Two new indie RPGs tackle the genre's history, but only one succeeds

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Two new indie RPGs are about the genre's history, but only one succeeds

If there's one thing that would improve the role-playing genre, it would be a stronger indie community. The biggest blockbuster RPGs are doing quite well these days, but indies are less common for a variety of reasons.

Two recent RPG releases, Evoland and Driftmoon (above), each demonstrate a common focus for indie games: playing with the genre and its history. We've seen this in the side-scrolling platformer. Super Meat Boy's love of the past is visible in its title, and the game itself reveled in the past by stripping the genre down to core tests of speed and difficulty. Braid was a subversion as much as a celebration – it took the division of mechanics and story, typical of so many platformers starting with Super Mario Bros., and found a way to marry the two with the theme of regret and the player's ability to turn back time.

Both Evoland and Driftmoon (the former available on GOG and Steam, the latter on GOG and in the Greenlight process) are likewise firmly engaged with the history of role-playing games, but they come at it from different directions. Evoland is overt about its relationship to genre history, making it a core part of the game's structure.

Two new indie RPGs are about the genre's history, but only one succeeds

You start Evoland (above) with a retro color scheme, and only have the ability to move in one direction. You move that way, open a chest, gain the ability to move in other directions. More chests give your character more abilities, while granting the game new technology. It's clever and occasionally charming, but suffers from being pulled in too many different directions at once.

Evoland wants to be about the history of action/adventure games like The Legend Of Zelda, at the same time as RPGs like Final Fantasy. The game's two main player characters are a blond lad named "Clink" and a young woman healer named "Kaeris," to hammer home that point. This means constant switching between minding your health as a collection of hearts or as your total hit points, or between action combat or abstract turn-based fights. This weakens the thematic strength of Evoland: it's not about RPGs because it doesn't follow their history.

The action/adventure side of the game works better, and perhaps Evoland would have been better served had it only gone in that direction. In its best dungeon, you switch back and forth between two-dimensional and three-dimensional exploration by shooting arrows at certain crystals that send you back and forth through time. At that point, it functions as a celebration of game history, and uses that history for clever gameplay. Meanwhile, the RPG sections of the game are only RPGs in the most superficial way possible – there's only a tiny bit of on-rails character improvement. How can a game celebrate the history of RPGs without actually being a role-playing game?

Two new indie RPGs are about the genre's history, but only one succeeds

That's a problem that Driftmoon happily avoids, by being a role-playing game first, and a reference generator second. Its inspirations are Western RPGs, particularly the Ultima series, which it references multiple times. It has the top-down perspective, long conversation trees, and the slow, real-time combat of an Ultima 7, although it's generally simpler, both mechanically and thematically.

That simplicity is one of the great virtues of an indie game: it doesn't have to be an earth-shaking story of gritty realism. Driftmoon is a deliberately archetypal 'Hero's Journey,' where you play a young man whose father accidentally triggers an ancient evil, and you go on a quest to defeat it. Instead of worrying about how clichéd that is, Driftmoon quite enjoys the trope, because it's a deliberately small game – it also allows the game to be goofy, something often missing from RPGs. The relatively simple mechanics, like a progression tree with one stat per level, and only on your main character, keeps the game moving quickly. The fact that it's simple means Driftmoon is unimposing, a welcome sight in a genre where the biggest titles promise/threaten to dominate your life for weeks or months.

Two new indie RPGs are about the genre's history, but only one succeeds

But there is one aspect of Driftmoon that gives it long-term viability: modding. Open up the game, and you'll be given more modding options than play options. Driftmoon is as much of a platform for creation as it is a game on its own. That's a good sign, even if you never download a mod – it means Driftmoon possesses the foundation of a full-fledged game, instead of being a gimmick like Evoland. After all, Braid and Fez weren't just clever ideas, they were complete, quality games built around clever ideas.

Driftmoon isn't at the level of the truly great indie games, but it's great to see that style of RPG being made outside of major companies with high-profile Kickstarters. The potential for a modding community is also a benefit, as it would allow the game to be commercially viable in the longterm, which may mitigate the development costs of making an RPG compared to other genres of game.

Though Evoland may not be quite as successful as a game, it's still a charming, occasionally interesting attempt at bringing a certain style of indie structure to the genre. The existence of both games gives me hope for the viability and variety of independently made role-playing games.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.