Forget guns and cars - the best new games are about love and rainbow plankton.
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan is that rare thing: a computer game that makes you cry. Margaret Robertson, of the industry bible The Edge, reports being moved to tears by its depictions of human triumph over adversity. "No one talks about crying at computer games because it's still regarded as prodigiously embarrassing, but everyone I know who loves games has cried at them at some point. It's stigmatised. But if things go right or wrong it's your fault, so they have the potential to be enormously emotionally affecting."
To celebrate these strange, often unseen fringes of the electronic universe, Robertson is organising the Edge Awards at this summer's Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival, a chance for the annual industry shindig to honour products that "expand expectations of what a game is capable of". From Grand Theft Auto to Doom and Tomb Raider, it is not a sector known for its subtlety or depth. Gaming is a business obsessed with big-name franchises. This June, four releases in the UK top ten were based on football, with Hitman: Blood Money in the number one spot. Art-house values don't shift the millions of units needed to recoup development costs.
But Ouendan could change that. It has been hailed as "breath-taking" and the "greatest game ever made" by online reviewers, and Nintendo hopes that when it is released this year in the UK as Elite Beat Agents, it will win over an audience alienated by gun-toting bedroom machismo. Ouendan asks you to take control of a troupe of armour-plated male cheerleaders (not quite as wacky as it sounds - "cheersquads" are a familiar fixture at Japanese baseball games) and motivate a series of down-on-their-luck sad sacks, from a dead motorcyclist who longs to give his girlfriend a last goodbye kiss to a concert violinist wracked with gastric flu. Tap the screen in time to the pounding soundtrack, and your team of ouendan motivate their charge to victory. Fail, and the ghostly biker scares his girlfriend, while the violinist eschews the limelight for the toilet. The aim of the game is nothing less than the achievement of world peace.
"A few years ago a game like this just wouldn't have been commercially viable in the west," says Rob Saunders, PR manager for Nintendo UK, "but attitudes are changing. Although when you describe it to people over here, they do still tend to go, 'What the hell is that?'"
Electroplankton, another Edge hopeful, is even more baffling. Half music game, half art project, it is the brainchild of the Japanese artist Toshio Iwai, who has created the electronic-age equivalent of a music box. Weird anthropo morphic creatures such as fish, snowflakes and smiling Polo mints bob about against a candy-bright backdrop, generating their own tinkling melo dies as they move. There is no aim to Electroplankton apart from making strange melodies and wallowing in Iwai's peculiar aesthetic world, but it has attracted a cult following.
Of course, quirky games are nothing new. Japan in particular has a long tradition of underground hits that - though they never achieve the sales of their bloodthirsty rivals - have found a loyal fan base among discerning players. Who can forget Cambrian QTs, for which you care for a bunch of hot chicks who look like Cambrian-era sea creatures? Or the Korean Boong-Ga, Boong-Ga (translation: "Spank 'em, Spank 'em"), an arcade "bum-pinching" game where you thrust a plastic nozzle between a pair of fake buttocks and watch the face on screen writhe in agony? But small developers are arguing that, now more than ever, the industry needs to honour games that defy expectations. Although UK market turnover soared to a record £1.35bn last year, it is still barely keeping pace with the costs of producing blockbusters. With the average budget for a console game between £1.5m and £3m, publishers are wary of ideas that don't replicate a tested formula. It's a difficulty Tom Arundel of Introversion, the creators of the underground hit Darwinia, struggled with early on in his career. "The problem is, publishers take one look at your concept and think: 'That looks interesting, but is it mass market?' You know, they can sign that or David Beckham Soccer. Enough said."
In this case, Introversion's originality won through. Darwinia, the melancholy adventures of a race of digital beings trapped in a virtual universe, made in a student bedroom for a few thousand pounds, went on to generate £200,000, thanks largely to internet sales and word of mouth, enabling Arundel and friends to set up their own production studio. Ground-breaking games are supported by new internet sites such as Microsoft's Live Arcade, which allows producers to sell directly to the player. But for now, Margaret Robertson is happy to switch new gamers on to the weird and wonderful offerings already out there. "I want games that make me feel something I've never felt before," she says. "With other art forms the rules are so codified. Gaming is the ultimate blank sheet."
The Edge Awards ceremony takes place at the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival on 21 August. More info: www.eief.co.uk