Visuals tend to get a bad rap in video games. It’s the “visuals don’t matter, gameplay matters” mantra that downplays the importance of visuals. Of course, such a mantra is only necessary in the face of decades of tech fetishism that promoted the fidelity of pixels and polygons over clarity, style, and artistic design. There are plenty of games in which the visuals are in part the point of the game.
Here’s three of them.
I’m not going to buy an Occulus Rift. I don’t see the point in it or what it would add to any experience. The downsides are well known, however. Still, since I don’t have access to any of this tech, IndieCade East seemed as good a time as any to check out what it could offer.
To that end, I tried out Vistics, a platformer in 3D by designer Scott Tongue, that utilizes the Occulus Rift or any VR headset really. First thing I noticed, the Occulus Rift is not built for anyone wearing glasses. I constantly had to readjust the headset, so it didn’t push my eyewear right into my eyeballs, while still trying to keep the screens within at the right position so everything stayed in focus.
The game itself is more of a tech demo showcasing the effect of playing in 3D with a VR set is than anything impressive in its own right. I can admit I understand what other see in the technology. One of the powers of video games is that of creating a sense of presence, allowing the player to feel like the action that they see on screen actually surrounds them. They feel like they are there. I won’t say Vistics amplified this feeling, but rather it gave it a new dimension. To see the next set of platforms in the game, I would have to turn my head to see them. That this type of camera control synced to my own head’s movements was a startlingly effective and powerful tool in bringing me into the neon lit, Tron inspired world of Vistics. It was also a little disorienting, but that disorientation passed after a little while.
A VR experience is an interesting concept, in which the visual spectacle is found in looking at the subject rather than centered around the subject itself. The power of the visuals wasn’t contained in the style of the platforms or avatar in the game, but rather in how I looked at them. The hype of 3D has always been that it is a technology that could make you feel like you could reach out and touch what is on a screen. That illusion never held for long, but here it is maintained for the length of the demo at least. Due to this heavy piece of technology on my head, I am made aware that my brain is interpreting actual space between the platforms. Between the wall in the distance and my ever moving avatar.
Still, the extra dimension of presence has not convinced me that the facial pain produced as a result of wearing the device is worth it.
A note to indie developers wanting to get noticed at an event such as IndieCade, art style is a great way to stand out. I saw Hue from across the room and made a bee line for it based on its art style alone.
Hue is another puzzle platformer with a twist. Here, the player can change the background color of the game based on a variety of options made available on a wheel. As a result, you can erase certain objects out of existence when the background color matches their color. Likewise, you can bring back these objects when you change the background color to something else. The demo resulted in a short series of box moving and jumping puzzles to show off the main mechanic. It’s basic enough, and like many puzzles platformers before, it seems fine in terms of its play. What stands out about Hue is the art style. The characters, buildings, and other major objects in the world are solid black with line designs that allow the background color through. The idea here is that the world is represented through the art of negative space. The holes left in a solid black allow color through, allowing these shapes to represent the details of the game’s world.
The developer of Hue said the art style was inspired by puppetry and old, wrought iron fences. You can see those influences in the specific exaggerated silhouettes on display and the intricacies of the line work in the game. The developer also explained that a story about characters that study the concept of color while all the other people in their world can only see in monochrome would be added in later in the development process.
But when talking about such a stylized game, it’s best to see it for yourself.
Thumper is what you would get if you crossed Rez with Wipeout. You play as a space beetle careening over a track to thumping techno music. It’s labeled a rhythm game. I don’t know how much of it is rhythm based, but I can definitely see anyone playing it entering a fugue-like state in response to the beat and that spectacular light show displayed by the game.
Every surface, including your space beetle, is a shiny, reflective surface. Enemies and the track glow with neon light against a dark abyss of the space beyond. All there is, is the track and what is on the track. Spectacle tends to get a bad rap, but here I think spectacle can hold up a game on it own. Staring in awe of the abstract, psychedelic splendor of Thumper is as legitimate an experience of play as anything else.
Thumper was made by musician Brian Gibson, who feels that music games feel real to some degree, and there is no weight to feeling the music itself. I love rhythm music games, but while Gibson couldn’t quite explain what he specifically meant by this, I got the feel of what he was saying. His best explanation was the game itself. The beetle has a weight behind it when it banks hard into a sharp turn, producing a sense of resistance against the track’s energy railing or when the beetle would hit a power boost on the track to hit a giant metal octopus on the track. Combined with a music style emphasizing base over beat, you could feel a certain sense of abstract power through this sense of “weight.”
In that regard, the visuals are especially necessary to the game. Thumper is about having the feeling of the music wash over the player. The visuals have to set the stage and allow the mind to enter that state while the game also produces the thumping of Thumper to have its full effect.
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The next post will be the last one on the games that I saw at IndieCade East. It’s time to party.
// Notes from the Road
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