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Top Five: Indie Video Games for 2011

The Witness Platform: "To be released on multiple platforms -- whatever makes sense in late 2011"

Though the two games are obviously drastically different from each other, The Witness is going to be measured against 2008's critically-acclaimedBraid. The two share nothing in common except that they're both the work of developer Jonathan Blow. Whereas Braid was a startlingly fresh and emotionally evocative take on the platformer genre, showing its roots in the Mario princess-quest, The Witness is growing from a different garden, planted in the shade of Myst. Much about the game is being kept secret, though we know it takes place on an uninhabited island, contains maze-like puzzles, and is focused on the theme of exploration. We have high hopes that it takes its theme to the same level as Braid, though our expectations that it will provide the same kind of climactic epiphany might be setting us up for disappointment. What's not being kept secret about the development is how gorgeous the visual style will be. The team has been keeping a blog on the various algorithms for light and shadow and color--we actually find this stuff pretty fascinating--they're using to achieve maximum effect. We're not the most keen supporter of the drive towards photo-high-end graphics, but the work being done here seems more in the direction of vivid paintings than photo-realism, and that's something we can get in on.

Nidhogg Platform: ?

Nidhogg has actually been around for almost a year now, and it's driving us crazy. Its creator, Mark Essen a.k.a. messhof, has been touring it around various gaming shows/exhibits as a two-player arcade game, and it's been racking up all sorts of press and prizes, but there's been no sign yet of a downloadable/online version for the rest of us. The game takes the form of a sword-fighting duel and looks unquestionably fun with all sorts of slick touches, like being able to throw your sword or slide through the other players legs, etc. It seems that one of the main reasons we haven't seen an online version already is that the game relies so much on millisecond reaction speeds, that any lag in your, or the other player's, connections would just ruin the whole experience. But a two-player off-line version, come on already! For now, we'll have to content ourselves with Essen's latest outing for the Adult Swim website, a surreal surfing game called Pipedreamz.

Journey Platform: PS3 (via Playstation Network)

Like The Witness, Journey is a game of open exploration in a vividly engaging environment. Instead of an island, you're wandering the endless expanses of desert. The designer was stated as having wanted to focus on just two elements: the movement of sand and the blowing of cloth in the wind, and from the looks of the trailer, those goals were met with resounding success. What Journey adds to the open-exploration form is a multiplayer aspect. The game is played online over the Playstation Network, and as players chance upon one another in the sandy wasteland, they can work together to uncover the secrets of the civilization that once inhabited the desert ruins. The meditative aesthetic and the immense scale of the world compared to the player's cloaked character are working hand-in-hand to create what will be one of the most singular games of the year.

Fez Platform: XBox Live Arcade

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After years of setbacks and development changes, 2011 will be the year that Fez finally gets released to the public. On the face of it, Fez looks like a typical traditional platformer, with a cute and lovable, franchise-starting main character to boot. But Fez has a secret weapon (not shown in the trailer), which its developers call a "trixel" (like a three-dimensional pixel). Fez's 2D world can be "rotated" with the click of a button to rearrange the pixels and show another side of the world. The way the trixels move constructs new paths (or reveals hidden ones) to help move through the world. We're looking forward to giving it a go and can't wait to see the rest of the charming environments and characters the Polytron team has created.

Sword & Sworcery EP Platform: iPhone/iPad

Though we're not clear what exactly it has to do with a vinyl record other than added hipness, Sword & Sworcery EP is a perfect example of how the so-called "pixel art" of early video games can be used for a completely contemporary feel. It's not often that the words "lush" and "minimalist" go together, but the two seem like the most apt description for the visual style present in the videos and screenshots for S&S. The game is a point-and-click type adventure as you take your adventurer on a quest up a mountainside and interact with its friendly and not-so-friendly inhabitants. There are battles, though you can apparently choose not to engage in them (such choices will matter, and either decision will come with trade-offs further down the road), and there are probably side-quests and the standard fare in the villages you reach along the way. All in all, it looks like it will be a superbly polished adventure game, perfectly suited to up the ante on iPhone/iPad game development.

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