Build up a Craft Month Playlist with these Indie Picks
It’s been a little tricky getting out of the house this past year, so those of us with grand crafting aspirations have had to settle for digital alternatives.

Either that, or risk filling your house with glitter as you delve into the alternatives. Let us here at Vicarious fill your spring with a finely polished collection of indie games centered around crafting and building, and save you getting sparkles in places you didn’t even know you had.

While it’s perhaps a bit obvious these days, we can’t talk about crafting and indie games without a nod to Iron Gate’s Viking mega-hit Valheim. Unceremoniously dropped into a world of Norse myth by a giant crow, it’s familiar enough stuff – chop trees, gather stones, set up a crafting table and build yourself a hut, then expand your ambitions. What sets Valheim’s crafting apart is just how powerful its construction tools are.

With enough resources and time, almost any structure is possible. Channel5 Gaming on YouTube did a run-down of some stunning build projects, including a gorgeous wizard’s tower spiralling high into the sky with multiple balconies and stairs that wind both inside and outside of the structure.Just make sure to build somewhere safe, as Valheim’s bigger monsters are known to be harsh architecture critics.

Survival games can be mean enough when you’re just worrying about finding enough water and food. In Klei’s Oxygen Not Included, you’ve got to establish a space colony on a shoestring budget, starting out with a handful of loyal minions and rapidly dwindling supplies of… everything, really. You’ll have to put your thinking cap on as you craft systems to circulate atmosphere, process fluids and generate power to support your grand ambitions and keep your little red-shirts alive.

Walking a similar fine line between cartoon wackiness and realistic space science similar to Kerbal Space Program, Oxygen Not Included is involved, challenging and funny. There’s also a beefy expansion in Early Access that lets you expand out to other planetoids, once you’ve managed surviving on your first. We’d recommend you just stick to the regular edition of the game until you’re comfortable, though.

Most crafting-heavy games ask you to build a home, whether terrestrial or orbital. Not many offer you the option to build your own tools to tear the world apart. In ingenious physics-driven roguelike Noita by Nolla Games, you play as an itinerant witch, wandering the world and its dungeons in search of forbidden magics and wands powerful enough to house them. What do you do with them? Mash them together to create even MORE powerful and forbidden magics!

Through a complex spell-crafting system, you can create everything from a surgical, lightsaber-like digging wand to staves loaded with apocalyptic, earth-shattering fireworks displays and everything in-between. If you want to get really fancy, the game even has an advanced alchemy system, letting you combine an assortment of bottled elements into dangerous new compounds. Just be careful not to turn the entire world into gold. Yes, you can do it, and it’s less fun than it sounds.

Developed a taste for designing weapons, but wands and witches aren’t your vibe? Perhaps you’ll find yourself more at home in space (again) with Nimbatus, by Stray Fawn Studios. Tasked with mining asteroids, clearing out alien infestations and even competing in far-future sporting events, you’ll have to construct remote control spacecraft completely from scratch.

While normally Nimbatus gives you a limit to the number of physical components you can bolt onto your hulls, the most advanced players can choose to play without physical restrictions, but disable manual control of your craft, forcing you to create intricate flowchart-based AI for your vessels. 

For those who have developed a taste for advanced crafting, those willing to learn a complex user interface will find a lot to love in free sandbox roguelike Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead. Set in a near future world where every possible apocalypse has seemingly occurred simultaneously (zombies, demons, sentient plants, rogue robots, you name it), keeping alive is largely a matter of resourcefulness. Play long enough, and every pile of junk becomes a treasure trove of crafting resources.

Most impressive of Cataclysm’s features is car engineering. Every vehicle is made of real functioning components which can be stripped out, replaced or expanded. With enough effort, you can rebuild a humble RV into an armored killdozer with a hot-rod engine. And then drive it straight into a tree, realizing that you forgot to install brakes, or invest in driving skills to keep yourself on the road. Them’s the breaks.

Also on the sandbox roguelike side of things is Freehold’s Caves Of Qud. Still in Early Access but an enormous, highly playable game already. Set in a far, far future where dozens of civilizations have risen and fallen on Earth, the planet is going through a bit of a dark age. Of course, this means that tinkerers willing to brave the ruins of cities past are going to find all kinds of fun junk to use or disassemble into crafting components.

Ever wanted to take apart a folding chair, two grenades and a digital map and turn them into a missile launcher? Perhaps you can modify your more high-tech gear to run off your own bioelectric current? There’s a vast number of strange devices to play around with and dozens of potential modifications and custom functions you can bolt onto them. We do recommend that new players disable perma-death and play Qud like a sandbox RPG. Turns out that hitting quantum energy sources with a hammer can end a tinkerer’s career pretty quickly.

If all that sounds a little intense and you’d prefer something a little more casual, you can’t go wrong with Forager by Hopfrog. Part idle game, part exploration sandbox, part roguelike dungeon crawler. It’s easy to lose hours to this game as you create self-powered resource loops to passively increase your fortune, which you then spend on revealing more of the world, each new segment of map presenting its own rewards and challenges.

While the early game in Forager is focused on crafting everything by hand, mining resources from rocks and picking plants, as you automate more of your home base, you’ll be free to explore elsewhere. Forager’s dungeon-delving and combat is surprisingly fun, playing a bit like a top-down version of Terraria. Better still, cooperative multiplayer is currently being playtested and should be available for all soon. Crafting always goes faster if you bring a friend.

Resource loops got you all hot and bothered? Perhaps Factorio from Wube Software will appeal. Stranded on a hostile alien planet with nothing but a pickaxe and the ability to create complex machinery from basic resources, you’ve got to build your way up from the stone age and back up to the point where you can launch yourself back into space.

Obviously, doing this by hand is a no-go, so the focus of Factorio is constructing complex automated systems using conveyor belts, sorting mechanisms and robot arms to do the heavy lifting for you. Where first you started off digging up rocks by hand, late-game Factorio has you directing fleets of industrial robots to build entire mining complexes in seconds. Despite leaving Early Access last year, the developers only declared Factorio ‘complete’ a few weeks ago. Now they’re hiring new staff for a major expansion. We can’t wait to see what they’ve got cooking.

But perhaps you’ve got a hankering for a game that sits comfortably between Forager and Factorio in terms of complexity. Mindustry by Anuke is completely free (though a commercial version exists on Steam with auto-updates and Workshop mod support) and combines Factorio-style construction with tower defense. Piloting a construction and combat spacecraft, you’ll be rapidly assembling mines, defensive lines and occasionally dogfighting with continual waves of enemy attackers on land and air.

It’s a frantically paced game, but an elegant UI allows you to copy and paste complex systems from one part of the map to another. A recent overhaul also reworked the game’s campaign structure. Each sector of the planetary map you challenge is a self-contained battlefield, but once you’ve completed your work there, it will continue to generate resources to help you in future missions, making each new encounter bigger and higher-stakes than preceding battles. It’s compelling, moreish stuff if you’re up to the challenge.

Or maybe, after reading all of this, the thought of complex and involved crafting is just a bit too much. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered there too. From Shattered Journal Games comes Super Raft Boat, a free arcade survival shooter with a creative twist. Sailing across the ocean on a raft, enemies and obstacles constantly threaten to sink your vessel, forcing you to expand and reinforce it as you fight.

It’s a fun challenge, trying to optimize your raft so that it can survive whatever the ocean throws at it. Some hazards can cut vertically through your craft, like rocks, while others slice horizontally, or nibble at the corners. Losses are inevitable but smart play will give you a platform that can survive the worst problems. It’s light, fun and fluffy, but not without depth.

And there you go, from building Viking long-houses, to space colony ventilation systems, spells and fortresses and beyond. Give these games a try, start a grand project, and show us your wildest creations. Show us what you’ve got on Twitter and we’ll share it with the world – let’s build something together.

Celebrate Women’s History Month with these Indie Game Trailblazers
To celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at some of these trailblazing ladies and the weird, wonderful and creative games they’re producing, as well as interviews and talks with them.

Despite being half of the planet’s population and over half of all gamers (per the Internet Advertising Bureau’s recent research), women make up less than 22% of the games industry, with a depressingly small number of them being in leadership roles in major studios. Worse still, many leave the industry early and unhappy, unable to find career traction, as laid out in this Gamasutra article.

While still sadly far from 50/50 parity, there’s a great number of talented women heading up smaller studios.  While we could sing their praises, it’s always more interesting to hear their perspectives directly. There’s far more than we could ever hope to showcase here, so if you want to boost a shout-out to someone in particular, let us know on Twitter.

Jennifer Scheurle

Getting first billing for her recent headline-grabbing work, Jennifer Scheurle was formerly a game design lead at Guild Wars studio Arenanet, but has found recent success as lead designer at Blackbird Interactive. She’s the one calling the mechanical shots on the excellent rocket surgery simulator Hardspace: Shipbreaker. She also holds a chair on the International Game Developer Association Women In Games Special Interest Group. Clearly a force to be reckoned with, and a developer to keep a close eye on. Shacknews interviewed her early last year – well worth a watch.

Grace Bruxner

More humble is Grace Bruxner, creative director at Worm Club and ‘world’s most amazing game developer*’, according to her small official site. She’s the mind behind the adorable Frog Detective series of comedy adventure shorts, plus an assortment of free little experiments that you can find over on Itch.io. While soft-spoken and humble (outside of that ‘most amazing game developer*’ brag), her work is brimming with weird characters, and we’re eagerly awaiting the third chapter in Frog Detective’s misadventures. She recently gave a talk for Game Connect Asia Pacific on finding your feet as a small game developer. Useful, and gives you an idea of her offbeat sense of humor.

Tanya X. Short

No showcase of women in indie games would be complete without Tanya X. Short, co-founder and director at the highly prolific studio and publisher Kitfox Games. As a studio, Kitfox have produced the likes of Shattered Planet, Moon Hunters, The Shrouded Isle, Fit For A King, Lucifer Within Us and is hard at work on the fabulously flirtatious dungeon crawler Boyfriend Dungeon. Kitfox is set to publish the enhanced graphical version of Dwarf Fortress, as and when it’s done.

Short is also co-director of Pixelles Montréal, a non-profit providing workshops, mentoring and other services for women in game development, clearly paying forward some of that success. Check out this interview with her on Business Of Indie Games, talking about the challenges of building a successful independent studio from scratch.

Christine Love

Christine Love of Love Conquers All Games is another influential figure. Not too long ago, Valve were reticent to even host visual novels on Steam, much less erotic ones. Dark sci-fi tale Analogue: A Hate Story was one of the first big visual novels to make it through Steam’s now-defunct Greenlight process, and the raunchy Ladykiller In A Bind was one of the first high-profile adult games to be released on the store.

Right now, she’s developing the quirky, queer JRPG Get In The Car, Loser! – a pastel-hued road-trip adventure with fast, combo-centric combat, starring a quirky cast of LGBTQ+ heroes. It looks like nothing else and promises to be a wild ride. Amusingly, the store page proudly proclaims it to be ‘The Disaster Lesbian Representation We Need In 2019’, alongside a release date of Summer 2021. A reminder that good games take time. While the interview is a bit old, Christine’s thoughts in the interview below about the need for minority views in gaming are every bit as valid today.

Heather Flowers

Another outspoken LGBTQ+ figure, Heather Flowers is rapidly carving out a distinct and fiery niche for herself with the Extreme Meatpunks Forever series. Part visual novel, part meat-mecha brawler, all extremely messy and gay. These are loud, raw, unfiltered games about being completely done with the injustices and cruelty of the world. They’re about found family sticking together and fighting fascism with tooth and claw. You can find the first two Meatpunks games (of a planned trilogy) here on Itch.io, along with a bundle of her other experimental projects. Check out this fittingly raw interview with her.

Kells Tate

A recent success story, and another creator to follow is Kells Tate, one half of new studio Peachy Keen Games. After a successful round of Kickstarter funding, she recently released Calico, a heart-meltingly cute game about magical girls managing a cat café. Light business sim, and explorable sandbox world, with squishy, pettable physics-driven critters aplenty. Calico is notable for featuring women of all shapes and sizes – something sadly rare to see in games. Check out this recent interview with the studio here.

Megan Fox

Talking about weirdly adorable games, we’re proudly giving a shout-out to Megan Fox of Glass Bottom Games. An indie developer with a few solid games under her belt, including Hot Tin Roof, Jones On Fire and Spartan Fist, her next project is the pun-laden SkateBIRD. A skateboarding sim starring a cast of small avians, including the legendary Tiny Hawk. It also helps that it looks like a genuinely fun little skateboarding game with some fun twists. See her talking about the production of it back in 2019 here:

Leigh Alexander

Another industry veteran worth mentioning is Leigh Alexander. Formerly a games journalist and general fiction writer, she pivoted into narrative design and writing for games. She was the lead writer on the excellent and pointedly feminist Reigns: Her Majesty, plus its (admittedly less indie) Game Of Thrones spinoff. You can find some of her more recent writing in the excellent, award-winning cyberpunk narrative adventure Neo Cab. You can see Leigh talking about her rollercoaster of a career here:

Tiani Pixel and Fernanda Diaz

Looking to the future, keep a close eye on Studio Pixel Punk, made up of Brazillian dynamic duo Tiani Pixel and Fernanda Diaz. They’re currently putting the finishing touches on Unsighted, an extremely stylish sci-fi action RPG with some exciting ideas, like non-linear progression and a game world that changes in real-time. Get a peek at the game, and listen to some developer commentary below. While this roundup so far has been broadly US and Euro-centric, it’s great to see some fresh talent from South America.

Becca Bair

One more up-and-comer of note is Becca Bair. Primarily an artist, she made the Forbes 30-under-30 list back in 2018, and is currently lead developer on Arcadian Atlas, a fantasy tactical RPG heavily inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics. You can check out some of her work on her gallery page here, and keep up with her crew – Twin Otter Studios – and Arcadian Atlas’ development here. Get a peek at the team in the video below.

Ode to the those that came before

That should give you an idea of some of the talent around, but let’s not forget that, as traditionally male-dominated the industry has been historically, there have always been influential women involved. While notorious for how punishingly designed the King’s Quest series was, Roberta Williams was credited as writer, designer and sometimes director on over twenty games, spanning 1980 to 1999, making her an aspirational figure to many in the industry, and enemy to many young gamers.

Were it not for Williams’ influence, the point-and-click adventure genre probably wouldn’t have been the huge force it was through the nineties, and its modern resurgence might not be happening today. While most of her interviews are a little bit old and dusty now, check out this video by the excellent PushingUpRoses, detailing Roberta Williams’ work on the original King’s Quest, and what it meant to her growing up.

A particular shout-out to Brenda Romero, too. While more recently known for her work on historical mobster management and tactics game Empire Of Sin, she was one of the most instrumental developers involved in the classic dungeon crawler Wizardry 8. Check out this recent interview alongside her husband, John, over on IGN’s YouTube channel.

And while seldom in the director’s chair, Rhianna Pratchett has been working as a scriptwriter for games since 2004, with credits on productions of all sizes, from AAA (as lead writer on the most recent Tomb Raider reboot trilogy) all the way to charming little indie games like Beatbuddy: Tale Of The Guardians. Check out this interview with Gaming Debugged as she delves into the challenges of writing a character as well known as ubiquitous as Lara Croft.

Women have always had a place at the table in games, but a regrettably small one. Things are slowly improving, as incubator projects such as Girls Make Games open new doors for women in the industry, but it is an uphill struggle. Let’s let the women in games know that they’ve got people cheering for them, supporting them, and buying their games. We can scarcely imagine what games today would look like without King’s Quest inspiring imagination and hardening the wills of gamers past.

Indie Game Love Stories To Strum At Your Heartstrings

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us! Let’s celebrate Romance in Indie Games.

Valentine’s day is just around the corner. So what better time to celebrate the many strange forms love takes than diving into the weird and wonderful world of indie games? Be warned that spoilers abound. If you’ve not played any of the indie games below (Undertale, Doki Doki Literature Club, Paradise Killer, There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension, The Void Rains Upon Her Heart, Pendragon and Transistor), it’s recommended you do so prior to reading on. Or don’t, but you’ve been warned.

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