Indiecade 2016: Top Picks
Wrapping up our coverage of IndieCade, the gaming staff would like to recognize a select set of games that stood out from the crowd. Whether by jumping outside the box, mastering their craft, or a combination of the two, each of the following are especially significant.
Best of Show
NIGHT IN THE WOODS
Although the title and marketing for NIGHT IN THE WOODS eludes to the sinister, it’s really about a more subtle kind of dread: You’re 20-something and trying to figure out your life. You play as Mae, a recent college dropout haunting her hometown of Possum Springs. As you progress through the narrative, exploring the town and meeting up with old friends, you’re struck by the feeling that something has changed here.
As an adventure game, the ability to navigate in an open world more-or-less missing a whole dimension is interesting. I’m curious to see how exploration will really function in Possum Springs. For now, I’m hooked by the writing choices and the dialogue; since that’s where the world really comes alive. The speech is confounding, character-specific, and frequently hilarious. Most comedic games focus on the absurd and outrageous — NIGHT IN THE WOODS employs actual wit to make the banal delightful.
Outside narrative choices, NIGHT IN THE WOODS emphasizes minigames in its design. In the demo, I practice with my band in a GUITAR HERO-y game, then messed around at the mall with a puzzle bobble influenced one. It’s only slightly tedious (which is the point) but the play is quick enough to stay fun and tied to character. At the mall, my successes make my friend laugh. This is smart, effective design, and seamlessly worked into the game thanks to its clearly defined aesthetic.
DIARIES OF A SPACEPORT JANITOR
All too often, a game will saddle your character with an epic quest, a world-ending objective, or some otherwise dramatic internal schism that must be overcome. It’s tropes like these that make DIARIES OF A SPACEPORT JANITOR all the more delightful. As an alien janitor in an intergalactic truckstop, there are no brooding deadlines, only an open playground you can approach at your own lackadaisical pace. Most of your days are spent burning garbage, taking hallucinogens, and praying to Beb, goddess of luck.
Your only guiding arrow is the faraway fantasy of moving offworld, but your immediate concerns all revolve around keeping your tummy full and your bills paid. Some trash can be eaten, some can be sold to build up your slush fund, but most is destined solely for the incinerator. Though your dreams tug you away from the planet, most of your interactions lead you to become familiar with many of the merchants, workers, and hucksters that surround you. The quirky tone is complimented by equally cute, PARAPPA THE RAPPER-style graphics.
Why is your pet so at ease when you’re miserable? What does it know that you don’t? For BLUE CAT, an emotionally evocative first-person exploration game, the only way to answer these questions is by embodying the feline perspective. At first, there’s a simple delight to this play. You chase mice, leap onto tables, and observe your human companion, Rose. The quick and light handle of your cat is viscerally enjoyable. But it’s not long until a harrowing story of depression and self-loathing begins to form, along with a clear, singular objective — how do I make Rose happy?
For that alone, BLUE CAT deserves your attention. While depression and anxiety are becoming a more visible subject with the rise of “empathy games,” helping people for reasons outside of a power trip is a tragically novel concept for the medium. Without any dialogue or guiding text, the game crafts a story with immediate stakes and resonance. After the silly fun of my first moves, I grew frustrated with my inability to help Rose. If I could just get her to step outside, maybe…
I should note that BLUE CAT is an unfinished game. At this stage, the janky graphics, overly-simplistic A.I., and maybe too abstract nature of its puzzle keep it from achieving the aspirations of its themes and conceptual design. Regardless, all these “flaws” still contribute to the emotional texture of the game. Depression doesn’t look pretty or behave the way you want. It’s not a puzzle you can easily solve.
THIS IS MY MEMORY OF FIRST HEARTBREAK, WHICH I CAN’T QUITE PIECE BACK TOGETHER
Best classified as an interactive memoir, THIS IS MY MEMORY OF FIRST HEARTBREAK, WHICH I CAN’T QUITE PIECE BACK TOGETHER does just what it says on the tin. If I wanted to be coy, I’d say it’s a game about remembering when you stood on the porch in the rain and got dumped. But it’s also accurate, in that the game is about the sensation of particular moments (the rain, the porch) within the mind. What do you remember of any given moment; a scent, a color, a hurtful word? The story involves exploring a relationship gone wrong through these select components of memory, each piece connected to another whole like a bridge.
Stylistically, it’s a hypertextual children’s book for adults. A gorgeously minimalist design evokes the watercolor, paper collage, and pencil scrawlings of children’s illustration. The subject, of course, is very adult. Playing means submerging yourself in the signs of nostalgia, and it’s impossible to go through without finding yourself conjuring whole scenes of the main relationship, maybe some from your own. The effect is contemplative and intimate. You feel irresistibly present. This quick little game packs a big punch, and the ten or so minutes it takes to complete will be well worth the quiet afternoon you’ll subsequently spend staring out the window, sighing wistfully.
RIOT: CIVIL UNREST
RIOT has been in development for about three years. Essentially a giant game of King of the Hill set in the most tense cities in the world, RIOT: CIVIL UNREST puts the player in control of either a mob of protesters or a line of riot cops. Protesters must keep the majority of their mob inside the city square as the riot police do their best to expel them. The developers are working hard to incorporate human psychology as fully as they can into the game. Each side has a variety of tools at their disposal, modified by public disposition towards each faction. For instance, if the riot police decide to respond with force, they can attack and arrest protesters, but the mob in turn has the ability to record police and broadcast the brutality to the media, or simply respond to violence with violence.
I was very interested in the game when I first heard about it, which was about three-ish years ago. In its current state, RIOT is very confusing and difficult to pick up. While it’s hectic nature is in line with its subject matter, it is still very much a project in development. The developers are very keen on giving players an accurate look into what it’s like for people who decide to protest their government, as well as what it’s like for officers on the front lines who have to walk a narrow line between maintaining order and avoiding gross human rights violations, all while protecting themselves. According to a fellow player who claimed he was a police officer in South Korea, it does a good job so far representing the conflict on both sides, and hopefully the gameplay itself will be fine-tuned shortly. [Steven]
SHAPE OF THE WORLD
This is developer Stu Maxwell’s first independent game, but you wouldn’t guess it from the demo. SHAPE OF THE WORLD is an exploration title that begins in the middle of a barren, grey plain. As the player begins to move around, however, features begin to emerge from the ground; a hill here, a row of trees there, and a glowing gateway on the horizon. Once the gate is entered, everything changes. The world is flooded with vibrant color, another layer is added to the hypnotic soundtrack, and a grand valley is carved in front of the player. And on the other side of the chasm, a new gate. Reach it and repeat the process.
The kicker with SHAPE OF THE WORLD is that while the map itself is predetermined, the generation of flora and fauna is entirely randomized. Maxwell explains that he wanted to strike a balance between a comfortable setting and an overall sense of bewilderment. Indeed, there were several times where I would find my path towards the next gate cut off by a recent outcropping that herded me to a different location in the world. Yet, SHAPE OF THE WORLD never frustrated, but rather let an atmosphere of mystique permeate it’s every corner. The complete lack of HUD, handholding, or threats mean that the player is allowed to learn the secrets of their world at their own pace, a breath of fresh air in a genre full of on-rails experiences.
WEST OF LOATHING
I’ll just come right out and say that WEST OF LOATHING is the funniest game I’ve played in recent memory. As I sat, headphones clad, at developer Asymmetric’s booth, I was distinctly aware that I was laughing like an idiot for the entirety of the demo for their upcoming cowboy RPG. Everything from the absurdist dialogue to the simple-yet-smug animation apes not only the Wild West, but structure and mechanics of role playing games as well.
After generating a stick figure avatar and picking my class (snake oil salesman), I bade my family farewell and walked OUT WESTTM. I was then pretty much set loose on the populace, fighting bandits with snakes and using my natural talent of Hornswagglin’ to cheat local yokels out of their hard earned meat (which you would know, if you paid attention in history, was the common currency of the West).
From only the sample I played, it’s already clear that WEST OF LOATHING succeeds where MATT HAZARD and its ilk failed. This is parody in substance and style, without sacrificing the defining essentials that make a game fun.
DISC JAM — A ludicrous mix of tennis, ultimate frisbee, and GEARS OF WAR that never quits.
EARTHNIGHT — Endless runner meets SONIC THE HEDGEHOG. Wild premise with an even crazier aesthetic.
100FT ROBOT GOLF — Another crazy esport invented for the PS4. Guess what it entails. Review coming out soon!
DAYDREAM BLUE — A true VR sandbox where you and your robot pal can chill in the backwoods.
MANIFOLD GARDEN — PORTAL if it was made by MC Escher.Trippy visuals complement a truly bizarre take in physics.