Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 18, 2010
It’s list-time again! What some dude (me) thinks are the most significant indie computer RPGs.
[UPDATE: Be sure and check the comments for this post. As predicted, folks have submitted a lot of their own personal candidates, including a couple that I want to kick myself for overlooking, and a few that I'd not yet heard of. Man, there you guys go, exposing my ignorance YET AGAIN.... ]
What does “significant” mean? It’s not quite the same as “most popular,” “most influential,” “the best,” or even “one of my favorites.” Basically, if I was wanting to provide someone with snapshots of what I consider the most noteworthy (for whatever reason – including raising controversy) indie RPGs over the last couple of decades so they might gain a broad overview of the history tiny little sub-category of games, these would be the games I’d show them.
Now, the whole “indie” thing gets a little fuzzy if you go back much further than two decades. As I pretty much define indies as those studios who bypass the big publisher system that controls the industry, if you go back too far you get into a time where… uh, there was no big publisher system that controls the industry, and most game studios’ projects were self-funded. There really has to be an establishment for there to be an anti-establishment. All the guys who took out ads in computer and gaming mags for mail-order titles back then embodied the indie spirit, and one day I need to go back and find some PDFs of those old magazines and look up the titles of those games. Maybe they still exist somewhere.
And then there’s my own ignorance of what was happening much earlier than about 1991 or so. Well, okay, my ignorance in GENERAL, but especially here. I played a lot of funky homebrewed software back then, but very little of it ever achieved any level of distribution (or completion). If it seems there are more entries from just the last few years, this can be attributed both to my own lack of insight into earlier years, and the fact that indie RPGs have really enjoyed a surge of popularity and releases in just the last few years. I expect as many “indie” RPGs were released just last year than in the entire first half of the decade.
But all those weak qualifications aside, here’s my stab at creating such a list:
Vampyre: The Talisman of Invocation – This was a 1990 freeware EGA Ultima clone by high school students Brian Weston and Victor Shao. The plot was almost non-existent and I never played it too far, but I was always impressed by what these kids had written (I wasn’t that long out of high school myself at this time). While it wasn’t the first / only RPG out there at the time that might qualify as an indie, it actually achieved pretty decent distribution. I stumbled across it on my college library’s “public domain” collection, and on several bulletin boards. I saw posts and talked to many people who played it. I never heard of anybody ever finishing it (without cheating), however.
Why is it significant? This was an indie, homebrewed game that managed – at least from a technical perspective – not too short of the mark of that of a fairly contemporary title (Ultima IV, in this case). And it obtained fairly widespread distribution – which wasn’t saying much, back then.
Dungeons of Kairn – Mike Lawrence’s 1991 shareware RPG was also very obviously inspired by the earlier classics – the Ultima, Wizardry, and Might & Magic series are likely suspects. Like many earlier party-based games, you had a roster of characters from which you could compose a party. Like the 1980s-era Ultimas, the game featured a top-down overland travel view, and a pseudo-3D dungeon view.
Why is it significant? The game remains one of the few shareware RPGs still remembered and mentioned today from the early 1990s, and included a surprising level of complexity and detail.
Exile / Avernum Series – Before anyone used the word “indie” to describe games. Exile: Escape From the Pit started things off, and with commercial success (principally on the Mac), it became a four-game series. Later, these were remade / re-imagined with much more advanced technology as the Avernum series. As these games from the earlier days of shareware, where making shareware “trilogies” with the first episode free was par for the course, these games are known for having ginormous demos. And being generally ginormous on their own. And being choc full of hardcore, old-school, turn-based-tactical goodness harkening back to an earlier era… Which wasn’t all that much earlier when the first game was released.
Why is it significant? For many years, Jeff Vogel’s Spiderweb Software was THE Shareware RPG Studio. And this was Spiderweb’s flagship series.
Roguelikes – I confess, I’m not much of a follower of the roguelike scene, and it’s been quite a few years since I had many weeks of my life sucked down into the pits of games like Moria. The biggest ones these days would include Nethack (of course), Adom, and Angband – and various derivatives. I’d have to defer to experts on the subject for better clarification, so I’m just lumping them together here.
Why are they significant? While there isn’t quite as much crossover between roguelikes and other indie RPGs as I would expect, but the influence is hard to deny – particularly their indirect influence by way of Diablo. And yes, I do consider them to be RPGs.
Dink Smallwood – A tiny, silly, glitchy action-RPG from RTSoft in 1997, Dink Smallwood was released in 1997 as a boxed mail-order game. Later, in 1999, it was released digitally as a free download. Dink Smallwood features tongue-in-cheek (and often mildly off-color) humor, and some reasonably powerful tools and mod capabilities, which extended its popularity among fans for many years.
Why is it significant? People still talk about the game today, years after its release – probably due to its mod friendliness and price (free) – or the fact that there wasn’t much else from that time frame. Whether or not it is a “true” RPG is probably more in question.
Devil Whiskey – This game was inspired by the Bard’s Tale, Dragon Wars, and similar games. Still limited to the four cardinal directions for movement, the game used OpenGL and real 3D graphics for rendering the world. It featured some absolutely gorgeous portraits and music. And, like the first Bard’s Tale game, just surviving a few seconds out on the street is a chore at level 1.
Unfortunately, Devil Whiskey’s developer has pretty much vanished, the website is succumbing to bit-rot, and even getting the demo can be tricky. However, I was informed at the time of this writing that the boxed set of the game is still being sold at Decklin’s Domain, and that digital downloads are planned in the not-too-distant future.
Why is it significant? This game provided inspiration for more than one indie RPG developer, and amongst its indie-gaming peers, it still stands out as a solid indie title seven years after its release.
Geneforge Series – The second (or maybe third, depending on how you are counting) major RPG series from Spiderweb Software, Geneforge goes from the sword-and-sorcery realm to that of “science fantasy” with another story of warring factions competing over the secrets of genetic manipulation and the creation of life.
Why is it significant? Spiderweb. Major series. And not traditional fantasy.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! – I’m not fond of it, and I found what I considered it’s revisionist explanation to ring disingenuous after playing the game. The game lets you reenact the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy as the villains in a bizarre, fanciful, 16-bit RPG universe, and then follows their later adventures in Hell, populated by creatures from Doom and characters that were supposedly influential on Harris and Klebold.
Why is it significant? Any indie RPG making this big of a stink has to be labeled “significant.” It went into ethical territory that no mainstream RPG would dare.
Minions of Mirth – While I don’t really want to open the floodgate here for indie MMOs (of which we have many, many examples), Minions of Mirth is fully playable as a single-player game as well (at least it was the last time I checked). If I were to guess at the inspiration for this game, I’d not hesitate to answer “EverQuest.” While not the most exciting game in single-player mode, the technical accomplishments and sheer quantity of content for the game are amazing for such a tiny team – though they obtained plenty of community support after release.
Why is it significant? While still not very well-known, it’s a solid indie success story, and a major technological achievement in the “kids don’t try this at home” category.
Aveyond Series – as I understand it, Aveyond was not originally intended to be a breakout title that found an audience amongst non-traditional RPG fans (namely, the casual market). Designer Amanda Fitch, an RPG fan herself, simply made an RPG that she and her small (*cough* at the time) community would enjoy. Well, two. Her second, Aveyond, was a commercial venture, taking advantage of the new licensing for the next iteration of the RPG Maker engine. But she made a high-quality, entertaining game which found great appeal amongst both classic console RPG fans and women who wouldn’t know what the acronym “RPG” meant.
Why are they significant? Aveyond found – and continues to find – great success, and hits an audience few RPGs previously could. It also inspired a contingent of indie RPG developers who saw commercial opportunity in fulfilling their dreams using RPG Maker as their principle tool. And the Aveyond games continue to represent the high bar of quality in the RPG Maker game category.
Cute Knight Series – Appearing at around the same time as Aveyond, Cute Knight was another RPG that enjoyed a strong appeal with girls. Borrowing heavily from both the Princess Maker series and old-school dungeon crawls, Cute Knight is a “Sim-RPG” that few hardcore RPG fans (admit to having) played, yet enjoyed significant commercial and critical success.
Why is it significant? It’s a genre-buster that hit new audiences and set a few trends. And note: “success.” Nevermind your dreams of indie stardom – in this branch of the biz, being able to pay the bills is always considered success.
The Spirit Engine 2 - Utilizing the unusual (but not unheard of) side-scrolling perspective, The Spirit Engine 2 weaves a story of a small group of heroes facing a murderous cult and a political conspiracy. The first game in the series was released as freeware, and the sequel has now become freeware / “donationware” a few months ago, so they are easy on the wallet to check out.
Why is it significant? While unfortunately not a commercial success, the game still garnered a good deal of attention. The side-scrolling perspective also helps it stand out. But principally, the game stands out as an example of solid indie craftsmanship and polish in spite of what might be considered “retro” technology. The incredible soundtrack stands out in particular, and that’s really saying something in this list.
Depths of Peril – Like Cute Knight, this game went outside the box to embrace features from another genre to make a unique experience. In this case, Depths of Peril united the action-RPG gameplay of Diablo with some strategy / negotiation elements more frequently found in games like Civilization, and also incorporated some exciting dynamic quests and events that would progress organically based on the player’s (and rival NPCs) actions – or lack thereof. The mix was a little intimidating for some players, and has since been toned down for later titles.
Why is it significant? Maybe this is wishful thinking here, as I would really love to see Depths of Peril be more influential than it probably is. However, it did succeed in shaking things up a bit in the indie RPG realm, and was frankly better than most mainstream RPG releases that year.
Eschalon Series – Now with the second chapter of the saga released, this old-school powerhouse of an RPG takes inspiration from mainstream games of the 80s and early 90s, as well as indie titles such as the Avernum series. Marrying old-school gameplay and concepts with more modern interfaces and polish, the Eschalon games play about like the old-school classics would if viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
Why are they significant? The series looks sharp, plays sharp, and feels like something out of the early 90’s. And that’s a good thing. They demonstrated that high production values could be obtained on an indie budget, and that there remains a lot of potential for modern games in old, abandoned game ideas.
Laxius Force Series – Taken in and of itself, I don’t consider the original Laxius Force to be that significant of an indie release. When I first encountered the game, I thought it to be entertaining, but not quite up to the standards of its elder RPG Maker Peer, Aveyond. Since that time, however, studio Aldorlea Games has used this title as a springboard for a pretty massive stable of RPG Maker-based commercial games. Their quality continues to improve, and Aldorlea has become a big fish in the small pond of casual RPGs.
Why is it significant? I’m using the Laxius Force series (which is expecting another installment this year, which I cannot wait to see) as a proxy for Aldorlea here, as it was a harbinger of good things to come.
Knights of the Chalice – Speaking of old-school, Knights of the Chalice embraced low-res graphics (optimized for 320 x 200 resolution, reminiscent of Ultima VII‘s visuals), turn-based tactical combat, and borrowed heavily from 1970s-era Dungeons & Dragons (using the newer, “open gaming license” D20 rules system as a baseline). And it’s old-school hard and nasty, making regular reloading a necessity. In spite (or because) of this, it has proven to be ridiculously fun for a large number of fans. Myself included.
Why is it significant? Knights of the Chalice was everything that seemed destined to fail, from the “overly complex” rule system to the likewise detailed, difficult, turn-based combat system that common knowledge stated was nothing but tedious, and to the graphics optimized for a screen resolution that had been obsolete for over fifteen years. And yet, it kicked butt and garnered some significant attention.
Din’s Curse – It’s far too early for this one to be called a classic, as it is still only weeks old. However, as the third game from Depths of Peril creator Soldak Entertainment, it shows the improvements of consecutive refinement in both the game engine and the design. The principle claim to fame of Din’s Curse is simply the presence of a Diablo-style game in an extremely dynamic and ever-changing game-world. I really hope other titles pick up on the ideas set forth in this game.
Why is it significant? While even the best procedurally-generated plots and events get old and mechanical after time, Din’s Curse shows the entire industry – mainstream and indie alike – how it should be done. Or at least a major example of how it should be done.
I’m not suggesting this list is anything like the final word on the matter – far from it. I’m hoping this will actually start the discussion, as I’d like to hear other people’s picks or comments. I’m just one guy with limited visibility into this area – and you, my friends, are many. What did I overlook or get wrong?
Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 22 Comments to Read