Indie Soapbox Ep. 1


(a.k.a. a poorly written potpourri I talk about rather underappreciated indie games I enjoyed lately)

The more I think about the so-called “indie games”, the more I distaste the term.

It’s not quite unlike a mirage, an American Dream, still drawing people towards a promise that does not fulfill, a promised that hard labor, love and an ingenious idea shall prevail, like how the predecessors did within the past decade. They bury themselves so deep in their basement rendering their heads bald, bills unpaid, refuse to acknowledge that all gold in this unspoiled land has been exhausted already, and how most major indie bigshots viewed by gamers are really 2A production per se, rather than indie titles.

Steam hosts a PUBG session every day where few survive the launch day whereas Valve itself gleefully thrives on $100 entry fee and hats. GOG bars most games from entering. Itch.io is more of a playground than a proper distribution platform for both the aspiring and veterans. Welcome to Anno Domini 2018.

Yeah, I may sound very much jaded and cynical. That I am indeed. Yet here I am, shouting out for small timers that I enjoyed in the past few months. This is episode ein, and it’s very likely there won’t be an episode deux.

We cool?

Cool. Let’s proceed.

Good sir, have you heard the good word of Fraxy?

It’s a shmup game. It looks harmless, somewhat tedious even, if you launch fraxy.exe only and find yourself a top-down shooter. You can maneuver a bit, fire some different projectiles, dash, and fight some not quite exhilarating bosses.

But that’s not what Fraxy is about. Fraxy is an engine. An engine where you can design crazy bosses and fight them in a shmup game. Upon launching edit.exe (File-Naming 101: Foolproof), a daunting interface jumps on you:

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That’s what Fraxy is capable of. In a nutshell. Seriously, you can build ridiculous adolescent stuff like this (and it’s cool):

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Source: https://twitter.com/0xFlan/status/1025792029035560962

The idea itself is used in games like Boss 101, but none other than Fraxy offers such an enormously deep, dedicated, industry-level framework. It’s free, developed by one single person from Far East Japan, the exotic land where sushi, origami, shmups and arcade machines originated… no, that’s irrelevant.

But that is actually kind of relevant, in fact.

Video games have come a long way from where they were to where we are. Old genres make way for more user-friendly experience and more technically advanced gameplay, and now for sustainability in the arm race. For those major league players, that focus of PROGRESS skews from the player experience to financial survival under a sword of Damocles.

Old genres almost died out, only that they didn’t. That’s where digital distribution actually shelters genre aficionados by dumping obsolete genre games to the indie league. The market has witnessed shmup games like Jamestown (now abandonware™), Assault Android Cactus, and other success stories, but we can all agree, that every success story comes with one hundred downtrodden, forgotten, heart-broken tales, drowned in the shrouded mire of forsaken sighs, tears, unfulfilled dreams.

Shmup is a niche genre for die-hard fans that are likely in their early 30s, a genre perhaps more niche than whatever niche genre you first come up with. Still, Fraxy is mostly unknown even to shmup fans. It’s sad that its website has been down for a couple of years and the latest version anyone can access is a build from 2015. It seems just unjust when itself is so overwhelmingly powerful and, well, especially so when I had my fair share of good time tinkering around it, achieving absolutely nothing impressive. But the fun was genuine.

But Fraxy’s getting nowhere is not hard to see why, despite it’s still infuriatingly undue.

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Figure 1: area-proportional Venn diagram depicting the relation between the shmup player base and the content creator base

Shmup players are after all, problem solvers. From what’s given they in countless executions patiently dismantle level after level, designating the optimal solution. They are reverse engineers, I’d say, with the ability to deconstruct. Fraxy as an engine, however, demands another set of abilities, to create, that is. This is the Fraxy Problem, I shall name it and name my firstborn the same, in which one user-generated content reliant game serves a genre where its players are “content sensitive”, but not content creative by nature. As a game, Fraxy is mediocre itself. As an engine, Fraxy is beyond powerful. But the problem is, a shmup player and a Fraxy editor creator is scarcely the same person. Multiply this by very large number, and the end result is what becomes of Fraxy.

There is one dedicated unofficial forum for you to behold in awe fans’ crazy ideas, where you can also download Fraxy itself. It’s inactive as a midnight cemetery where you walk on your toes, find your throat itchy, fret from breaking that unnerving sad silence.

So, are we going to talk about Fraxy, about the market, about Japan Doujin 101, or about user-generated content?

ZeroRanger 2018-10-06 03-48-33-146_fixed.avi_20181027_021624.718

No. I’m so going to rave about ZeroRanger, and no one can stop me.

I found out about ZeroRanger (FINALBOSS at that time. Not at all a memorable name) when months ago I suddenly thought about Fraxy and decided to google it. Some grandiose works showed up, almost all by some Eboshidori dude, who, also happened to be developing his own shmup.

I kept tabs on it and bought it on release. Here’s what I learned from my purchase: ZeroRanger is a hidden gem.

It’s not just a hidden gem, but a well-hidden gem as well. System Erasure chose to be as vague as possible in its trailer and description, as in that one foggy morning, my first date half-interested. They carefully hid their coalescence from labor and love among other shmups, pretended that it’s one shmup that can be commented on with “yet another”.

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Because, one can only assume, telling people how it’s good would very much likely spoil it. Because, one can also assume, System Erasure wants only shmup aficionados like them to find it. When they do, they will find that ZeroRanger is actually something else.

ZeroRanger is a very personal game, in which influences from genre classics like Gradius, Radiant SilvergunCho Ren Sha 68k, other titles like UndertaleDragon Quest I, animes like Gurren Lagann and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and a huge chunk of Hinduism among other references are apparent, in a delightful manner. The game itself is very amiable on the other hand, considerably easier than all those shmup titles they drew inspiration from.

But of course, that’s not the point. Each shmup is (or should be) unique in one department. Radiant Silvergun is known for its scoring system and guns, Ikaruga for swapping in an almost musical frenzy, and ZeroRanger? Gameplay-wisely, it’s fun enough, loosely based on Radiant Silvergun’s weaponry system where you use the right gun at the right time, with a pretty basic scoring system.

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What makes it unique though, is that it offers the most theatrical narrative performance you can find in a vertically scrolling shmup. It’s a musical about bitter fatalism. It’s an anime of youthful heroism. It’s whatever that gets you if you had similar fantasies in your younger days.

This game is perhaps not the best shmup title, but at what it is good? It’s one of a kind, second to none. Something mesmerizing and unforgettable.

Well, that at the cost of ten years of development. It was not a wise move, financially speaking. But that did not concern them.

It sure as hell would deeply concern a chartered accountant.

Now, we have ourselves an accountant. Let’s say he’s a moderately aspiring one. Let’s call him David. Although David is an accountant, he’s also a pretty cool human being whom you may even want to hang out with, with some sense of humor.

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David has a colleague. Let’s say her name is Cassie.

Cassie is a hardworking young lady, her professional life is a mess, her personal life is a mess, but she strives to get by and tries to do what’s right, in a likable manner from afar, less so if you work with her.

Big people from high above, see things in a way that only big people from high above do. For them, David is not a human being. David is an asset to the company. And Cassie is not a human being. Cassie is a peril to a fruitful merger.

That’s what Fortune-499, an RPG by AP Thomson, is about. It’s a story about rational self-interest, about crooked corporation practices, about a hostile merger, about what modern corporationism stinks of, about people, about magic, about cheating in a rock-paper-scissors game.

The last part of the sentence pretty much sums up the gameplay mechanics for you. In the first few levels, it seems rather luck based and bland, but the writing serves as a saving grace in the early hours. But if you think that’s it, you can’t be further away from the truth.

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It does pick up rather slowly. Then, it starts to strip away such an RNG-based facade, marginalizes luck factor, expands its core reaching towards stage-themed mechanics in a delightfully unexpected way, each time more surprising than before. It becomes a journey through the departments of a company: Tech, Law, Marketing, Production, et cetera, each a twist to your established understanding of the mechanics.

Then you’ll see, it’s more of a deck-building game indeed, in which you learn from level layouts and enemy traits and live with what you are given, each a satisfyingly mildly challenging conundrum. Then it concludes as the drama peaks, without overdoing it. Graceful indeed.

But after all, Fortune-499 is about how modern capitalism renders people non-people. Unpopular opinion warning: in Marx’s terms, it has resolved personal worth into exchange value.

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Cassie fights for what she deems right, in a professional sense, and in a personal sense as well. A job is no longer merely a job once the line blurs. Cassie is not a company asset by day and herself at night, Cassie is always Cassie. By substitution — I know it sounds hard to believe — you too are not an asset to any organization. You are a living breathing human being with desires, memories and personal struggles, with pubs you like to be in, pals you like to be with, folks you dislike.

So… what can we do?

Don’t go and join IWW that’s for sure. It’s already dead, sadly. Gentrification happens not only in an urban development sense, but also in every aspect of the capitalist way you can fathom post-war. But let’s not dwell into that meaningless thought.

Wait and hope, quotes Alexandre Dumas. Maybe the future will be cool.

Well, most likely, it will not.

But what if there were sentient robot dudes? And robot boxing tournaments?

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KO Mech is the name. You are an aspiring robot boxer, aiming to take the champ head-on. You start off as a small timer, and small is the exact word that also concludes your look. Throughout your journey, you fight robot brethren that are infinitely different from you. Robot dreadnoughts, huge blazing robot (literal) stars, robot bamboos and robot… rooms. Despite your underwhelming size, your power output allows you to launch most enemies, buildings and trees straight across the vastness of makrokosmos, bashing into each other and you do get bonus scores in doing so with some satisfying sound effect. That’s some good bashing, so good that when you enter a room full of enemies you can’t help but gleefully aim fast and charge on.

KO Mech is an arcade game by nature, where a timer ticks and you are constantly trying to capitalize your maneuver and the level layout for a higher score. Or you aren’t, because sending things flying into each other is a reward in and of itself.

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KO Mech isn’t a sophisticated game with sublime design, nor with an epic plot that makes huge sense, but it’s a playful game, playful in a way that would remind you of that one day, decades ago, when you were still a teeny tiny kiddo, with childish hopes and dreams, bashing toy figures against one another in an imaginary battleground. That wasn’t an especially memorable day, but now come to think of it, those were some carefree joyful days you are never going to live again. I spent one night clearing all levels and it was one good night of good old-fashioned mindless fun, although in too many stages you are asked to navigate through the whole level (that is likely already rendered barren in your rampage) just to punch some random buttons to open some dang doors. Not cool.

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And I do love its super cheesy cartoony dialogue. KO Mech is a pleasant pastime, vibrating with vivid color and joy. And it’s cheap.

You know what’s even cheaper? Unskilled labors in Shenzhen, China. Beyond that? Free games.

But beware. There are free games that actually costs greatly, costs the opportunity where you can actually go and play something else, read a book, take a walk, get a job, meet a girl or dude, get married, choke on the mundanity of mild disappointment and hopeless stagnation, and get by. There are also free games that are actually good and about this.

Behind Every Great One is an interactive vignette by Deconstructeam.

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Welcome to Gabriel’s house, where both he and yourself pretend it to be your home as well. Your name is Victorine, the woman behind Gabriel, a somewhat established artist, and the center, the most prominent male figure in a housewife’s life, natürlich.

In it, Gabriel graciously reminds you from the very beginning, that you are a privileged woman with agency, free from everyday struggles for livelihood, free to develop yourself as you see fit and he strongly encourages you to do so. As of what comes next, I shan’t disclose here, but I’ll tell you what it is: It is violence without raising a single hand. It is moments of breakdowns you can’t quite put your finger on. It is a suffocating slow burn without the torturer knowing their inflicting, the victim understanding their infliction. It is a spire skewing unnoticeably and you don’t realize it until the very moment of falling. It is what happens to every one of us, or to the one behind you, on a daily basis.

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Go get it. The game is short as a pickle, and strong as one. And it comes cheaper than the hair in your bath drain, which is what I felt like after playing Behind Every Great One for everything I’ve said and done to every ex in the past.

Time flies, to think how five years ago, I first came to know Deconstructeam via their in-browser demo (featuring only that memorable tundra survival level. Luckily not the desert one) of Gods Will Be Watching. Soon after its official release, they became one of my favorite storytellers, though I hate to confess that some of their free games, as ideas that have not gone through that excruciating process of work into commercial products, fascinate me more. 11:45 A Vivid Life is another piece of their recent freeware, so full of vibrant imagination, that I’d recommend and write something which this margin is too narrow to contain.

Hence ends Indie Soapbox Ep. 1. Well, it’s not that finished, I’ve invited a friend to write this hopeless project a piece on Skeletal Dance Party, among other small games and he’s gonna be amazing, and we know amazing things takes time. I’ll perhaps update this one or include it in the next episode, if there’s ever gonna be one.

Do indulge me a bit more, when I say this: Acta est fabula, plaudite.

(Featured Image from Beglitched, a game by AP Thomson)

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