2013 IGF Finalists: Seamus McNally Grand Prize
FTL: Faster Than Light
Also nominated for: Design
There is a relatively obscure game series known as Starfleet Command, based off of an equally obscure tabletop game called Starfleet Battles. You play the captain of a starship in the Star Trek universe and perform all sorts of captain-like duties such as directing manpower and prioritizing targets. While the series is long since dead, FTL: Faster Than Light carries the torch onward. I’m really glad it did, as starship management is an unusually fun (and niche) genre and FTL is designed perfectly around it. I’m honestly surprised at how popular FTL has become, and I hope that it pushes developers to make similar games.
FTL follows a randomly generated crew of poor saps as they take on a mission to bring information to their superiors. It’s a bare-bones story, as the essence of the game lies in the player creating their own story. While there are a few unique quest chains scattered here and there in each randomly-generated map, the brunt of the narrative work is left to you. You must give meaning to the challenges and misfortunes your poor little crewmen endure on your long journey. This combination of excellent strategic design and “craft your own story” narrative is why we named it the best indie game of 2012.
FTL might not hit all the notes in terms of visuals and sound, but it definitely does so in design. You always feel like you are walking the razor’s edge between a great decision and a terrible one, and as the game progresses all of these decisions start to stack up on you. The careful management of your crewmembers is satisfying and tense, as dealing with boarders and hull breaches can leave you with one less essential crewman. Upgrading your ship is just as meaningful as the real-time decisions, as you are often forced to consider between all the different options for spending scrap: new weapons, new crewmates, upgraded systems, etc. It’s really addicting, especially since no two games play out the same. You can buy FTL: Faster Than Light from Steam.
Also nominated for: Audio
If I were to root for a game to win the IGF Grand Prize, it would be Hotline Miami. It was the most impressive and satisfying game I played in 2012, and everything about it oozes style. From the psychedelic visuals to the synth-heayv soundtrack, Hotline Miami is pitch perfect. While I love every game on this list – and definitely think everyone should play them – Hotline Miami really captured my heart. Of course, it did so by punching a hole in my chest and ripping it out of me, but I can’t complain. I’m dead, after all.
You play an unnamed character – called Jacket by players – as he moves through buildings and murders everyone in his wake. He does so because he’s supposedly told to through cryptic messages, but the rather subjective nature of the game makes it a bit difficult to judge just what is really happening. Jacket isn’t quite right in the head, and his subjective perceptions are presented as fact to the viewer. This surrealist, secretive approach to plot details is what makes Hotline Miami so much fun to talk about with other players.
While Hotline Miami only received one other nomination this year – Audio – it succeeds on every level. The narrative is excellent, as it both directs players towards further carnage and confusing the hell out of them. Audio is obviously fantastic, with satisyfing sound effects and the most appropriate game soundtrack I’ve ever heard. Visuals are a pixelated neon fever dream of the 1980s, resembling both lo-fi games and the intense colors and movements we associate with the late 80s. Finally, design is pitch perfect, with excellent levels and constant challenge. Patience is pushed to the limit while playing, but always in a way that makes you feel in control. Nothing makes you feel more like a champion than finally nailing that difficult level you restarted dozens of times. Doubly so when you become so good at the game that winning turns into a smooth path of kills and split-second reactions. You can buy Hotline Miami from Steam.