If there’s one genre of game I don’t get to play really anywhere other than at IndieCade, it’s the party game. Party games are made for large groups of people, often for the sake of an audience of onlookers. They are games that emanate fun through the spectacle of their chaos. They are challenge and competition, and in the same breath, they are light and harmonious. Nothing is worse than when a party game becomes serious. In short, they are the perfect sort of game for a gathering of fun loving people at a small expo like IndieCade East.
Doubly so, because I can’t get together a large group of people at my house to play a party game. It takes a lot to get just a single friend to to drop by to play a co-op game. So these aren’t games whose experience I can bring home with me. Still, there is that expressionistic joy that comes from being able to play these types of games that is worth experiencing, even if it can’t be any time I want.
Extreme Exorcism is an arena, action, platformer battle game. Up to four players get dropped into one of ten rooms (of which there are five versions of each room in the game) in a haunted mansion, and then, they duke it out. Everyone can pick up a variety of different weapons in the room to fight each other with. The trick is that when a round is done, all the players that died get ghosts, which are phantasms representing their previous selves and that loop all the actions that you previously performed, every jump, every attack. That is, in addition to the player coming back and trying new things. The better that you do, the harder the time you are going to have, since all your opponents start getting ghosts also, which complicates the level.
To counter this chaos, there is an exorcism power, which when activated, will draw all ghosts within a radius to the character and get rid of them for good. These particular ghosts wont come back for the rest of the match. Win a predetermined number of rounds, and you win the match.
Rounds are quick in Extreme Exorcism. A round that goes on for a minute or more is a super long round. The idea is to keep things moving and never keep any one player out of the game for too long. That and it highlights the spectacle and chaos that party games are supposed to evoke. There are other play modes, like single player challenge mode or a co-op arcade mode, but the bread and butter of the game is in its deathmatch mode.
I got to sit down with the developers of Extreme Exorcism and try it out. I liked talking to them, but the game wasn’t clicking. I got to chat a bit about interesting questions of design and implementation, but the game itself was really just functional. Then two days later I got to see it on the big multi-player screen that Indiecade has going all weekend, and the game’s concept clicked within a few seconds. During the demo, it was just me trying out some challenges just to get the feel of the controls. On the huge screen, I got to see four players going at it to win a ten round match, resulting in the appropriate build up of chaos necessary to make the game work. With ghostly axes, shuriken, and fireballs all ricocheting around from the previous rounds, the presently living players did their best to dodge them while trying to get an advantage over the others. It was a colorful mess of particle effects, blurred characters, and moving level design. It is the exact kind of thing that makes you want to get off the couch and ask for a turn on one of the controllers. A delightful spectacle of chaos.
At last year’s IndieCade East, I enjoyed a super chaotic punk party game that encouraged you to hip check your neighbor. It was called Slam of the Arcade Age. You can read about in last year’s roundup. To a certain degree, Elbow Room reminds me of that game. It’s got a similar low-fi approach, which engenders a short and simple engagement with chaos rather than a long term experience intended to be played over and over with friends. Slam of the Arcade Age was originally made for a punk festival.
In Elbow Room, you get a group of people around a keyboard and each one chooses a key. Any key will do. Each key will be assigned a section of the circle. Then the circle on screen will spin like a record. When the needle is in your section of the circle, you have to click your key. Double clicking reverses the direction of the needle. Each click of any key will slightly speed up the needle. You can skip the easy portion of the game by mashing multiple times to get the needle going. If you miss a click or click when the needle is not in your segment of the circle, you take a hit. Three hits and you’re out.
It’s a really simple idea that can lead to all sorts of fantastical shenanigans. You’re never really angry about losing, as it’s almost invariably your own fault. Really whenever I lost, I was amused. Maybe it’s the fact everyone is so crammed in together that despite the chaos and despite losing, you still have to remain respectful. They aren’t on the other end of the couch. They’re right in your personal space, if you want to play. This physical component keeps Elbow Room light and fun. I can’t tell you how many rounds I played. I was always coming back for more simple fun.
I’m going to end on this game, the only one, as of now, to be coming to a major console. It’s a competitive multi-player game played on the couch and aimed at the PS4. You play as a starwhal, a narwhal amongst the stars and try to take out the other starwhals. You do this by poking their soft underbellies with your horn, while avoiding getting your soft underbelly poked by theirs. With each poke, you lose a heart. Lose all your hearts, and you’re out.
I bring this up because unlike the other two games, Starwhal is chaotic, not frantic. Tension builds around whether or not you hit or you won’t hit. Sometimes the game emphasizes this by slowing the action down on screen when a hit looks to be imminent. It speeds up again when either the horn misses or hits its target. Four starwhals going at one another makes for quite a tense engagement. It reminds me of the racing games that I played when I was young, and when taking tight turns, I tended to lean into those turns myself, as if my in-game avatar could sense my desire to make it. Starwhal builds that same sort of tension in me.
Starwhal is built to be a serious (or rather more serious than some of these other party games) entry in the multi-player gaming space. Yet, it still wants to keep that light tone of the other games and keep things fun. It’s bright, colorful, and most of all, completely ridiculous. You can change the headgear of your starwhal (I chose cat ears) before going into battle. Each starwhal is bright monochrome, yellow, or blue or purple or green or red. The background is suitably abstract and non-distracting. It’s all too unreal to take seriously for too long. Everyone I saw playing it always had a smile on their faces.
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Really that’s the key to a great party game. Being able to keep it light, fun, and easy. Party games are supposed to break the ice, not friendships. Letting chaos into the mix does this. So does keeping the rounds short and sweet, so losing isn’t too punishing in itself. The real experience is having fun in the company of others, not winning. That’s just a happy byproduct of play, should you win, and a reason to keep chugging and laughing if it’s someone else’s turn to feel victorious.
So concludes my look at the games that caught my eye at this year’s IndieCade East. I will make it back there next year if I can. I love this convention more than any other because I get to see and play games that I don’t get to see and play anywhere else.