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Indie darlings: just not getting it

I love indie games. Since being introduced by a friend some years ago, they’re the type of releases I pick up most frequently nowadays. They tend to give me more of what I want from my hobby than the triple-A stuff currently being produced: creativity, great storylines that make you think, and interesting characters far removed from the limited representations we’ve previously experienced.

When Red Metal from Extra Life very kindly nominated Later Levels for a Sunshine Blogger Award last month, one of their questions got me thinking: what critical darling do you feel completely failed to live up to the hype? There have been a number of indie games in the past that the critics have gone crazy for, declaring them to be pinnacles of gaming – but I just haven’t been able to understand what all the fuss was about when I’ve picked them up. Here’s a round-up of some of those titles.

2010: LIMBO

I realised that LIMBO was the game which had spent the longest in my Steam library while hosting #LoveYourBacklog week with LightningEllen from LividLightning in February. So after almost five years, I decided to rectify that by scheduling a stream for #MaybeinMarch the following month. I was looking forward to finally trying out the title critics had said ’empowered players to work through puzzle solutions themselves’ and which ‘offered up what feels like a world of meaningful possibilities’.

Four months later and I still don’t get it. Yes, I like the art-style and the way you can never guess what’s going to happen on the following screen; but it feels as though Playdead’s project is trying to tell the player a message in a vague and slightly pretentious way. I understand that not all games need to be completely explained but unanswered questions frustrate me, and I like at least a nudge in the right direction. I had a go at trying to figure out the ending but I still don’t feel the explanation I came up with truly fits.

2012: Dear Esther

It’s strange this title made it on to today’s list because I absolutely adore narrative games, but Dear Esther was one I didn’t gel with. A friend suggested it to me shortly after being introduced to the indie scene and I’d read several news articles which had intrigued me so I was keen to give it a go. Critics had said it had ‘an impressively ethereal atmosphere’ and were praising it for what it did differently: tap into unhappiness, an emotion that few games at the time dared to approach.

I thought it was boring. Yes it was pretty and the soundtrack was good, but the story didn’t click with me and my main thought when I reached the end was: ‘Is that it?’ I went on to try The Chinese Room’s next release, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, in 2015 and it was much the same experience. I still haven’t managed to complete the game because it just couldn’t hold my attention – although I keep being told that its storyline is a fascinating one and I should try to stick with it.

2015: Undertale

I ended up playing Undertale long after its release, after so many friends and bloggers had told me I needed to give it a try. I could see why they’d enjoyed it: the twist on gameplay mechanics was clever, the soundtrack was excellent, and its story about determination and never giving up was very sweet. It had quickly gained a cult following, critics had said it was ‘unconventional, clever, and occasionally really difficult’, and more than a few ‘Best Game’ recognitions were awarded.

But it just wasn’t for me. Yes, the 12 hours I’d spent with Undertale were pleasant enough but I couldn’t see why everyone was going so crazy for it – and I certainly couldn’t face repeating the process so I could get the alternative outcomes. I thought this would be an unpopular opinion but when I tweeted a question about unliked indie titles recently, several blogging friends agreed. It seems as though Toby Fox’s game may have won the hearts of many but there are a few of us who it just didn’t click with.

2016: The Witness

I was so looking forward to The Witness. Jonathan Blow’s Braid was one of the first indie releases I ever played and I’d really enjoyed it, finding the narrative twist at the end to be unlike anything I’d experienced in the bigger-budget titles I’d been playing. After waiting eight years for the developer to release his second project, I was incredibly excited because the promotional screenshots looked stunning and critics were calling it a ‘beautiful, powerful and cleverly-designed puzzle game with a wealth of mysteries to unravel’.

And I did enjoy it to an extent. But during the 30 hours we spent playing, I kept telling my other-half that some big secret was going to revealed and he kept warning me to not be disappointed. He was right to do so. There was no big pay-off after completing all those challenges and even the secret ending wasn’t particularly fulfilling. I understand that The Witness is an experience – kind of like a mental holiday – but I came away feeling as though this was a work created by someone who spent too much time in his own head.

One of the best things about video games is that there’s a release out there for absolutely everybody, so I’m sure the titles above made it onto some peoples’ favourite lists! Which indie games have you just not been able to get?

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

21 thoughts on “Indie darlings: just not getting it Leave a comment

  1. Watching Limbo push game design decisions that were largely abandoned by the mid-1990s or so was surreal to say the least. I just don’t get why certain critics praised it when they never would have let a AAA production get away with them.

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  2. My list is remarkably similar to yours, with the only difference being that I didn’t like Braid either, and I did quite enjoy the experience of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, even if my immediate reaction after the ending was “I don’t get it”.

    The indie games I tend to bounce off the most these days are the ones that emphasise style over substance, or those which try *too hard* to be “zany”.

    Conversely, I really like the ones that accurately capture the “retro” feel by demonstrating a clear understanding of what made it great rather than just making everything pixelly. VA-11 HALL-A and Crypt of the Necrodancer are two of the best examples I can think of; I haven’t tried Cadence of Hyrule yet but I’m very, VERY interested!

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    • Ah, games that try too hard to be zany… the ones that get me are new adventures that claim to have taken inspiration from the LucasArts classics, and then take ‘random’ a bit too far or hit you over the head with jokes which are too obvious. They’re just not fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I find this article interesting because on one hand I completely agree with you about “LIMBO”. It is a pretty standard Puzzle-Platformer with a too minimalistic approach in narrative and visual design.

    On the other hand, I absolutely adored “Undertale” and “The Witness”. You said you understand why people like “Undertale”, so I guess it just didn’t click with you. As we say here in Austria, opinions and bitchslaps vary.
    I also find it immensly funny how the same elements that some people absolutely love about “The Witness” are exactly the ones that put people off. I played it right after “Undertale”, a game primarily focused on storytelling. To me, “The Witness” was a great contrast, it was a puzzle game that stripped everything away that wasn’t absolutely necessary. At the same time, I felt like it was almost parodying Indie games as well, because let’s face it: for every great Indie game that gives us a new way of looking at video games, there are tons of uninspired, badly executed or downright pretentious titles that never should have seen the light of day. To me, “The Witness” was saying “Listen here, buddy. This is a puzzle game, nothing else. It’s not my fault you expect it to be anything else.” Sure, it had its flaws, but overall, I think it is one of the greatest puzzle games I have ever played.

    On a sidenote (because I remember we talked about it): if you did not like “The Witness” too much, you’ll probably not enjoy “Baba is You” as well.

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    • I have a feeling my opinion of The Witness would have been different if I’d gone into it knowing there was no storyline. I think I’d have played it more casually – dipped into a couple of times a week to complete a puzzle or two when I wanted to zone out after work – rather than building it up to be this box that needed to be unlocked to discover its secret, if that makes sense. At some point in the future I’ll go back and give it a go, knowing it for what it really is this time.

      Baba is You is now on my wishlist but it might be a while before I actually pick it up. I do tend to prefer games that have a plot because I love getting wrapped up in a good story. πŸ™‚

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  4. I enjoyed this post, even though I absolutely adore Undertale πŸ˜‰ I tried really hard to get into Wargroove: an Advance Wars-style strategy game. Between a boring story, obnoxious sound effects (freaking Ragna), and missions that punish you in later rounds with “surprise” top-tier enemy units that often forced me to re-do an hour-long mission, I gave up and decided it just wasn’t for me. I got about half way through the campaign.

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    • Oh no, an Undertale fan! ha ha

      I can honestly see why some people love it as much as they do. But once I’d reach the end the first time, that was enough for me: I just couldn’t bring myself to spend another 12 hours to go through it all again when there were other games I hadn’t played yet. I will say I love the soundtrack though – my other-half and I actually chose an instrumental version of one of the songs to be played during our wedding ceremony. πŸ˜‰

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  5. I too wasn’t a fan of Limbo when I played it.

    Undertale I’m half in half out on. There were parts of it I really liked and other parts I didn’t. I guess in that way, like yourself, I understand why people enjoyed it, but didn’t have a desire to go back and see it through several times myself.

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    • I must admit, I’m not great with games that want you to re-play them to reach alternative endings. There are so many titles on my wishlist and limited spare time to play them in, so I’d much rather start something new!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really loved The Witness though solely for the gameplay/puzzle design, surely not its narrative (and the ending is so… just… ugh). I guess my choice for this would probably be Journey. It’s not that I don’t get it. I guess I just think of it as more of an above-average game than the all-time great others hail it as. I do appreciate its novel approach (at the time) in regards to its implementation of multiplayer. Its certainly gorgeous (the sand sliding level… wow!). But it just isn’t very engaging from a gameplay standpoint to me which is still most important for me at the end of the day I guess. I’m not sure the other aspects lift the title up enough to compensate for that in my view. So it didn’t live up to the hype for me I guess. I still liked it though.

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    • That’s a fair point. Everybody plays video games for a different reason and if that element which appeals to you is missing from a title, it’s just not going to be for you regardless of how beautiful it is. Journey is a lovely game but I can certainly see how someone who likes more action in their gameplay wouldn’t immediately love it!

      I’m so pleased to hear someone agree about the The Witness’ ending… πŸ˜‚

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  7. Sometimes indie games that really click with people don’t quite with me either. Especially the ones that have lousy endings. I watched someone play Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on Twitch a while back – this game got rave reviews, but the ending was so bad and hit such a flat note that it actually pissed off both the streamer and a lot of the audience. I also agree a little bit about Undertale. I did like that game a lot, but I didn’t think it was absolutely amazing (aside from the soundtrack, which did deserve all the praise it got.)

    Right now I’m having my own “I don’t get this” experience with Lost in the Woods, but I’m only a couple of hours in at this point, so I’m going to see where it takes me. Maybe it’s just because I never really had a hometown (or friends in high school either; I was the weird creepy loner kid) so I can’t relate at all to the story it’s telling yet.

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    • I didn’t think of Night in the Woods when writing this post, but I should have included it! It’s another one where I liked the art style and the characters, and thought the plot was ok, but just didn’t understand why everyone went as crazy about it as they did. I guess it’s similar to my experience of Undertale.

      It’s been a while since I’ve played an indie game that’s really grabbed me – maybe I’m just not playing enough at the moment. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

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