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Indie games don’t have multi-million dollar budgets. They don’t have bleeding-edge technology and cutscenes rivaling the processed beauty of Pixar movies. They don’t try to mash five different genres together in a tired attempt to be innovative just for the sake of innovation.
The best indie games, however, have focus. They do one thing, and they do it well. Machiavelli’s Ascent on Xbox Live Indie Games is one such example.
Machiavelli’s Ascent is clean and simple. There is only one goal: climb your jellyfish as high as he can go. Starting from the sea floor, you push A to get a jump start, then use the triggers to move left and right. Run into a bubble, and it gives you a small boost up. Hit a series of glowing arrows, get a bigger boost upwards. Catch some starfish on the way for bonus points.
And that’s about all. Miss bubbles and lose your upwards momentum, and you fall down, down, down, all the way back to the ground. Some games take two seconds, some take thirty.
Despite the seemingly fast-paced, twitchy-sounding gameplay, MA is actually quite soothing. The ambient “soundtrack” is merely bubble noises, like sleeping in a room with a fish tank filtering quietly in the corner. The “whoosh” of the speed boost, especially if you are able to chain a few together, provides a momentary rush of exhilaration.
But then, it’s back to the soothing sounds and slow upward climb, like rising carbonation in a freshly poured glass of Sprite. The bubbles seem to be spaced at a fair distance from each other, but you will find them lacking in quantity in the upper echelons of the ocean, encouraging a chain of speed boosts to maintain upwards momentum.
There is no going back down. If you miss a boost or bubble that has just escaped the bottom of the screen as you blazed past it, it’s gone. Jellyfish must always look upwards, to the future.
The demo lets you get to a certain height before prompting you to purchase the game (for the fair price of 80 Microsoft points, or $1). You will understand the mechanics of the climb, but you will yearn to explore farther upwards. You are positive that you can top your previous high score and height. You know there is more to see.
The background lightens as you approach the surface, and you’re sure that you will break the barrier of the water and fly away into the sky on a chance zephyr. You feel trapped at the bottom of the sea.
You keep yearning. You keep climbing. You don’t give up. The sun teases you with its warm rays. Your old high score from hours before taunts you from the corner of the screen… You can conquer it. You can conquer the sea. You can conquer yourself.
Machiavelli’s Ascent is barely a game. There is no multiplayer. There is no storyline. There is only your high score in the corner and the climb. But the experience – the mindset it will trap you in as it digs its metaphysical claws into your shoulder – is all-consuming.
Charge up your imagination, and go for a climb.