Saturday, March 13, 2010

GDC Day Two: Indie Games

By Kirk Hamilton

Nothing so long and rambling from Friday's GDC, which is doubtless a good thing. I'm already exhausted by the conference, though in retrospect I guess it makes sense that sensory overload would be the product of a conference where sensory overload is, like, the whole point.

Next year, with some planning, I'll be better prepared, and be able to attend more of the sessions I'd want to see. In the meantime, I'll have to just follow most of them on Gamasutra, or via folks' tweets. Speaking of which, there seems to be a growing trend towards live-tweeting during peoples' presentations, usually with increasing frustration or disgust. Kinda dispiriting to read, when you're missing the talk... for example, lots of folks seemed dispirited about Sid Meier's keynote address, but from what I read about it, it sounded pretty interesting.

Anyway, yesterday when I rolled into the convention center, I met up with David (now at the AMD booth, though yesterday he was at Intel. Playing both sides of the field!). After I complained a bit to him about how I wasn't yet sold on any of the stereoscopic 3D stuff I'd seen, he insisted that we check out MLB: The Show running on PS3 in 3D, and holy balls. It was so impressive... the game already looks great, but in 3D, it is honestly is like being on the field at an actual MLB game... we're talking eye-bleeding levels of sharpness.

After that, we checked out the IGF booth, which was easily the coolest part of the expo floor. All of the indie games were on display, and the designers are right there to answer any questions you might have for them. A round-up of the standouts, after the break.

One of the biggest pleasures of the IGF booth was meeting Krystian Majewski and getting to see his game, TRAUMA, in action. It's a really, really interesting looking creation, a sort of Myst-ish point-and-click adventure through the emotional and psychological experience of a woman who has survived a car accident, but lost her parents. It's beautiful and mysterious, and kind of unbelievably runs on Flash. I got to chat with Krystian a bit later on in the evening at the Brainysphere dinner, and he is a truly awesome dude - I can't wait to check out the finished product.

Another very impressive game on display was Limbo, one that I have a feeling everyone will be playing and talking about once it drops on XBLA. It's absolutely beautiful to look at, both in motion and in stills, and drenched in atmosphere both mysterious and foreboding. You play as a small boy, navigating a nightmarish world that is almost entirely silhouettes, looking for your lost sister. What stands out is how simple the controls are, how tricksy the puzzles seemed to be, and how brutal it turns when you mess up. I watched a guy try to line up a bear trap with the legs of a monstrous spider, and when he misjudged the reach of one of the legs... well, let's just say he totally died. Hard.

Dreamside Maroon is a groovy abstract game made by a four-person team.  In it, players navigate upwards by growing a vine towards the moon - it's got a beautiful look (fireflies abound) and some really nice music, too- kind of hard to describe, but sort of like roller-coaster tycoon meets pipe dream meets... um... oh, hell, just check out the video on their page.

Also very compelling indie was Devil's Tuning Fork, a free-to-play student game from DePaul University. In it, players use sound to navigate a series of challenges, sending out bat-like sonar pulses that line up with the game's music. Right up my alley, and super interesting, from a design standpoint. One more reason for me to get a PC, I guess.

Another standout was the incredibly charming Owlboy, a 2D platformer that's out on Windows and XBLA.  It was built by the six-person team at D-pad games, and has got really great sprite design and super-endearing characters - the whole thing looks like a spruicer version of the old side-scrolling PC games of the early 90's. Really recommend checking this one out.

The slickest-looking indie game on display pretty much had to be Heroes of Newerth, which you can play online in Beta right now. It's made by S2Games, and almost feels non-indie, it's so polished. Which is a weird thing to say. Anyway, I didn't get a chance to play this one, but from the look of the kid at the station, slamming out keyboard combinations and mouse clicks at a machine-gun pace, the game already has a pretty big following.

When held up against the endless corporate push of so much of the convention, the imagination and enthusiasm at the IGF booth was a really welcome change. And compared to the endless demos of lighting tech and animation models,or  the countless computers running various versions of the unreal engine or Call of Duty, the look and vibe of the IGF games were really refreshing.

The day wrapped at the G.A.N.G. awards, where I ran into Peter (the drummer from my first rock band Squaretape) and the rest of his crew from Guitar Hero: Van Halen. I only got to stay for a bit, but it was long enough to see Flower win for outstanding interactive score, which was totally right on. I adored the way that game incorporated the music into the gameplay.

I had to run out of the awards and over to meet up with Michael Abbott and about two dozen of the finest boggers/writers on the internet, for what Chris Dahlen dubbed "The Brainysphere Dinner." I don't really know what to say about it... it was totally amazing, and surreal to meet all of these folks whose writing and work I so admire, to shake the hand of about 75% of Gamer Melodico's "Recommended Reading" tab.

Highlights included getting to listen in on Chris Remo's incredibly informed take on all sorts of things, chatting with Krystian and his S.O. Veronica about the process of making Trauma (and how much feedback she had to give!), finally getting to meet Chris, Jamin, and Ryan Kuo, a.k.a. the guys behind the super-cool Kill Screen... meeting Steve Gaynor, Jason Killingsworth from Paste, chatting for a too-brief bit with Michael himself... plus everyone from the thursday burrito summit... wow. I felt so lucky and welcomed by such an amazing group of people. Guys, if you're out there, it was a pleasure.

And that's that!  I'll head down again today, just to check out the IASIG Town Hall meeting, get a final gander at what's going on, and say goodbye to the conference until next year. And mark my words: when the GM crew comes to GDC in 2011, we shall be ready. None of this "We-just-started-our-site-three-months-ago" mess, oh no. I hereby pledge to be only moderately unprepared and slightly overwhelmed.

Also, we'll get some better business cards by then, because JFC. Not to go all Patrick Bateman or anything, but some of the cards I've seen here aren't just cooler than my own card, they're cooler than I am.

"Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. 
Oh my God, it even has a watermark"


The Tetchy Snail said...

Nice write up, I've enjoyed your take on the GDC. Meier's talk did sound interesting, but I've not been able to find any detailed write ups; annoying.

Anyway, imho, the independent games scene is a very strong argument for having a pc that's moderately capable. I love the big AAA stuff as much as the next person, but the ideas and creativity found in the indies is astonishing, and the lack of gatekeepers in the pc market, while allowing plenty of dross, also allows for projects such as Devil's Tuning Fork. This expanding of the medium stuff should be right up your alley. I've been following Trauma with bated breath since it's announcement. I know nothing of Krystian Majewski beyond his often interesting write ups on game design reviews but this has looked fascinating from the start.

Also, 'moderately underprepared and slightly overwhelmed'? That's the kind of pledge I can get behind.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Glad you enjoyed these posts! There was so much to take in, next year I'll have to practice my shorthand note-taking. My notebook looks like it got hijacked by an excitable koala or something.

Krystian is the man - a super nice dude, and a real artist about his work. And yeah, his writing online is great - that analysis/takedown he wrote about the Mass Effect interface was one of the best pieces of design criticism I've ever read.