This recurring roundup explores indie titles, developers and studios from around the world that are combining powerful stories and distinctive gameplay.
The Independent Gamer is a curated roundup of news from indie gaming, landing here every other Friday.
It is often said that video games have the potential to create positive change in the world.
This column arrives in the wake of several titles that were highlighted by the 2020 Games for Change festival that took place virtually from July 14-16, spotlighting games that have made a social or educational impact and embrace creative experimentation.
The event, which also celebrates innovation and meaningful engagement, awarded game of the year to Dreams from developer Media Molecule. More than a video game, the title is a game creation system — a collection of games largely created by the players themselves.
Elsewhere, Cornelia Geppert’s Sea of Solitude, exploring the meaning of loneliness and depression, was recognized as the game that made the most significant impact. Sky: Children of the Light, which hails from Flower and Journey developer thatgamecompany, won best gameplay.
And for this week’s titles, there is no unifying theme like last week: the games are strikingly different from one another. From a developer in Down Under, the worlds of coffee and necrophilia collide in a visual novel; and from Sweden, a side-scrolling (and stress relieving) journey of bunny chasing and rabbit whacking awaits in a jam-packed arcade adventure.
Mingle with the Living and the Dead in Necrobarista
Necrobarista is the debut title from Australian developer Route 59, which began creating visual novels in 2015 and received funding from state agencies including Film Victoria to make this project into a commercial product.
The game, directed by Kevin (Hsun-Yu) Chen and written by Justin Kuiper and Damon Reece, is set in a back-alley cafe in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, where the dead have been granted one last night to mingle with the living. The soundtrack is composed by Kevin Penkin, who worked on visual novel Florence from Australian developer Mountains.
“We really wanted to make a game that felt unique to Melbourne, and laneway cafe culture is peak ‘Melbourne,’ Chen tells The Hollywood Reporter. “As for raising the dead, I’ve always been a big fan of magical realism as a genre, and while Necrobarista ended up more urban fantasy, the absurd premise of ‘Necromancy, but Baristas’ is definitely inspired by that genre.”
Narratively, Chen shares that the game was partly inspired by the Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s anime series Time of Eve. Visually, he says that Akiyuki Shinbou, a director at Japanese animation studio Shaft, was influential. Meanwhile, Chen recalls surrealist and absurdist series such as Oyasumi Punpun and Blood Blockade Battlefront were also inspirations.
Of the experimental narrative visual novel genre, Chen feels it has “so much untapped potential” and really blurs the line between books, anime, games, movies and theatre.
Necrobarista is currently available on Apple Arcade, Steam and digital distribution platform GOG, with versions of the game also planned for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.
Whack Rabbits and Solve Puzzles in Radical Rabbit Stew
In contrast to the slow-build of the visual novel genre, Radical Rabbit Stew is an action-packed retro arcade game from developer Pugstorm, which specializes in puzzle games and falls under the East Sweden Game banner — an incubator for developers based in Ebbepark in Linkoping, Sweden.
In a world of pixelated graphics that form rabbit-themed worlds like Bad Hare Day and Cornhare Crossroads, players take on puzzles and boss fights in an adventure of whacking bunnies into stew pots — the fun can be co-op or single-player depending on player preferences.
“The game is really a mix of many different ideas and parts put together to make a whole,” Fredrik Präntare, co-founder of Pugstorm, tells THR. “Initially, two of us met at a game developer conference, where we decided to put our spoons together to make a game. We tried out a few different prototypes — one being Radical Rabbit Stew, which we eventually decided to develop further and make into a full game. And honestly, we are not really sure where the rabbits and stews came from; but there was just something really fun and unique about the idea that we just had to investigate further. From then on it was really an iterative process.”
As the game’s designer, Präntare says he was constantly looking to mix different ideas from a variety of genres and games. “For example, as a kid I loved the overworld map used in Super Mario Bros 3 (I remember drawing my own overworld maps on paper sheets!) — and I really wanted to see if we could spark that emotion in our game’s players.”
Präntare goes on to say that the gameplay in Radical Rabbit Stew was inspired by the arcade-style combat of Bomberman and the rock-kicking and puzzle-solving of the “truly brilliant and often overlooked” Goof Troop, both of which are 16-bit era games.
Sold Out’s Katie Clark recalls to THR the moment when she got to try Radical Rabbit Stew with the single-player campaign, the level editor and multiplayer modes all added in. “We could see how much attention to detail the developers devote to their craft in every aspect of building a game, with the player experience and original, refreshing, fun gameplay at its heart.”
Radical Rabbit Stew is available on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Steam (with a free demo) and PlayStation 4. London-based outfit Sold Out published the game.
View more games from Sold Out, including music-based action-adventure No Straight Roads, stealth action game Disjunction and physics-based simulator Moving Out.
Upcoming Indie Games on Xbox
Among the independent titles highlighted by Microsoft alongside during the Xbox Games Showcase on Thursday was 12 Minutes by Annapurna Interactive (What Remains of Edith Finch) and former Rockstar Games and Ubisoft artist Luis Antonio. In the game, a romantic evening turns into a violent invasion with an accusation of murder. And because of a time loop, the horror must be relived over and over again.
Annapurna Interactive’s supernatural third-person adventure Last Stop was also teased in Xbox’s indie montage of upcoming titles. Elsewhere, UK-based developer Shed Works and Swedish publisher Raw Fury teased coming-of-age game Sable, taking place in an open-world desert with ruined architecture and ancient monuments.
View the full list of indie titles coming to Xbox current-gen and next-gen systems here.
By Trilby Beresford – Hollywood Reporter