This article is part of our ongoing coverage of GDC 2015. You can find more of our GDC news and analysis here.
Here's the hard truth about being an independent developer these days: It's almost impossible to stand out.
Never was this more apparent than at the Media Indie Exchange earlier this week, where I found myself making a slow loop around a room awash faux-retro pixel art. Then I ran into Seasons After Fall — Swing Swing Submarine's gorgeous puzzle platformer — and I had to stop and play. In a world where the indie game "look" has become a cliché, Seasons After Fall shone like a beacon.
This wasn't the first time I had seen Seasons, but it was the first time I had gotten a chance to try it for myself. I've kept one eye on it since first hearing about it during last year's GamesCom, intrigued by its art and its adorable progagonist — a red fox trying to restore balance to nature. You see, I'm a sucker for games with animal protagonists. Whether its Ecco the Dolphin or Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill (which, alas, was never released — a true tragedy), if I get to play as an animal, then I'm in.
Anyway, Seasons After Fall's main conceit is that, in addition to being ridiculously cuddly, its foxy protagonist has control over the seasons themselves. With the touch of a button, you can shift between fall, winter, spring, and summer, all of which have different effects on the environment.
A fairly typical puzzle might go like this: You need to traverse a gap, so you shift to winter to make a handful of tree branches curl out; but in so doing, you freeze the little jellyfish-like blob of light that hovers nearby, which you need to infuse branches with light and life so that you can free a bear trapped in the center of the forest. The examples found in the demo are fairly simply, but they hint at some rather complex traversal puzzles that will make full use of Seasons After Fall's season shifting mechanics.
But, much as I hate to sound superficial, it all comes to the art for me. The world of Seasons After Fall is rendered in gorgeous watercolors, it characters and seasons distinct and vibrant. I'm a sucker for animation as much as I am animal protagonists, and with its falling leaves, driving snow, and the way that the seasons start from a single point and spread out to encompass the entire world, Seasons After Fall looks about as good as any 2D game around.
The art is also important to me because, and I can't stress this enough, the fake 8-bit/16-bit aesthetic really has become a cliche. I don't hate it per se, and it can really be magical when its done right (see: Shovel Knight), but my eyes can't help but glaze over a bit when I see it now. What was once charming and clever has become rote, covering up what might otherwise be a really strong game. I've had this problem with a few games of late, most notably Knights of Pen & Paper.
In the meantime, if Seasons After Fall proves anything, it's that great art can elevate what might turn out to be a merely-decent puzzle platformer. At the very least, it helps it to stand out at the indie showcases that have become ubiquitous at trade shows like GDC. And with the tide of indie games continuing to grow, standing out is more important than ever.