons to Limbo, but Goins downplays any suggestion of a spiritual link to that title. “Limbo really was never an inspiration, but I still wonder if I would have ever found the silhouette style ‘acceptable’ if Limbo didn’t exist. It really just started as a screen test, tossing graphics into GM: Studio and seeing how it looked. I wanted the game to be set at night, and so the silhouettes were easy and made sense… In the end I just went with it. It looked natural and somewhat realistic.” Those traits, in concert with a lack of “an advanced knowledge of shaders and possibly a more advanced engine, and most importantly… time,” helped Goins, a photographer by profession, to settle on the evocative art style that Orphan possesses.
Despite the long delay and the troubles faced during development, Goins is proud of the outcome, saying that Orphan “is finally nearing completion and I don’t feel that I’ve sacrificed any part of it along the way.” The game is scheduled to release on PC in winter this year, with Linux, Mac, PS4, and Xbox One listed as potential platforms.
MY LAST SON
My Last Son is also a 2D platformer from a first-time game designer, but that is where the similarities between the two projects end. Drawing inspiration from the Kwele people of western Africa, My Last Son is part of the Master’s thesis of Sam Rowett, a student at the National Film and Television School in the United Kingdom. Whereas the alien invasion angle of Goins’s project feels familiar, Rowett is looking to do something novel by tackling the idea of grief head-on. Players will step into the shoes of a mother attempting to escape from an amorphous creature wearing a ritual mask, while carrying her burdensome child in her arms.
Rowett says that conveying the process of overcoming grief has been one of the biggest struggles faced during the game’s development, as “grief is not something you can simply talk away… it’s a varied and complicated emotional process.” Therefore, rather than trying to explore the theme with endless amounts of dialogue and proselytising, Rowett and his team opted to use the environment to explore themes: “Each level is based on one of Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief,” he says.
“For example, the first is Denial. Here, players learn core mechanics like starting fires and breaking objects that they can use to put distance between themselves and the monster pursuing them… After that level’s over, though, we’ll play around with the established mechanics. The second stage, Anger, is a more violent and aggressive one. Fires you start can go out of control, knocking down obstacles can break the ground beneath you from the force of impact, and monster is getting faster all the while. By contrast, the Bargaining stage that follows is quieter and more about having to literally bargain to proceed. You’ll have to sacrifice some of the tools you’ve been relying on in the first two levels, so you’ll have to try and think up new ways to get around the puzzles that bar your path, and so on.”
This spirit of inventiveness permeates to the inspirations for the game and the resulting audiovisual experience. Rowett says the original idea was to have a mother being chased by a monster in a setting that was non-European. “Originally, I considered that maybe the monster would be a fiery, destructive force bringing chaos to a grey, ordered world but it didn’t really click with anyone and felt a bit lifeless to me, so I started looking for different cultures, monsters, and legends that I could draw inspiration from. I looked at India, China, and Korea to name just a few places but after a few hours of looking at Tingatinga paintings I had this sudden wave of inspiration that told me, ‘Maybe Africa is the place’.”
The hands-on sample of My Last Son available at EGX last month revealed a game with an atmosphere wholly unique among those on the show floor. The simplicity of the artistic design worked wonderfully alongside the lurid, arid colours, while the soundscape was transportive. Unfortunately, the gameplay could not match the excellence of the presentation, feeling strained, slow, and unresponsive. In a recent blog post, Rowett explained that these issues were among the most common cited by those attendees who went hands-on with the game, which has spawned “a burning desire to correct” them.
With My Last Son being a university project, Rowett is uncertain of when it will be released, but he says that doing so is one of the goals for the project when it finally is ready to see the light of day.
Let us know if either of these projects has piqued your interests. Otherwise, if you’re an indie developer interested in being featured in the Highlight Reel, please get in touch!