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About the Archives

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to GAMBIT in the Indies category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Guests is the previous category.

Interviews is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

A Closed World selected for IndieCade!

Thumbnail image for A Closed World Screen Shot.jpgIn all of the madness at the end of the summer program, the beginning of the new school year, and the relocation of our US lab, we forgot to update the blog with this awesome news: A Closed World has been nominated for the 2012 IndieCade Awards! From Oct 4 to 7, 2012, the IndieCade international festival of independent games will feature our game in multiple locations in downtown Culver City, CA. We're in great company (full list of nominees) and greatly honored for being selected for the festival.

G4TV is doing a series of stories on "The Road to IndieCade", and they included A Closed World in the Five Games You Should Have Played By Now article. If you haven't played it by now, well, here's the link!

Abe Checks in from IndieCade

Gambit Sponsors.JPG

Hello all from sunny Culver City, CA.

I'm writing this from the comforts of my room at the historic Culver Hotel having just enjoyed some lunch following some interesting morning talks.

I started the day at what was scheduled as a talk by Mary Flanagan, but due to unforseen circumstances turned into a panel on "Big Games" or variants on ARG's. I liked hearing about these groups games, but mostly it made me want to experience them. Some of them will have sessions here at IndieCade, but the most interesting by a group capriciously called Nonchalance I will not be able to experience in full because it is locally specific to San Francisco. I will try to see some of the artifacts on display here.

Secondly, I enjoyed a talk by Eddy Boxerman and Andy Nealen of Hemisphere Games, giving a postmortem of Osmos, a really neat game. It started as a basic game design postmortem and evolved into an interesting commentary on minimalist art, the nature of abstraction, and the relationship between aesthetics and interface through a minimalist lens. I thought of Jason Begy's CMS thesis immediately, and was happy to hear that his work was on their radar as well.

As of now, only a few hours in, I am struck by two interesting questions that I am hoping to get some insight about over the festival:

1) How indie is IndieCade? In general I try to avoid genre classification all the while understanding its usefulness in shaping how we understand artifacts. What on earth is indie? Is it about funding? Is it about a spirit and intentionality behind design? At worst, is it another social construction intended to create domains of belonging and subsequent alienation? I am sitting the whole time thinking, "indie to what end?"

2) Where does GAMBIT fit in this space. Are we "indie" enough? Are we confronting enough conventions to fit in this rather tight space called "indie game development." How much subversion is enough subversion? Does our funding exclude us from an "indie" designation?

I'll write more about this soon, but for now, gotta catch another talk.
I'm tweeting under the obnoxiously long hash-tag, #abegoestoindiecade, so you can check out some micro-blogging there.

till next time,

Fascism is so much better in 2D.

I've never read Ender's Game, in spite of having been given a copy by a programmer friend of mine nearly a decade ago, so I've got no idea on how well Shadow Complex embodies the writing and ideas of Orson Scott Card. The game was recommended to me solely on the basis of its similarity to Super Metroid, long hailed as one of the greatest 2D exploration-based games ever made. Shadow Complex is a recent attempt by an indie developer (Chair Entertainment) to resurrect this supposedly long dead style of game. Of course, it's difficult to say this style is dead when Konami releases a new 2D Castlevania--all of which follow the template of Super Metroid so completely they've been affectionately dubbed "Metroidvania"--virtually every year. This is why if Shadow Complex were merely a Metroid clone, like Castlevania, it wouldn't be worthy of note. Thankfully it's much more than that.

I played the game for about an hour last night, and already I've had a dream about it. In the dream I am swimming in the murk of an underground lake. The lake is dark, but I can see some shadows, which I make out to be debris from a man-made platform. The platform is to the left of me, and I am swimming underwater so as not to be seen by the soldiers on the platform, who are looking for me with flashlights. As I swim forward I have the desire to turn left, to move around platform, near where the debris are. But I can't. As I swim toward them my vision darkens, as if the darkness of the water, itself compounded by the darkness of the cave, were weighing on me, pushing me down into the Earth. I can't move to the left. I can't move to the right. I can only move forward, being content to simply watch the mysteries to either side of me pass beyond my sight. I turn on my water-proof flashlight to better see these places I cannot go. The murk is illuminated and I'm in a bubble of feeble light, far beneath the earth, underwater, surrounded by a quiet darkness. For some reason I don't need air. I just float there, in the strange womb of rock and water, thinking to myself quietly, wondering what lies beyond, but equally content just to stay put, feeling my surroundings, until I am ready to explore.


Shadow Complex

Such are the pleasures of a game like Shadow Complex, and I have not felt them in a long time. They are pleasures I would not necessarily associate with games like Super Metroid, which feel to me less about reflection and more about moving through space. Shadow Complex reminds me a lot more of older exploration-based 2D games, most notably Out of this World, Flashback, and Pitfall II. These games had a sense of stillness that I feel Shadow Complex captures rather well. I'm not entirely sure where it comes from, but I think it has something to do with how the game divides itself into "screens" with discrete challenges, rather than long winding tunnels and paths. Both are fine ways to design a spelunking game, but the former encourages players to parse their mental image of the game world into focused sections, with each representing a single coherent idea. The "underground lake" I dreamed of is just such an example. It is an individual screen the player comes across instantaneously after walking through a door. Like Pitfall and Flashback (and unlike Metroid) screens "cut" between each other in Shadow Complex, creating the decisive impression of leaving one finite space and entering another. The lake, therefore, feels like a single area, not part of a larger area. The fact that I am faced with such a specific space with such specific boundaries encourages me to regard it as a destination rather than a pathway to other places. It is of course a pathway as well, but I'm much more likely to stop and take note of my surroundings, to think "Wow. I just found an underground lake!" than allow my environment to blur past me as I hurry along. Metroid seldomn encouraged this sort of mental orientation towards one's environment, which I think has not only to do with its seamless spacial transitions (which pan, as opposed to cut) but also its tile-based visual design. The environments in games like Flashback or Out of this World were not created out of tiles but were each totally unique pieces of background art. Shadow Complex exhibits the same sense of personality, which gives it a much different psychological atmosphere than a mere Super Metroid clone.

There are no doubt elements cribbed directly from Super Metroid, most obviously the map system and tool-activated backtracking. The gun-based combat, however, seems taken directly from Flashback or Blackthorne and in general has very little to do with the alien-squishing distractions of Metroid. The discreteness of Shadow Complex's spaces has a lot to do with this, for most combat-oriented screens feel like a single playfield in which players are encouraged to think, plan, and execute a complex strategy. Failing because I didn't get my gun out fast enough or because I stuck my head out from behind cover at the wrong moment feel right out of Flashback, as does the stealth-like aspect of enemies not noticing you until you let them. Again the keyword is 'reflection'. Finite playfields in which enemies don't notice you encourage reflection before action, as opposed just barreling forward and reacting to threats as they arise. Unlike the spelunking aesthetics of Metroid, which have remained alive and well in Castlevania, Shadow Complex's more reflective, screen-based approach is one that hasn't been explored in a while. The Prince of Persia remake on XboxLive Arcade that came out a few years ago is the only thing that comes close, and it certainly didn't innovate on this style of game in any significant way. Shadow Complex really seems to be picking up a thread that's been lying dormant since Delphine Software chose to go 3D with their Flashback sequel (the regardlessly excellent and underrated Fade 2 Black) rather than 2D.

Pitfall II

The prospect of playing a game where every room is a discrete new space, where every challenge is a two part problem of thought followed by action, where I can stop and think and feel and reflect on each new idea the game presents me; all these things are what make Shadow Complex a welcome experience. Any game that can make me feel that dense feeling of habitation that Out of this World did is alright by me, even if the story is filled with things that give me pause. I have no idea how things are going to turn out in the plot, but so far I'm not crazy about the kidnapped girlfriend (Really? That's the best idea you got?) or the implications that the protagonist's journey will be one of submitting to his militaristic father's worldview. Knowing what little I do about Card, but having heard more than a few times about his allegedly fascist tendencies, I really wonder where such elements are going, even if the game isn't written by him. I doubt, though, that any power-worshiping ideology the game might have would turn out to be something other than amusing to me. You can throw a rock and hit a game of questionable politics, after all. I'm just surprised and delighted that one of these games would let me stop and smell the roses on my way to becoming a superman.

New Deadline for Indiecade!

Considering submitting something to Indiecade, but worried about the April 30 deadline? Good news - the deadline has been extended until May 15th, 2009 at Midnight PST.

For more information, visit or check out our earlier post. Good luck!

IndieCade Call for Submissions (Updated)

Updated - note the new deadline of May 15th!

Attention students, academics, artists and industry professionals! We'd like to call your attention to the upcoming submission deadline for IndieCade, the upcoming festival of independent games and interactive art being chaired by friend-of-the-lab Celia Pearce. Here's the official CFP.


IndieCade Call for Submissions

IndieCade invites independent game artists and designers from around the world to submit interactive media of all types - from art to commercial, ARG to abstract, mind-bending to mobile, serious to shooter, as well as academic and student projects - for consideration. Work-in-progress is encouraged.

A diverse jury of creative and academic leaders will select entries for top prizes at the IndieCade 2009 Festival. All entries for the Festival will also receive consideration for presentation at all 2009 IndieCade international exhibitions including:

IndieCade 2009 Events:
IndieCade @ E3, Los Angeles (June 2-5)
IndieCade Asia TBA
IndieCade @ SIGGRAPH, New Orleans (Aug 5-7)
IndieCade 2009 (Oct 1-10)
IndieCade Europe, GameCity, UK (Oct 26-29)

Submissions Deadline: April 30, 2009 May 15, 2009 at Midnight PST.

For more information and to enter:

IndieCade's successful flagship 2008 festival held last October at Open Satellite contemporary gallery in Bellevue, Washington, was the first major intertaional exhibition of independent videogames and videogame art in the area. Event organizers include IndieCade Founder Stephanie Barish, Chair Celia Pearce, and Festival Director Sam Roberts.

GumBeat debuts!

GumBeat is the latest of the games created for the 2008 GAMBIT Summer program that is now available for download. Team PanopXis really brought it home with this one (of course, I'm a bit biased: I was one of the product owners for this team, alongside Matthew Weise). So now, please...

  • Take on the role of a young woman exploring her personal boundaries... no, that's not it.
  • Challenge a corrupt government bent on security at all costs... nah, still not quite right.
  • Blow big bubbles to persuade your peers that fun and joy needn't be opposed to civic order... yes!

Master our mastication-engine and gleefully guide a cohort of cavorting citizens past the police in order to persuade city hall to relax its War on Snacks in GumBeat!

Continue reading "GumBeat debuts!" »

Hardcore Gaming and The Price of Indie Development

Everyone who's played Braid seems to agree that it's pretty hard. I myself was able to finish it without too much trouble, although there were a handful of puzzles I found frustrating. There are others I've spoken to who are having a much rougher time with it, complaining that it demands too much of the player too quickly.

Braid is definitely a hardcore game. It is brutally difficult at times, both in terms of puzzles and platforming. On the other hand it is a very beautiful, unusual game that one imagines might appeal to a diverse audience. The intro especially seems to suggest a casual aesthetic, with minimal instructions and simple controls that ease the player into the experience. However, it betrays this simplicity quickly by escalating difficulty at a steep rate.

It's not simply that Braid is hard. It's that Braid reverses player expectations so continually and so rapidly it gives less determined users almost no time to build a stable foundation of competency. Put another way, it teaches the player a solution once and then immediately undercuts that solution in the next puzzle. For example, in World 2 there is a puzzle where you must rewind time in order to open two separate doors with the same key. This puzzle is clever and takes some figuring out, but once you get the principle it feels rewarding. However, the next puzzle actually punishes the player for employing the same strategy. In the new puzzle using the same key on two different doors actually breaks the puzzle, forcing the player to restart the level.

The second puzzle is a devious riff on the first, a trap of sorts set by the designer that forces the player to question their existing mental model and adjust. On one hand this is excellent game design, since it keeps astute players on their toes. On the other, it expects the player to comprehend, internalize, and adjust to new mental models with zero iteration.

Whether or not this is a flaw of Braid is an interesting question to consider. From the point of view of my own game experience I can't say that it is, but from the point of view of many players it might be. I certainly don't think a gentler difficulty curve would have hurt the game, but perhaps Jonathan Blow felt he didn't have the luxury of easing players into his puzzles as much as one would in a longer commercial game? I can easily imagine how an indie developer, having lived with a game design for several years, would want players to experience the true depth his core mechanics afford. It would be disheartening to spend all that blood and sweat and then just give players 25% of the complexity you know your system can support. On the other hand, an indie game of modest scope means the game will likely be short, which further means that the ramp up from easy to hard puzzles will be extremely steep. Given that Braid has only 35 screens, it has no choice but to up the ante significantly between puzzles in order to reach its peak by the end. There are only two ways to alter this curve: lower the peak or lengthen the game.

As an indie developer functioning on scant resources, Jonathan Blow perhaps didn't have the option of lengthening the game. It seems fair to assume, though, that he had the option of lowering the peak and chose not to... assumedly to give users the "full experience" of Braid. While I can understand this, it is a decision that may have cost him some players. Some people just can't scale a cliff that steep.

All this makes me wonder whether there is a paradox in indie development. Indie games in some ways can take risks that bigger games cannot, and they can attract game designers who have strong personal statements to make. But these strong personal statements may bump into a wall when the limited scope of indie games "forces" developers to choose between depth or accessibility.

Even if this paradox exists (and I'm not convinced it does, but it's intriguing to consider) I think there are some clever ways around it. Braid in particular I think would have benefited greatly had Blow taken a page from Miyamoto and made only a percentage of the levels mandatory. Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy all employ an excellent system by which players only need to finish about 60% of all the levels in the game in order to unlock the final level. This means that, if players choose, they can skip the harder levels and play mostly the easier ones and still finish the game. Going back and finishing all the levels afterwards becomes a more hardcore task that only players of a certain level of dedication will do. These games successfully appeal to both kinds of players without flatly sacrificing content.

Braid is so modular that it seems like a similar system could have been implemented with virtually no change to the current game. I don't understand why Jonathan Blow felt it was necessary to force players to gain every single puzzle piece in order to even have the option of finishing the game. Braid basically forces players to 100% the game on the first play through, which seems needlessly demanding. To my mind, making some of the puzzle pieces optional for completion would have not only made the game easier on more casual players; it would have enhanced the invitation to interpretation that characterizes Braid, motivating players to go back, after the ending, and find more puzzle pieces to unlock the mysteries of the story.

Perhaps not all these choices were up to Jonathan Blow? I'd be interested to hear what he has to say about why Braid was balanced the way it was. I can only speculate of course. Still though, I think this is proof that Braid is an extremely useful game to analyze. It seems like future indie developers have alot to learn from it, both good and bad.


[WARNING: The below post contains some small spoilers.]

Braid is a very strange game. I just finished it and I'm not sure what I feel. I wasn't expecting something so... lyrical, maybe? I don't know what the right word is. Braid is one part poetry, two parts hard-core puzzle game. I'm not sure how seriously the metaphorical layer is meant to be taken. On one hand the poetic bits feel very "separate" from the game. You can simply ignore all the text if you want. Yet the graphics, the lovely Van Gogh-like art style, is a bit harder to ignore. The music also does much to create an introspective, dream-like mood. Even without the text, it's difficult to take Braid simply as entertainment.


The big mystery of the game, I suppose, is what the gameplay has to do with the story. There clearly is a connection, but it seems deliberately obscure. On the most basic level, Braid's traditional platforming elements and time manipulation stuff seems intended as a loose metaphor for the trials, mistakes, and corrections in a relationship. The "princess" of this game seems like some weird ideal of romantic love that the protagonist is forever in search of. Or maybe she's a metaphor for failed relationships? I have no idea really. Whatever the case, it is clear that she is a metaphor, which, at least, is something Braid seems determined not to let the player walk away from the game without realizing.

I haven't put much thought into interpreting Braid. I finished it after several hours of play, and my immediate impression is one of dreamy confusion. I confess to reading most of the text quickly, without really trying to find a coherent thread in it. I'm not sure if there is one, or if the text bits are meant to be disjointed fragments. The only reoccurring theme is the princess. This is probably why the final sequence, where you finally find the princess, gave me an emotional reaction. I couldn't believe I got so close to her, and even cooperated with her, only to have time rewind, and have her disappear like a phantom. Did I do that on purpose? Why was rewinding the only thing I could do? I wanted to be with her, if only to get some answers to all these bizarre feelings and images. But she just vanished.


Braid makes the most sense if you conclude that everything in it represents a dreamer's waking life filtered through a host of subconscious symbols. It feels like the dream of a gamer, an expression of the collective unconscious generated by a life-time of game playing. This, to me, explains all the references to other videogames, which are all videogames with princesses. Braid may be an attempt by a gamer to make a game that expresses the connection between frivolous game conventions and real life, of how silly ideas like "save the princess" seep into our consciousness and become part of our shared cultural experience. It may be an attempt to reform that silliness, by giving these ideas metaphorical value they normally lack. Braid could be seen as a critique of games like Mario in this way, where "saving the princess" is just some meaningless goal. Here it is meaningless as well, but its phantom nature has been twisted into a meditation on the elusiveness of happiness. The design goal of Braid, in essence, seems to be to reformulate the words "I'm sorry, but the princess is in another castle" as an existential crisis. So that when the dinosaur eventually asks you "This princess... does she even exist?" you honestly don't know. Even at the end, when you find her, she may still just be a phantom... one that you are forever chasing.

Take the Rorschach test

This game had been on my list of "games I should play" for some time, mainly because I have this thing for adventure games that has lead me to write my dissertation on them. I'm happy to see that there are still innovations possible in a genre that many have declared to be dead (or at least, to have committed suicide). Rorschach is not a commercial game, so I guess it counts as indie. The truth is that it's not a complete game, but a really good prototype wrapped in quirky and loopy charm. The game designer is Jens Andersson, lead designer of The Darkness, and the artist is Ida Rödén.

Continue reading "Take the Rorschach test" »

Persepolis for Xbox 360?

Last week I bought a game I swore I wouldn't buy: Just Cause. I swore I wouldn't buy this game when I read that its politcal premise--the overthrow of a corrupt South American regime through guerrilla warfare--would involve the typical American rhetoric that, it would seem, no war-themed game can exist without: the protection of American interest. Thus a game that could have been, provocatively, Che Guevara meets Grand Theft Auto became yet another emulation of Chuck Norris barf bag cinema, the kind where some helpless country needs a swaggering yank to pull it, kicking and screaming if necessary, to democracy. This is why in Just Cause you are some CIA dude, and not just a suffering citizen of the (fictional) country who's finally had enough. One might imagine that a horrific dictatorship would be reason enough to go guerrilla, but in Just Cause we need the threat of WMD's which could possibly be used on America to justify ass kickery. Viva la Revolucion!

The notion fills me with disappointment. I know better than to expect a serious, documentary-like experience from a mainstream videogame, and yes many games are just elaborate power trips. But what's wrong with a power trip in which the indigenous population gets empowered in a way that isn't filtered through America's big brother mythology? Ugh. Still, I bought it last week.

I bought Just Cause because I played it at a friend's house, and it turned out to be pretty fun. The American aspect of the story is more or less in the background. Your avatar is Latin American at the very least, though he does appear to work for the CIA. The story itself is still moronic, full of Hollywood cliches. But those cliches make for fun gameplay at times, like when you perform all manner of ridiculous stunts. My friends and I had a ball riding cars, boats, and even planes like surfboards as we ran from government stooges. After that, I decided to swallow my political angst and pick it up for cheap.

Then, yesterday, my girlfriend and I went to see Persepolis.

Continue reading "Persepolis for Xbox 360?" »

Rag Doll Kung Fu and the rough path to innovation

This "flashback" review of an independent game released in 2005 was written originally for the Indiecade blog.

Of all the games I have purchased, I have only been asked for an ID to prove my age once (which actually says a lot about what kinds of games I buy, but that's another story), and that was for Rag Doll Kung Fu. It's rated M (17+), because there's blood and gore, violence, "language" (whatever that is) and use of drugs. I find it amusing, because while it is true that this PC game actually includes all those elements, it is also true that there is an important parodic tone to the whole game that differentiates it from, say The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (which has the same rating with similar elements according to the ESRB).

Continue reading "Rag Doll Kung Fu and the rough path to innovation" »

Life, Love, and Death... in five minutes.

The below entry first appeared at

I think I understand. The screen is everything. It's your entire life. You can only see what's right in front of you. The future stretches out in a haze that dimly comes into focus as you move forward. The past also recedes back into a haze. It's everywhere you've been. Everything you've done, all sliding back into a blurry mess. But it's still on the screen. It's just squished beyond recognition.

Continue reading "Life, Love, and Death... in five minutes." »

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