Though the announcement this week of the Student Showcase winners in this years Independent Games Festival might seem necessarily secondary to the main festival's competition, it's important to remember that some of gaming's recent best has been plucked directly from its former finalists.
Most notably, Valve's much-beloved Portal was borne from 2006 student entry Narbacular Drop, the same year that Cloud would propel thatgamecompany forward to create their PlayStation 3 art-games flOw and Flower.
2007's And Yet It Moves is currently one of the upcoming lynchpins of indie representation on Nintendo's downloadable service WiiWare, and de Blob would later be revamped as a cult success for publisher THQ, while 2008's The Misadventures Of P.B. Winterbottom is just weeks away from an Xbox Live Arcade release from BioShock publisher 2K, and 2009's The Unfinished Swan still remains one of the most anticipated games to come from the festival.
The point being: while the main IGF entrants are still the best temperature gauge for what the indie scene is up to, the student entrants are no less important a guidepost to the teams that will be moving it forward in the years to come.
And so, as with Boing Boing's guide to the main IGF finalists, below is a breakdown of the ten student showcase finalists — with links to downloads for nearly all the games to play yourself — which this year brought a refreshing amount of genuinely compelling and moving experiences:
Boryokudan Rue • PC • UCLA • www
Can I Play It Right Now? Not yet.
Following very confidently in the point and click tradition of dramatic adventure classics like Beneath a Steel Sky, the unfortunately titled Boryokudan Rue is a year 22xx cyber-noir thriller that manages to even get the occasional drop on Hideo Kojima's Snatcher for nailing Blade Runner's broken grey future. Fantastically atmospheric with its limited pixels and challenging without losing accessibility, it does a stellar job of keeping the point and click tradition alive.
Continuity should look familiar to regular readers: it was previously featured as the web hit of the week in early December, for its smart and simple platforming action split into and laid across a deck of cards that you rearrange like a classic slide-puzzle, and a wickedly bombastic synthed-out score counterpointed with the card-shuffle's light ambiance.
Devil's Tuning Fork isn't a half step away in concept from last year's student showcase finalist The Unfinished Swan, for taking standard first-person platforming fare and turning it into an exercise in feeling your way through a discomforting void.
In Fork's case, though, that void is even more frightening by design: its midnight blackness can only be navigated by echolocation — or how we might visually translate the sensation of actual echolocators — and the stuffed-toy objects it's your goal to collect are each crying out in childrens' voices about monsters and pain, adding to the overall sense of primal scared-of-the-dark dread.
Easily the best surprise of this year's showcase, Dreamside Maroon is 2010's version of the first time you played a thatgamecompany game: it's visually arresting, effortlessly stylized and quietly evocative in a way that's still too rare in gaming today.
Your Dreamside goal is to grow a single vine to the moon, with no real enemies or challenges standing in your way, but the game truly opens up in a smell-the-roses sense as you realize that the gorgeous painterly floating islands you're surrounded by have lanterns that can be lit, each of which unlocks a small poetic verse and attracts groups of fireflies to collect and bring along in your journey upward.
Utterly unmissable, if you can only bring yourself download one game from this list, make it this one.
DigiPen's other strong showing this year outside Dreamside Maroon is Igneous, which is gaming's equivalent to Indy Jones's trademark boulder-chase scene, stretched out across a series of increasingly harrowing levels.
Playing the part of a miniature rolling totem, all the game asks you to do is go — and fast — escaping from a wall of lava constantly nipping at you from behind, jumping over rivers of magma and ground that's continually falling out from beneath you: a game happily unforgiving and consistently nervewracking.
Created as part of a student design challenge for Wacom's ongoing efforts to bring fun to their pen/tablet interface (but still just as fully playable with only a standard mouse), Paper Cakes is an adorably ingenious point-a-to-point-b puzzler about leading your sketch-drawing player to cake.
To do so, as the other half of the title would suggest, you guide by drawing paths and — here's where the clever comes in — by origami-folding the paper the character lives on to its flip side, which can cover up obstacles, join floors, and open new routes to cross otherwise inaccessible routes. The character's post-cake-binge "itis" snooze is probably the cutest thing you'll see in the Indie Games Fest this year.
Between the main IGF's entry Vessel, Q-games' recently released PixelJunk Shooter and Puddle, it seems as though fluid dynamics modeling is becoming this year's "it girl" mechanic. Played out with only your joystick's shoulder buttons to tilt levels left and right, Puddle sees you guiding an amount of liquid through devilishly difficult laboratory levels, with bunsen burner flames and pitfall cracks draining your allotment along the way.
Somewhere on par, thematically, to the Oddworld series and Flower, Puzzle Bloom brings an environmental and anti-industrial message to puzzle mechanics that see you hopping from character to worker-drone character, taking control of their bodies to work through switch-gates and hit checkpoints that cause factory control rooms to bloom with greenery. Created in Unity, it's a good showcase (alongside the work of Flashbang and Infinite Ammo) of where 3D web gaming is headed.
One of this year's most narratively ambitious games, Spectre attempts nothing less than telling the story of one human's life from start to finish, spread out metaphorically through various 2D platforming challenges.
Each playthrough lets you select nine memories — and your goal is to avoid the darker bits of main character Joseph's past and concentrate on the glowing brighter ones — with over fifty end-game themes and a uniting theme that's there for you to uncover via repeat play.
Finally, Ulitsa Dimitrova might be the most surprisingly affecting game entered this year that uses the least amount of mechanical ingenuity to make its point. Watching the guided-tour video above will give you basically the entirety of what it attempts to do, but it might be better told through your own discovery.
Cheerfully drawn in broad, broad and utterly bleak ballpoint pen strokes, it's a character portrait of homeless Slavic seven-year-old Pjotre, capturing a slice of life that consists of little more than nicking Mercedes hood ornaments and stealing huffable glue and cheap liquor, all to trade away to support his chainsmoking habit.
There's no winning, the city loops endlessly in classic Hanna Barbera style and echoes the nihilistic pointlessness of Pjotre's life — all you can do is keep moving and repeating each empty day, because stopping means freezing to death in the St. Petersburg streets.