There used to be a time where video games were sneered at and overlooked by the culturati as lowbrow schlock but games are, and always have been, a lively and responsive form of artistic expression. It’s not always immediately clear when a game was made in Australia, which makes it a little harder to celebrate homegrown hits – which we should do, because we have a thriving community of developers who punch well above their weight. The Australian independent games scene is vibrant, dynamic and overdue an apology.
As I have (graciously, selflessly) decided, we’re all going to yank games from the declasse and appreciate them properly – so here are 10 great Australian-made games, all variously ruminative, charming, effervescent, sincere, generous, visceral, cheeky, and beautiful. Glad we have that sorted.
10. Novena (Cécile Richard) – online
Novena is described as an interactive poem. It will take you between five and 15 minutes to finish it, depending on how long you need to sit with the slowly unfurling prose, a meditation on emotional labour and mental health. The sole maker of the game, Cécile Richard, won the 2019 Freeplay micro-game award for Novena, which was also nominated that year for excellence in visual art.
9. Webbed (Sbug Games) – Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Windows, macOS
It’s hard to make a game about spiders in Australia that doesn’t immediately evoke images of horrible hairy huntsmen, or stories of deadly redbacks under toilet seats – but Sbug Games have only gone and bloody done it. You play this 2D puzzle platformer as a tiny and extremely adorable peacock jumping spider, trying to save her boyfriend from the clutches of a satin bowerbird.
Not once does it rely on freaking-out arachnophobes or lean in to creepiness; instead, it’s a game about cooperation and banding together. Webbed was nominated for three Australian Game Developer awards, an Independent games festival award, and the Seamus McNally Grand prize at the IGFs.
8. Paperbark (Paper House) – Windows, macOS
The popularity of game design degrees at Australian universities over recent years has propelled the quality of local student-made games into the stratosphere. Paperbark started out as one until it received VicScreen (formerly Film Victoria) funding for release to market.
A beautiful point-and-click adventure game, it invokes the watercolour aesthetics of children’s storybooks like Possum Magic or Blinky Bill to explore a day in the life of the humble wombat as he fossicks through the bush for food.
7. Escape From Woomera (various) – Windows
Eighteen years ago, a group of game developers decided to draw attention to Australia’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers by making a video game. Escape From Woomera was a sobering and distressing exposé of the inhumane conditions within Australian detention centres at a time where John Howard’s “sedition” laws hindered traditional media coverage.
The government’s response was indignant and the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board, which funded the game, was swiftly abolished; the Australia Council is only now starting to consider funding games again. Seen now as a significant cultural intervention and an example of “culture jamming”, Escape From Woomera is only starting to receive the recognition it deserves, almost two decades on.
6. Push Me Pull You (House House) – PS4, Windows, Linux, macOS
Push Me Pull You is a local co-op multiplayer couch sports game that feels absolutely disgusting in the most compelling way. Described as having a “Koonsian quality of both innocent and grotesque”, House House’s 2016 game soon sees your screen resembling human intestines as you battle the other team (also consisting of some kind of Cronenbergian nightmare) to keep the ball in your court.
Push Me Pull You won best game and best design at the Freeplay awards, and an honourable mention for the Nuovo award at the 2015 Independent Games festival.
5. The Artful Escape (Beethoven & Dinosaur) – Windows, Xbox One, PS4, PS5 and Nintendo Switch
Inside of you there are two wolves, and one of them wants to do face-melting guitar solos without learning how to play the guitar. The Artful Escape blends a bright psychedelic art style with one of the most underrated actions in all of video games: the slide. Sliding down huge hills while “pushing X to shred” is a visceral joy everyone should get the chance to experience.
The Artful Escape was nominated for Golden Joystick and Game Awards, and took home the Bafta for artistic achievement.
4. Untitled Goose Game (House House) – PS4, Windows, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, macOS
It is a beautiful day in the village, and you are a horrible goose. Just like Push Me Pull You, House House will lull you into a false sense of security and safety with a charming colour palette before introducing mischief. You play as a cheeky goose who is hellbent on ruining everyone’s day, from stealing the farmer’s keys to robbing a small child of his glasses.
Untitled Goose Game has won many awards, including the Australian Game Developer awards, the Golden Joystick awards and a Bafta.
3. Umurangi Generation (Origame Digital) – Windows, Nintendo Switch
Umurangi Generation is set in a dystopian future in Tauranga, New Zealand, after sea levels have risen and engulfed many major cities around the world. A twist on first-person shooter games, Umurangi is more like a scavenger hunt than combat thriller, with the player tasked with taking photographs instead of shooting weapons. This game has a lot to say about the climate crisis, neoliberalism and politics, and, in true Kiwi style, it doesn’t mind sticking the boot in where necessary – like when the in-game prime minister goes on holiday during a crisis. To whom could the game be referring?
2. Unpacking (Witch Beam) – Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, macOS, Xbox One, Windows
Who knew a game about one of life’s most stressful times could be so damn relaxing? Unpacking is a puzzle game about moving house and it packs a powerful narrative punch. Using no words at all, Unpacking slowly tells a story about our living spaces at different life stages, from our childhood bedroom to moving in with a crappy boyfriend who makes no room for your belongings (and has horrible taste). The team behind Unpacking will now have to make space for some extra items in their homes, such as Australian Game Developer awards, a Dice award and two Baftas.
1. Apartment (Kalonica Quigley) – Windows, macOS
Commissioned by the Freeplay independent games festival and supported by Victoria Together, Apartment is a snapshot of lockdown life that will stick with me for ever. After leaving Melbourne for regional Victoria to go into lockdown with her family in March 2020, developer Kalonica Quigley digitally reconstructed the apartment she’d left from memory, and turned it into an explorable space to share with others.
It’s a vulnerable and touching story about the intentions we put into our spaces and things, and how much it hurts to not be able to live the life we imagined for ourselves. If you’ve been lucky enough to get through the pandemic without losing anyone you love, it can feel ungracious to complain about the comparatively tiny problems we’ve experienced – but we’ve all had them. Apartment gives us the space to grieve all the little disappointments we’ve shared over the pandemic, draws you in for a cuddle and says, “I understand how you feel.”