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The Games of IndieCade: Part 1

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Wednesday, Feb 26, 2014
A Crimson Searchlight (Black Shore Games)
I don't know if any of these games are good. I don't know if any of these games are great. But there is something interesting in all of these games.

Last week while describing my experience of IndieCade East, I promised that I would go over a number of the games that caught my eye and my interest at the show. Well, here it is. There were multiple places that games were on display at the event. There was the Sony sponsored section where a number of displays showed off upcoming indie offerings, those coming soon to PlayStation platforms. This is where I got to try out Towerfall: Ascension, probably the only time that I’ll get to play it against four opponents. There were also several stations to show off student project from an NYU game design course.


The entirety of my list of games, though, comes from a section called Show and Tell. This was a space that on Saturday and Sunday where developers rotated out games that they had on display every four hours. I got to check out a lot of games that I both never would have heard of otherwise or that I just normally wouldn’t have had a chance to see at all. Some were destined for consoles, some for the PC, some for mobile devices and tablets, some for the table, and others really couldn’t be played outside of a dedicated event such as IndieCade.
  
I don’t know if any or all of these games are good. I refuse to evaluate most of them given the state that they are currently in. But I can promise that I found something interesting in each one.


A Crimson Searchlight


Created by a two man team,  its developer described A Crimson Searchlight as Blade Runner crossed with Gone Home. Such a comparison was made immediately apparent in the demo. The art style and basic premise of the story could be easily slid into Philip K. Dick’s fictional universe. You are a a member of the Department of Artificial and Robotics Control who is sent on missions to destroy robots from Mars disguised as humans. You do this not by fighting, but by setting down a device that will “erase” the target. However, you first have to discover if they are a robot disguised as a human or if they are simply a human with the type of inexplicable quirks that we all have. To figure this out, you have to rifle through the target’s belongings while they are out in Gone Home style.


In the demo, the player looks through a smallish two room apartment. In the apartment is a computer, an answering machine, a safe in the back of a closet, and a hidden key to open the apartment mailbox outside, an exterior strewn with pizza boxes and VHS cassettes of old movies. Thus, the game very much takes advantage of the strength of environmental storytelling.


The full release will feature multiple cases, all connected by a narrative through line, and certain details in will be altered during a playthrough depending on the player’s choices concerning who to “erase” and who to leave alone. The game will also not tell you if you are right or not. interpretation will be left up to the player.


The design and color choices are very basic. Likewise, it may not feature the intricate detail of Blade Runner as the textures are kept very basic, but it evokes a similar ethos. Small things like catching a glimpse of a flying car traffic jam out the window are brilliant touches to flesh out the world.


Incidentally, Dillon Rogers, the developer showing the game off, told me that Steve Gaynor, the lead behind Gone Home and Minerva’s Den, gave a talk at his school a few years back that altered his view on how to tell stories and his view on what could be done with environmental storytelling. Inspiration propagates.


Even the Ocean


The, again, two man development team, began with the idea of creating a traditional style and structured game, but wanted to pacify the typical video game space. They didn’t feel their previous game Anodyne, which is now available, succeeded. Even the Ocean is two games in one. “The Ocean” is a fantasy world with diverse landscapes and would probably be more recognizable as fitting into the traditional format of a video game. It takes its cues from the Metroidvania genre and Zelda‘s structure, alongside other the RPGs of that era. The game features an RPG-style world map, but when you enter an area, it becomes a sidescrolling platforming “dungeon”—for lack of a better word. And as in games like Zelda, it also features a gated open world structure. Instead of a life bar, what you have is an energy bar that you can charge with either light energy or dark energy. Different energies will give different abilities and immunities needed to progress through the levels. The bar has a slider to indicate how much energy you have, and it will be game over should the slider reach either end. Balance is the key


The other half of the game is “Even.” It is a slice-of-life, walk-and-interact exploration platforming hybrid in which you play as a woman in her 20s named Even. They didn’t show this part of the game, so I don’t know what it will consist of. Even the first part of the game, The Ocean, was shown off more as an alpha-state construction, featuring just basic forms that gave some sense of level design. I’ll admit most of my interest in the game is in how these two halves will interact with one another. The other part of my interest is in the promise of what the games will look like Some sliding overlays of the screen on which the game was played promised that the game may look gorgeous and are a testament to what can be accomplished with pixelated art. It’s not quite 16-bit, but it looks far more detailed than what could be accomplished back in the 16-bit era.


A book entitled Even Alive written by Jonathan Kittaka, the game’s writer and one of its designers, is a collection of vignettes and short stories that serve as a sort of prequel to the game. The book is now available on Amazon.


Kulak


I went to IndieCade East because I wanted to play tabletop games. I don’t have the opportunity, nor the access, to play interesting and recent tabletop games, and a convention like this is the perfect chance to do so. There were only three shown all weekend at Show and Tell. Kulak is one of those games.


Kulak is such a simple game that you can put it together yourself, and in fact, you can go read the rules online right now. As long as you have a number of 10-sided dice, beads or other counters, and a few sets of the four cards (slips of paper will do) you need, you can play this game on your own.


It is an asymmetrical game, pitting one player, the Baron, against the rest, the proletariat. It is best played with four to five people. It’s an extremely fun and fast paced game. It’s easy to see the basic political message embedded in the game. It’s called Kulak for crying out loud. And it was also interesting to see the play that emerges from people balancing their own interests against that of the group in contrast to the cases in which players goals become one and the same. With everyone looking at one another, it was more than once that a player would forgo their own interests and simply be nice to one of their fellow downtrodden citizens.


Apparently, the original intention was to create a game that would frustrate people, and while being betrayed for a Baron/Kulak victory is annoying, the game doesn’t last long enough for things to devolve into Diplomacy-style meltdowns. Still I enjoyed my time with it.


Interestingly, the devs had to write in a new rule while I was there to balance out a certain aspect of the game that they hadn’t considered beforehand. What happens when the Baron has a left over 9? The rule and an expansion of it made it into the PDF linked above.


Let There Be Life


This game was actually released while I was at IndieCade and is available now from the developer’s website. It was the winner of Edge Online‘s Get Into Games Challenge 2013, which had the theme of “do no harm.” If I had to describe it, I’d call it a tree building simulator. You are given parts of branches that you then attach to a trunk or to branches larger than the branch you currently have. You do have to balance out your placement of them and how much light can get through them to the flowers below.


This is the sort of peaceful, challenge deficient, arsty-farsty non-game that critics like me are accused of irresponsibly hyping. And I’ll cop to liking it. It was peaceful, an expression of artistic play through the act of building a tree.


Meriwether


I didn’t get to check out the game itself so much as have a really in depth conversation with the developers and others checking the game out. It’s an RPG based on the travels of Lewis & Clark that puts the player in the shoes of Meriwether Lewis. The devs went out of their way to research the topic and root the game in history, which is why the conversation went so in depth. This is a part of history that I was really into back in the day and even ended up doing a semester research paper on when I was in high school. I knew an absurd amount of minute details that I asked how they were going to represent.


I found that more interesting than how they were going to implement basic game elements like shooting for hunting and relationship/leadership stats. For instance, many of the NPCs along the journey are real people that will have significance in the the story along the famous route. Not all of them, of course, there will always be a need for red shirts as long as there is a player in charge. As for real people, York will be included in the game, which was the first question that I asked. The developers told me that they aren’t shying away from the reality that William Clark had a slave named York, who for all intents and purposes was treated as an equal on the expedition, but who was forced to return to his bonds upon their return. Through various story moments, this arc will be played through, and ultimately Clark will ask what to do about the “York situation” upon returning to Missouri. You can’t change history, merely put in your final say on the complex situation.


I also asked about various events that occurred during the trip, like the time that the two had to translate four languages to simply speak with the Shoshone Chief or the various incidents with grizzlies or the canoeing escape or the time that the Indians first met York. Some of the events made it in, some of the events will be representative of the history (but not in the exact same place), and some had to be left out.


About half of the game is about exploration, and the other half is played out through dialogue. And through all of it the morality of the explorers is a resource that needs to be balanced and managed. Party members will desert if things get too bad. It also is possible for a member to go MIA.


Meriwether begins with Lewis talking to Thomas Jefferson as he is briefed on his mission. This conversation will be expanded on in flashbacks as the game goes on. From that point forward, the game seeks to put you in the man’s shoes and travel the length of an unexplored continent. The player will have to make the tough choices that the two explorers did and negotiate with both the terrain and the tribes along the way. It is an educational game, but not one that wants to hit you over the head with facts. It wants you to understand the time by placing you in this world to live in and make mistakes in as only a video game can. The history fan in me is squealing with delight.


* * *


These are a few of the games that I looked at during IndieCade, and I’ll be back next week to talk about a few more.

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