Xbox LIVE Indie Games is as good as dead. This time last year there were so many amazing games coming out that there was hardly the time to play them all, but the last six months has seen such a dearth of content that you can count the games worth playing on the fingers of one finger. The great developers who carried the service have been driven away by Microsoft’s reluctance to do anything with the closest thing Xbox 360 has to the App Store, and while Apple is making millionaire after millionaire, indie developers on Xbox 360 consider themselves lucky to make enough to recover the cost of the $99 subscription fee.
There have been Uprisings in the past, a Winter Uprising that suffered because Microsoft hadn’t yet allowed developers to set release dates for their games, and a Summer Uprising followed and suffered because many of the games in it were terrible. Both sought to publicise a service that has a bad (and entirely unwarranted) reputation, but neither drove traffic to the games that deserved it, and more of those great developers left because there aren’t even pennies in Xbox LIVE Indie Games, let alone a living.
And so a third Uprising appears, and it doesnt feel like promotion any more. It feels like a final hurrah for a service that has truly provided some of the most incredible games this generation, even if you’ve never heard of any of them. For almost four years weve been playing the kinds of games that just werent available anywhere else, and the Uprising promises a collection that really showcases just what Xbox LIVE Indie Games has been all about.
qrth-phyl leads the pack, and is possibly the best example of this. We’re choosing to pronounce it as “curth-fill” but we hope nobody asks us to say it out loud in case we accidentally summon Cthulhu. qrth-phyl at its most basic level is Snake, but it’s Snake like you’ve never seen before. Taking cues from developer Hermit Games’ previous Xbox LIVE Indie Game title, the fantastic Leave Home, qrth-phyl adapts to the way you play it, becoming more difficult, or easier, depending on how much you happen to be sucking at that moment.
You’ll suck a fair amount at first, because the game is difficult. Each game begins on a flat plane and you can look for food on either side of it – this of course leads to a growth in your tail (do snakes have tails?) and the longer your snake gets, the harder it is to avoid running into yourself which will result in losing a life in a fashion that feels more familiar than you may expect. Once you’ve collected enough food, you head for the exit and that’s when things get interesting.
Now you’re inside a cube, and you’re playing Snake from an over-the-shoulder kind of perspective (snakes definitely don’t have shoulders). The rules are the same, collect the food, avoid your tail, the walls and any hazards, and try to open the exit whereupon you’ll be back outside the cube again, each change varying in difficulty depending on how well you performed in the previous ones.
Some are certainly easier than others. It’s far easier on a flat plane than on a cube, and it’s easier on a cube than it is inside a cube, but qrth-phyl demands that you perform well in all conditions because your lives are precious regardless of where you are.
If you do find that you like one particular stage more than others, you can choose to just play that stage alone for as long as you can maintain one life, and set your own high score for just the stages you want. It’s as close as it ever gets to pure Snake.
Then of course, there are the documentary levels. Did we mention that qrth-phyl is also something of a documentary? If you can find them (and they’re very well hidden) you’ll enter a special level in which you’ll learn about the inspiration behind qrth-phyl. In a strange way, it brings back memories of solving puzzles in FEZ – there are no hints, it’s up to you to find the puzzles and work out how to solve them – the chances are that some players will play hundreds of games never even realising how deep this game goes.
The “are games art” debate is old and boring, but qrth-phyl might be the closest thing to it yet. It’s beautiful, but theres more to it than that: it’s as if every element within it is finely tuned to do just exactly what it needs to do and nothing more. Everything has a purpose and nothing is wasted. If it’s not art itself then it’s certainly a museum, and whatever you decide it is, it deserves all the time you can give it to find out.