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by Ian Daffern

It's time to close-up Halo 4 and turn-down that Call of Duty. The most exciting and innovative gaming experiences out there can now be found in the thriving world of independents, where a whole universe of genres and styles are waiting for you. And you might not know this but Toronto is a hotbed, a petri dish for gaming, growing the superstars of tomorrow. To say its hot right now is a considerable understatement.

The problem with mainstream games, is that their big money means big expectations. You make a game that costs 100 million dollars-- you're going to make sure it sells 150 million dollars worth of copies in order to make a profit. Your mechanics will be familiar. Your talent will be on trend-- “cinematic”, “photorealistic”; “linear” attempting somehow to recreate as close as possible the experience for an audience of being in that blockbuster movie. And in doing so, by appealing to that demographic, the “hardcore” gamer, you're shutting out a wide swath of people who aren't interested in their choice of rapid fire machine guns.

For the indie scene, relative isolation produces great creativity. It's like a tropical island, with a wildly diverse ecosystem because its been allowed to flourish. Cartoonist Ben Rivers explores the use of an unreliable narrator with his survival horror Home. Jim Munroe, sci-fi writer and multimedia impressario is one of the architects behind the Toronto scene, and continues to explore the limits of storytelling in gaming with projects like the drone-pilot adventure Unmanned. And writer Christine Love brings the epistolary novel into a far-flung future with games like Analogue:A Hate Story, interactive, manga-influenced 'visual novels', a form that is already huge in Japan. Each of these games push the idea of narrative forward in ways that have yet to be explored in mainstream titles.

While some gamers focus on story, others expand what's possible in graphics, pushing the minimalism of low-res pixel art as far as it could go. Capybara Games are masters of this with titles like their hit iphone adventure Sword and Sworcery and the upcoming Contra-esque side-scroller Super Time Force. By contrast, Miguel Sternberg of Spooky Squid Games'They Bleed Pixels, has crafted a Lovecraft-infused, little-girl-with-stabby-claws platformer for full diabolical appeal. Others, like Ken Gao's To The Moon, take the familiar style of Japanese RPG's like the original Zelda and put it to work in service of dramatic storytelling more in line with filmmakers like Jean Pierre-Jeunet (Amelie) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The effect allows each of these creators to evoke the pleasure of gaming from decades past, tapping into that sweet sting of nostalgia, while pushing the player to unique experiences in the present.

One of the most unique, and celebrated indie-titles is Sound Shapes by local legend Jon Mak, a musical platformer-- think of it as a mix of Mario Brothers meets a sythesizer. You bounce and roll a stylized blob across a screen, triggering different graphics as you go. One might be a bass note, the other a drum beat. When they come together they assemble songs, melodies that sometimes last from screen to screen, sometimes fade away. It's the kind of thing that is almost impossible to describe, or at least you can see how it would make for a difficult pitch for Walmart and Best Buy. But it doesn't have to. It just has to find the audience that's out there waiting for it. And now, thanks in part to distribution networks like Sony's Playstation Network and Valve's Steam, indie-games are doing just fine.