In years past, E3 was usually a show where I focused on the big dogs: the Microsofts, the Sonys, the Activisions, but with the rise of crowdfunding and my growing distaste for the gaming zeitgeist’s lack of innovation, I made sure to spend plenty of time with the indie developers of this year’s show. Of course, the small-timers and oddities of E3 used to take up an entire hall at the Los Angeles Convention Center (Remember Kentia!) but are now a Battlestar Galactica-esque convoy of dreams and wishes. That didn’t deter me, though! Here are just a few of my favorites.
“I want to try out indie stuff, I want to try out Oculus stuff,” I said. “Well, do you want to play our game, then,” said Robin Arnott, developer of sensory-overload theater SoundSelf. Shy a dynamically-generated Boards of Canada soundtrack, it’s the perfect companion to your post-work wind down. Arnott says he was originally developing it for traditional monitors, but as soon as the Oculus Rift landed, he knew he had a target platform. In retrospect, it’s hard to see this game without the Rift.
The experience was a little weird to start because there’s no head-tracking in this experience; your view is fixed on an unnameable object. With little more than the instruction to make tonal noises into the headset they were slapping on, it was me alone with the game. If you remember turn-of-the-century music visualizers, then this will feel right at home, but you interact with the entity by making oohs and aahs, which then get recycled by the game. As your pitch gets higher, the it starts to warble and vibrate. As it slows down, or you slow down, it slows down. You could probably spend a whole afternoon humming into this game and not know it. Arnott explained that this was a tool for transcendence and that there wouldn’t be any game that emerged from it. Certainly more to it, but not a game. SoundSelf isn’t for conquering and winning cheevos for, it’s about being conquered, letting SoundSelf take dominion over you. He’s not sure where that will lead him, but after a recent Kickstarter, he’s got seven months of development time to figure it out.
When I saw this game was on display, with creator Ryan Green in tow, I was surprised. Reading Jenn Frank’s heart-melting article about the game several months ago, a loud venue like the LACC’s South Hall seemed like the worst possible theater for this kind of emotional experience. Talking with Green and then donning the headphones, I didn’t play That Dragon, Cancer with the intent of shedding a tear, but in embracing its very intimate story, I did anyway. The game affected me in a way that other games never could.
In the conventional sense, That Dragon, Cancer plays like an adventure game. Entirely mouse-driven, you click on points of attention and walk to various stations in this ICU room. In real life, Green’s son Joel has been battling terminal cancer for years; in the game, we see their relationship distilled to a poetic, interactive experience draped in simple graphics. Green’s provides the soft-spoken poetic narrative of a man under stress, doing his best to provide for his son but ultimately being able to solve Joel’s most pressing issue: a haunting sickness that simply won’t go away. As Joel cries, you feel helpless to assist, like I imagine Green does as the chemotherapy does its harsh work. This is a game about hope, about hanging in there and finding the victories in the bleakest situations.
That Dragon, Cancer was my pick for E3’s best Indie game and I stand by that. Rarely do games make you feel something so unique like developers Green and Larson have built.
Up for some puzzles? C3 caught my eye largely because of its sci-fi themed gunmetal spaces, but kept me on for its interesting puzzles. Assembled as an ongoing project from the team’s project days at Full Sail, you play a robot on a journey from chamber to chamber. In each cube, are spires of light with colored cubes knotted on them. Left or right-click on them and the entire chamber twists. If you happen to be on one of the level’s stationary platforms, you can avoid the turbulence and have a better shot of re-aligning the level to reach the exit. The first chamber showed level-twisting on one axis, but things certainly got challenging as the number racked up. If you’re up for some head-scratching action, here ya go!
The world needs more cute Roguelikes from adorable husband-and-wife game developer duos, amirite? With a few retro controllers (although you can use any multitude of controlling devices that you’d like) and preferably with a few friends in tow, you can co-op your way deeper and deeper into this pseudo-2D dungeon, hacking and slashing along the way. Levels are procedurally generated (as they should be), as are the potion penalties and benefits. Drink a green potion once and it becomes, say, health for the rest of the game. Play again and it’s something else entirely. While we were only able to scratch the surface of an incredibly deep dungeon (some 50-plus layers), we got to experience life and death, the latter turning you into a disembodied glowing orb where you can suck up the souls of slain enemies in a bid to return to the mortal coil. We got about five layers deep and didn’t get to see much in the way of scenery, but if you’re dying for a simple Castle Crashers/Gauntlet-style co-op bash, this was incredible fun.
I enjoy dual-stick shooters, so being lured by the Lazy Penguin team from Bringham Young’s E3 competition-winning team was an easy call. Thematically, it couldn’t be older school: you play as a fairy tale witch out to… I don’t know, cause havoc? Murder bunnies? Murder lots and lots of furry woodland creatures? Well, that’s what you do here, all set ironically (or rather, more ironically) against fuzzy Ragtime diddies. The action is smooth and fast, weapon upgrades are hefty and while I only made it through three of the chapter’s five bosses before they did me in, I was having a fun time. One wrinkle in the formula, something that will change from chapter to chapter, the team says, was the ability to quickly teleport out of the way of most anything, which turned what would’ve been a series of inevitable deaths into a kind of ballet. When I chatted with the team, they said that publishers had already come through and made offers to buy their game, but I have no doubt they could make something a bit more out of it, make it a truly rare gem.