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best of the independent games festival 2006

In 1982, when the computer game was in its infancy,  Chris Crawford perceptively observed in his seminal book on games design that "we don't really know what a game is. Or why people play games, or what makes a game great. We need to establish our principles of aesthetics, a framework for criticism, and a model for development." Today, Crawford is frustrated by the prolonged adolescence of the games industry, and its lasting fixation with "things" rather than "people". Twenty-four years later it seems we are still struggling to know what games "are" or what they "could be". What we do know, however, is that they could be more than just a corporate phenomenon. For games to develop new paradigms of experience a healthy independent sector is vital.

Best of the Independent Games Festival returns to ACMI in 2006 with an exciting new showcase of festival highlights. The Independent Games Festival (IGF) was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognise the best work by independent game developers. It is held annually as part of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in the USA and attracts entries from around the world. It is an opportunity for small independent developers, even sole designers and students, to take the stage with the big names in design. Considered the 'Sundance' of the games industry, the IGF is dedicated to the understanding that the independent sector brings not only diversity but challenges preconceptions of what is possible and re-excites audiences with the power of the medium. The annual exhibition of the Best of the Independent Games Festival in the Games Lab is dedicated to bringing to local audiences the year's highlights and competition winners.

The IGF forms part of the larger GDC's self-examination and critical engagement with the games industry and its cultural status. A highlight of the session dedicated to Experimental Gameplay at the 2006 GDC was a presentation by independent game developer Jonathan Mak. Mak spoke with great sincerity about the feelings he had when playing games such as Every Extend and Warning Forever or watching the Hayao Miyazaki anime film Porco Rosso. He described how he had tried to capture and express those emotions in his own game Everyday Shooter. Importantly, he was not trying to emulate the way these works looked, or even copy their gameplay, but recreate the way these games and Miyazaki's film made him feel. Mak's Everyday Shooter will not be familiar to the majority of people (even those that identify themselves as gamers), yet it is games like these that are helping to shape the future of gaming. Or should be.

Despite the fact that game development for the next generation of consoles requires bigger budgets then ever before, and that the industry seems to be conflating around a few super publishers, there remains cause for optimism in the games industry. Simon Carless, chairman of the IGF, provides a possible explanation: "Independent games development is a very exciting place right now, as digital distribution helps change business models radically." Digital download providers such as Valve's Steam and the Xbox Live Arcade are creating new ways for indies to distribute their work. It has also been  asserted that independent game developers equally need to get more 'business smart'. Seamus Blackley, a game developer with the Creative Artist Agency, argued this point at the GDC. He contended that a lack of business sense by game developers was killing creativity because it left them reliant on corporate publishers to market their ideas. There were opportunities, he argued, for the game industry to be more like the movie industry, where daring independent films such as Brokeback Mountain have a chance of being made. "We have great ideas," Blackley said. "But what's happening is that we don't make a good business around the ideas."

In the same session, independent game designer Jonathon Blow (creator of Braid) spoke to the potential for independent developers to make games that matter. Calling for less rhetoric about innovation, (technology-driven or otherwise), he called instead for greater emphasis on making games that really engage people. Blow spoke in particular about the emotional resonance of games such as Everyday Shooter and Cloud. "We need to make games", he argued, "that people care about so much that they can't not play them. We need to put feelings in games."

There is much to enjoy and explore in Best of the Independent Games Festival 2006. Cloud, a game featured in the Student Showcase, is all about the sensation of escape through daydreaming. The intriguing time-manipulation platformer Braid, winner of the award for Innovation in Design, uses ingenious coding to create a clever conceptual deconstruction: it is a sophisticated take on the conventions of games their history and tropes. Best Audio was awarded to the engaging text-driven space adventure Weird Worlds. Introversion's beautifully styled PC action-strategy game Darwinia scooped three prizes, including the Seamas McNally Grand Prize for Best Independent Game. Set inside a computer game theme park infected by a virus, Darwinia requires the player to save the characters from extinction.

The IGF continues to evolve and in 2006 established the first-ever Modding Competition offering an award of US$10,000 in prizes to the best amateur 'modders'. Modding is the 'modification' of existing video games. This new award recognises the creativity of the player community. The ability to use off-the-shelf games as a resource for individual creative expression offers an additional layer of appeal for many computer games.

Games are the only mass entertainment medium to support user creativity in this proactive way. They are unique as a form of mass media entertainment in that they let players get under the bonnet and give them the ability to alter and extend game worlds. They support players in telling their own stories (in sims and MMOs), designing their own levels, and even in using commercial game software to build their own games through Modding. This support of player creativity can be identified as a defining feature in games appeal and is a marked point of difference with traditional linear screen culture. Games offer audiences an interactive experience and a whole new relationship with the moving image. They are able to engage users in immersive and responsive words. They have a differing set of priorities to conventional linear narrative, dedicated to the possibilities of interactive gameplay.

The future of games is an exciting one. The role of independent designers will continue to be critical in exploring the potential of what games can be. Games are one of the most powerful and prescient forms of the moving image. Best of the Independent Games Festival 2006 showcases the latest developments in games culture from the frontline of innovation and ingenuity. Through this exhibition, we invite you to imagine how games will change in the coming years, and how they will continue to reinvent the experiences by which we are entertained.

The IGF was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group. The CMP Game Group, part of CMP Media, are the producers of Game Developer magazine,, and the Game Developers Conference

*The IGF mods are not displayed at ACMI but can be downloaded from the IGF site. Please note they require the original source game to play


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