If there's one segment of the gaming community that never stops surprising me with its frequent displays of creativity and raw persistence, it's the hobbyists who produce and release games on the web for free. Whether its impeccably produced micro-games like Knytt or Karoshi, ambitious mega-projects like Cave Story or Relic of the Stars, or even poignant arthouse games like Today I Die or Passage, it always amazes me that truly exceptional people are willing to share the fruits of their labor with the general public — and without asking for a single cent in return. Any time I get worried about negative trends in the mainstream gaming culture, I can always cheer myself up with the knowledge that great games can and always will be made without the need for a single cent of publishing money.

One such hobbyist is Daniel Remar. To his credit are the games Hero Core, Garden Gnome Carnage, Hyper Princess Pitch, a wealth of small-scale Game Maker projects, and, of course, Iji. He is a great developer, and all of his games show careful attention to strong core mechanics and meticulous level design. He understands what goes into making a game far better than I ever could, but that won't stop me from trying to piece together what was going through his head while he constructed his masterpiece.

Every game is built around the ways in which the player can interact with the environment. Mario jumps. Mega Man shoots. Pac-Man eats. Making a great game requires honing and perfecting these mechanics so that they're as fun as possible, and then building levels that exploit them to their maximum possible potential. More complex mechanics can make for a deeper game, but it also makes the process of designing levels that use those mechanics well exponentially harder.

Iji has three core ways of interacting with the environment: kicking, cracking, and shooting. Kicking lets Iji break down barriers and melee attack enemies. Cracking (or hacking) allows Iji to open certain doors, collect ammunition and experience from locked crates, bust open enemy defenses and disable their guns, and combine weapons. Shooting is more complicated; there are eighteen weapons in the game, each designed for different purposes and situations. Rockets are powerful but their explosions will hurt you if you use them up close. The reflector lets you send potentially more powerful enemy weapons back at them, but it also has an extremely long reload time. Some weapons are more frequently useful, but none are singularly better than all of the others.

Strategy in Iji evolves from using each of these techniques in creative ways to approach different situations. Cracking an enemy can disable its stronger weapons or kill it outright, but it requires that you sneak up on the enemy without it seeing you, which isn't always possible. Kicking an enemy can send it flying through the air, and it's possible to juggle them to death against a wall (earning extra experience in the process), but some enemies explode when they die, meaning juggling them can result in your victory blowing up in your face. You can use the Velocithor for a hasty victory against assassins, but at the cost of a hefty sum of ammunition. There's even "secret techniques" a la Super Metroid such as "teching" where you can avoid being sent flying by rockets or lasers by pressing the "C" button just before impact (though you still suffer the damage).

There's also a leveling system, and one that isn't just tacked on to make the game seem more complex then it actually is. Iji has seven stats, one for health, one for kicking, one for cracking, and four for shooting. Because it's impossible to grind (you're only allowed to level up a certain amount in each sector), there is no one character build that can do everything equally well. My first run through the game I focused mainly on kicking and cracking, which meant that I couldn't use any of the strongest guns and that the weapons I had were much weaker then they could be. My second run through I totally ignored kicking and built up all of my weaponry. The game is built in such a way that each of these approaches is equally valid.

Strategizing in Iji is a constant process, and it functions on a macro level (which stats should I level up?) and a micro level (do I attack this group of enemies head on and earn the experience or take the air-duct above them and avoid fighting entirely?) The game's ultimate triumph is that all of its levels are designed so as to allow for dozens and dozens of different strategies — indeed, it's possible to beat the entire game without killing a single enemy. By creating a strong set of core mechanics and then designing levels that exploited them well, Remar lent his game a quality sorely lacking in most triple-A titles: genuine gameplay depth.

I can't talk about Iji for too long without bringing up the graphics; they're gorgeous. Remar produced his unique aesthetic by designing each character in a 3D modeling tool and then painstakingly transforming them into sprites, and what they lack in shading they more than make up for in animation. The environments themselves are admittedly a tad plain, but seeing each character moving with the same level of detail as old cinematic platformers like Prince of Persia or Flashback makes each new enemy type a treat to behold.

The popular trend in the indie/freeware scene is to style the aesthetics after eight and sixteen-bit classics, and while I love pixel art, when you play as many freeware games as I do ...

A cookie to anyone who can name all eighteen games.

... it does start to get old after a while. Iji's Out of this World-inspired graphics are a breath of fresh air, and the fantastic heavy metal soundtrack compliments the visuals marvelously; it might even have you wondering why everyone gets so damn hung up on chip tunes.

I've heard Remar describe Iji as System Shock 2 in 2D, but that labeling is too reductive. There's a lot of System Shock in Iji, but the game owes as much to landmark titles like Deus Ex, Metroid, Out of this World, and even Contra at some points. Iji cannot be reduced to a couple of core ingredients; like all great art, it stands tall on the shoulders of its forefathers but ends up being a creature all its own.

If this were another game, I might stop right here. Iji is damn fun to play, look at, and listen to. The End. But I can't stop for one reason: Iji has a story, and not one that's just an excuse to justify the action. And it's more than simply serviceable — it's the single most mature examination of the mentally caustic effects of warfare I've ever seen in a video game. I won't lie and say it's on par with Apocalypse Now, because it definitely isn't. But it's a hell of a lot closer then any other game I've played.

Iji tells a story with scale. It involves interplanetary warfare between two aliens races over the course of centuries. But its strength is that, unlike many popular science fiction and fantasy games, it doesn't lose track of its characters. Because this isn't the story of the war between the Tasen and the Komato; this is the story of Iji fighting for her life as she gets caught in the crossfire. Most of the significant events in the game's universe take place off-screen, often light years away, revealed in brief snippets through data logs and dialogue. The Ciretako Incident. The violent culture of the Komato. The Tasen's idolization of Hel Sarie, and her demise at the hands of a certain Komato General. How Iosa came to despise the Tasen. Why Asha is completely out of his mind. Instead of spreading itself too thin trying to cover all of these (often extremely compelling) concepts in great detail, it gives you the barest whiffs of each of them in turn. It makes the story feel big while still remaining dramatic. It makes the game feel alive.

Iji is a great piece of storytelling because it isn't about the events in the story — it's about the effect those events have on its tightly realized cast of characters. It's about Dan being a stalwart big brother to Iji while secretly being scared out of his mind. It's about Asha being the only assassin in the game who fights to the last breath. It's about Iosa and Tor leading the charge in a war they know is pointless.

And then there's Iji. How does the war change her? How does she react to all of the horrors around her?

That's up to you.

If you smash your way through legions of Tasen and Komato, if you send enemies flying over ledges with a kick and wipe out whole screens of enemies with your nanogun, then Iji will speak with Tor as his equal, a fellow soldier who's sick of having blood on her hands but knows it's the only way to peace. She'll slowly lose her humanity as murder becomes less and less difficult for her. She'll become a one-woman-army and save the world.

But if you run by enemies, sneak past Annihilators, and restart the level every time one of your stray rockets accidentally hits a grunt, then Iji will refuse to let the trials of war strip her of her emotions. She'll also die a lot more, because as it turns out refusing to fight is often much harder then fighting.

This isn't a morality system because the game doesn't pass judgment on your actions. Neither option is given a trite label like good or evil, renegade or paragon. The Tasen razed Iji's planet, your planet. They killed her family, and if they get the chance, they'll kill her. Iji's survival is the only hope the planet has, and if she refuses to engage any enemies then it greatly increases the chance that she'll die — and take Earth with her.

But the Tasen and the Komato are still sentient beings. They have parents, friends, lovers. Iji has all the justification in the world to kill them, but it's still killing. Murder can never be good — only necessary.

It's up to the player to decide if it's necessary. The game itself offers no opinion, no petty moralizing. It simply posits a question and asks the player to draw his or her own conclusions. That's why the experience sticks with you: it forces you to look at something real in a new way.

There are two points in the game that stick out in my mind above all else, moments of quiet, perfect storytelling of the kind that can elevate a great game into a state of true transcendence. Cave Story had the moment when Curly saves your life. Super Metroid had the fight with Mother Brain. Iji has the fights with Iosa and Tor.

General Iosa is Tor's second-in-command, and the sole positive result of a series of experiments in extremely powerful nanoshielding. Shortly after her nanoshield was put into place, the Tasen released an alpha strike on her planet, obliterating every trace of life and atmosphere on its surface. All except for Iosa.

How do you incapacitate her? Through a collision of game concepts so perfect and amazing I wouldn't dare spoil it here. It's wonderful. It's insane. Throughout the battle the tension rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, AND THEN —

It ends. Instantly. Violently. Horribly.

Most video games could only dream of crafting a scenario with such ridiculous stakes. Here is an antagonist who got shot in the face with a death star and survived. That the game contrives a boss fight that lives up to this premise is nothing short of miraculous.

And yet there's no glory in killing Iosa. No extended explosion animation, no triumphant victory tune. The glorious high of battle is brought to an end the same way it would be in real life: with a gunshot, and then silence.

"The horror... the horror..."

There's a similar moment in Metal Gear Solid 3 (you know the one), but Iji is much subtler about it. It's not the foundation upon which the whole game is built; it's just a simple, perfect moment that hammers home the game's themes through an inspired use of all three of the game's core mechanics. It's not something most people would have thought of, but Daniel Remar is not most people, and without this scene the game would be unquestionably poorer.

Much less subtle is the fight with General Tor, the final battle of the game and the keystone of the whole experience. Tor is an oddity in video games in that he's a genuinely tragic villain. He's not Palpatine or Gestahl, the evil leader who manipulates his people into doing terrible things. Tor's actions are motivated by the bigotry of his people, not by his own personal convictions. "You can't blame me without first blaming the public and the Imperial Army!" he cries.

It's a wonderful fight. With the world falling down around them, all that's left for Iji and Tor is one last desperate battle for survival. And what a fight; it has the most spectacular visuals in the game, and it's easily the most engaging boss encounter from a gameplay standpoint. It has all the story and character intrigue of a top tier 3D Zelda title with all the masterful gameplay and impossible stakes of a Contra game. And then on New Game + you have the option to make it even tougher with "Maximum Charge" Tor. Beating him on hard mode was exhilarating — I can only imagine what it's like on the highest "Ultimortal" difficulty setting.

And it's followed by a mature, touching ending that never slips into ham-fisted melodrama, with a great song to boot. I didn't have much time to reflect on the experience; as soon as the credits ended I started a new file and played through the whole game a second time. I imagine I'll be doing the same thing again soon.

There aren't many freeware games that deserve the same level of praise as the highest masterpieces of the medium. Despite the best of intentions, very few are on par with games like Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario Bros. 3, Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, Mother 3, Link to the Past, et cetera. And while it may be that there are more out there to experience, I can only name two. Cave Story is the first. Now there is Iji.

People like Daniel Remar inspire a wealth of emotions in me, not all of them positive. Here is a man better at making games than I am at doing anything. Sometimes it makes me angry. Sometimes it gets me inspired. But mostly it just makes me thankful. That Remar is generous enough to spend four years of his life tearing out a piece of his soul and converting it into a bundle of zeroes and ones — and that he's willing to give it away for free — is one of the kindest things I can imagine a person doing.

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