The Tokyo Game Show (TGS) is the biggest video game expo in the most game crazy country on Earth. It is kind of a big deal. As such, their "indie" game showcase/contest Sense of Wonder Night (SOWN) is a major opportunity for developers of all shapes and sizes to showcase their work to important industry leaders and expo attendees. 2011 will be SOWN's fourth year, and it began accepting submissions yesterday.
SOWN is different from most other indie game contests. According to its official website, it "assigns spotlights to a game developers to draw wellspring of ideas with suddenly change the world". Despite expo organizers' pressing need to spend more on a translator, the point is clear. Since entries need only be innovative to meet that criteria, they don't have to be indie. Individuals, groups, or companies of any size and nationality may enter as long as their submission suits SOWN's ideological mission in the eyes of the judges. Also, there is no winner of the contest. The esteemed panel of judges selects nine games from the field of entries to be showcased side-by-side at the actual event.
You can find links to all of last year's nine spotlight games here. Some of the best, all of which were indie (despite big developers being allowed to enter), are highlighted below:
Record Tripping, by American developers Bell Brothers, is a psychadelic puzzle experience not unlike The Cat and the Coup in feel and style. Players use the mouse to spin round objects and slow down time on the screen. These actions are used to solve the game's surprisingly diverse puzzles. Its party trick, however, is the excellent soundtrack which changes DJ-like when players use the controls. Spinning to the right and left skips the imaginary record playing the soundtrack in that direction, and slowing down time slows down the music as well. The graphics are surrealistic and pretty, and combined with the music, creates a sleepy but slightly uneasy feel.
This might be the best video game ever made where all of the graphics are drawn with a blue pen. The side-scrolling adventure (playable here) casts players as Pjotr, a seven-year-old chain-smoking Russian street urchin with a prostitute mom and no time for schooling. The goal is to keep smoking cigarettes in order to keep Pjotr sane. Accomplishing that requires stealing liquor, Mercedes hood ornaments, and modeling glue to sell Pjotr's prostitute mother and other desperate street people.
It is suprisingly complex, featuring an inventory system and some very emotional scenes. My favorite moment is when a young girl about Pjotr's age walks down the street. If the player clicks on her, Pjotr and her stop, and he offers her a cigarette. She smiles and reaches for it before her mother enters from the left, slaps it away, and leads her off by the hand. Pjotr looks sad for a moment, and I felt sad too. Sadness is key to the Ulitsa Dimitrova experience. There is no way to win. The only way to end the game is to stop moving, which will cause Pjotr to become tired, cold, lay down in the street, and die of exposure.
Inifinity Blank is a larger project than either of the aforementioned two games. This makes it special, but also has caused long delays in its completion. Evan Balster, a student at Iowa State University, is creating the game all by himself (except for the music) in his spare time, which according to him is responsible for the delays.
To be slightly reductive, the game is a massive multiplayer combination of Line Rider and MS Paint. Players create avatars for themselves, and then are deposited into the Blank. This world consists of thousands of individual cells, each of which were drawn by another player using the included MS Paint-like drawing interface. The player can enter the world at a number of different places using a map, after which they move their avatar around the environment as in a simple 2D platformer. Some of the cells are amazing. All the artistically-inclined need to do to contribute is get their avatar to the edge of the game world, walk into an empty cell, and claim it as their own. At this point, it is your property; no one else can change the art without your permission (within some boundaries of taste). The platforming is lackluster, but with a little more TLC, money, and help, this could be a really special game that defies Roger Ebert's declaration of video games as "not art".
Note: The thumbnail image is from one of last year's nine feaured games, called Anosonokonomichan. The image is beautiful, but I could not find a video, other images, or really any information about the game. Post on the forum if you are more in-tune to the Japanese indie game scene than I am, and can tell us anything.