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Indie Developers Tackle The Final Frontier

by Jeff Marchiafava on Dec 29, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Video games and science fiction were made for each other. Both deliver the thrill of discovering new worlds and doing things that simply aren't possible in our modern, boring lives. Studios like Bungie and BioWare have spent massive amounts of time and money creating sci-fi universes for players to explore, but when it comes to the themes and ideas that the genre is built on, most of the innovation is coming from indies.

A few years ago I wrote a feature containing all of the nerdy features I'd like to see in my dream sci-fi game, from exploring worlds where no man has gone before (read: procedurally generated), to managing a ship and crew you care about (complete with the constant threat of permadeath). To my pleasant surprise, many developers have been toying with similar themes – but they're not the studios that have millions of dollars at their disposal.

Indie developers have been fearlessly leading the charge with ambitious games that should get any sci-fi fan excited. Here are a few indie titles that I have enjoyed over the past few years, and a few upcoming games that I'm watching with great interest.

This Xbox Live Indie Game puts a sci-fi twist on the Minecraft formula, but contains a few great ideas of its own. Due to the constant threat of radiation, players must seek shelter underground during the day, giving the game a bleak and hostile atmosphere. Players can also find and program robots to help with their mining and ore collection, and craft some cool items like gravity boots. Gristmill Studios has released a number of updates to the game, including texture upgrades and the addition of alien, enemy mobs.

A lot of great sci-fi stories revolve around the dangers of space travel and the mortality of your beloved crewmates. While the Mass Effect series put your allies in mortal danger from time to time, they were always scripted affairs. FTL might not be the most visually impressive game, but thanks to the strategy title's incorporation of permadeath, you're always one step away from complete disaster. Upgrading your ship and attaining new crew members provides a satisfying carrot to the gameplay, and there are just enough surprises and variety to make you want to start a new game when you inevitably go down in flames.

Galak-Z: The Dimensional
Outer-space dogfights are another staple of sci-fi movies and television shows, and 17-Bit's topdown shoot-em-up focuses on putting fans in the middle of the action. Pilots split their time between exploring procedurally generated space and hand-designed planets. Enemies are no pushovers, as each pilot exhibits its own AI and can evade, use the environment for cover, and coordinate attacks with allies. I got a chance to play an early version back in August, and the combat was already a lot of fun.

Spacebase DF-9
DF-9 started as one of the projects in Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnight, which allowed fans to vote for which game they want to be made. DF-9 easily won, and is available now in alpha form. The simulation game allows players to build the space station of their dreams, while taking care of their crew and fending off alien invasions.

Just like the original Star Trek series, Starbound doesn't take itself too seriously. The 2D RPG/platformer allows players to travel across a procedurally generated universe, exploring planets and crafting weapons, armor, and other equipment. The scope of the game is incredible, and features seven playable races, including the bird-like Avians and a society of medieval robots known as The Glitch. The PC version of Starbound recently entered beta, but PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Vita, and Ouya versions are also planned.

No Man's Sky
This promising open-world title from Hello Games was just announced at the VGX Awards a couple of weeks ago, but it's already at the top of my must-watch list for 2014. Similar to Starbound, No Man's Sky puts players into a universe full of solar systems and planets to discover. The game is played from a first-person perspective and features both outer-space dogfights and planetary exploration. Despite the fact that Hello Games is only a four-person team, No Man's Sky is also gorgeous. Here's hoping the developer can deliver on its ambitious plans.