I'll be honest: E3's cavalcade of hyper-realistic graphics and high concept gaming, despite its exciting spectacle, left me with a bit of an empty spot inside. While there were certainly a few games that tickled my fancy, and I definitely succeeded in adding some titles to my wish list, the games industry seems more intent on cashing in on successful franchises than truly providing a unique and thoughtful experience. The assets and the settings may have changed, but core gameplay mechanics rarely venture into new territory. Perhaps there's nothing inherently wrong or disreputable about a company which sticks to its strengths and delivers a highly-polished version of yesterday's favorite games. But fun is all about learning, using one's cognitive skills to adapt and excel in novel environments, and frankly trying something a little new.
When I checked in at IndieCade, I was immediately introduced to a couple of fellows who formed a development team called Rad Dragon. Teddy Diefenbach walked me through the theme behind the Moonlighters, a game starring a team of actors and “hipcat entertainers” inspired by the Rat Pack of the mid '60s. When their popularity wanes due to the rise of Rock and Roll music, they find themselves out of work and looking for a quick buck. They agree to star in a heist movie, which gives them the idea to go out and perform a series of heists—for real, this time. The tutorial level plays out the filming of the movie, and uses the director's commands to guide you through the intricacies of each character's role in the scheme. Every character has a set of special skills, and your job is to assign them a fitting role, from distracting guards to picking locks. What struck me as interesting was how these disparate skills lent themselves to multiple roles, which became more or less useful given the context of each heist. Throughout my playthrough, the main character's voice filled me in on tips and bits of backstory which unified the different areas of play, all the way to the climactic confrontation with a casino boss. Even understanding that I was playing through a movie, the game's light, jazzy tone seemed genuine and stylish—a true tribute to the smooth entertainers of yesteryear.
When it was time to move on, I went to check out an iPad game called Coalesce. Developed by Jeremy Gibson, a professor of Game Design at USC, the game's objective was simply to unite multicolored floating molecules into larger units, until every color group of molecule had joined together into a massive floating orb. If you connect them with other colors, however, your molecules will split apart, and you'll have to start pulling them all together again. I must have spent thirty minutes just tapping away at Gibson's iPad as he helped me play, and just as we finished uniting all the particles, the view became larger and showed the ones we had just made to be one small part of an even larger array. Obstacles such as line-breaking barriers add difficulty and depth to the gameplay, but ultimately Coalesce typifies casual gaming. Without the pressure of something more competitive, this is a game I could see myself playing with a friend over coffee, just to pass time and have a little cooperative fun.
Then Ramiro Corbetta beckoned me over to play Hokra, which he described to me as a “minimalist sports game.” He explained that too many games nowadays dwell on the mechanics of shooting, and how to most effectively pepper your enemies with bullets, arrows, or even soccer balls. He intends for Hokra to be a meditation on cooperation and the mechanics of passing, with only a few green, purple, and black pixels to keep track of. After we snagged four players from the crowd milling about, a stranger and myself picked up our controllers and started directing our green pixels around the screen. The object is to pass and maneuver around the field to keep a tiny black pixel in our two green home squares, located in opposite corners of the screen. The whole time, Corbetta and another curious fellow attempted to thwart us as the purple pixels, sprinting to tackle us and take back possession of the black pixel. At first, the game moved somewhat slowly, as both teams individually tried to earn glory. Yet, as we went into our second, third, and even fourth games, we delved deeper into the strategy, and we started communicating out loud to each other. Every turnover was intense, with wild passes across the board keeping the pixel from resting in either goal for long. At the end, all of us were laughing and gushing about the grand experience we had just had... with only a few pixels to guide us. Hokra will suck you in, and it surprised me how intricate and emergent tactics could develop out of such a simple concept.
Next, I sat down to play Erin Robinson's creative 2D platformer, Gravity Ghost. Your task is to navigate levels of circular planets, using their gravity to orbit around the level, increasing your ghost trail and collecting stars along the way. While the version I played was only a working prototype, Robinson's animations were simple and colorful, and the gravity-based platforming provided an interesting challenge. Further into the demo, a crafting element emerged, making it possible to combine soil, seed, and water to create trees, a feature Robinson assured me would be expanded in the full game. At the end of her demo, Robinson led me to Scale, a game masterminded by her boyfriend, Steve Swink. He walked me through this puzzle platformer, in which objects could be grown or shrunk using a scaling ray. The environments rich with stark, solid colors reminiscent of an SNES game, made for some interesting puzzle solutions and ideas, from riding oversized cannonballs to scaling an orange to navigate a short obstacle track. I managed to break the game a few times, which prompted thoughtful looks from Swink, who explained that he was still tweaking the game to get it ready for release. However, even with the occasional strangeness, Scale played like the textbook definition of a sandbox game, and merely exploring the different aspects of its design was extremely fun. After the last level, Swink showed me a future feature he was working on in the game, whereby you grow and shrink the world itself to traverse obstacles.
Looking around for an unoccupied laptop, I eventually came to rest my fingers on the keys before Tickleplane. At first, I completely misunderstood the game, continuously getting shot down by a rival computerized plane. Fortunately, someone was kind enough to walk up and show me how to play. Instead of moving the plane with four directional keys, Tickleplane tasks you to use the whole keyboard, “tickling” the keys in the direction you wanted to go. This initially irked me, but soon I was diving and flipping through the air, bravely fighting off the enemy's blue plane. Properly manipulating the controls meant keeping my fingers in the correct typing position, and recovering from attacks involved typing short words on the fly before I hit the ground. Though there wasn't much more to the game than simply evading and shooting, each match felt like a bitter dogfight, with medals for different achievements (including, as it turns out, being really terrible at the game) awarded at the end.
To my left, I saw someone leave the laptop playing through A Mother's Inferno, a game about which I had heard mixed reviews. As a free game you can readily install from their website, this psychedelic adventure had earned notoriety as much for its mind-bending insanity as for its unorthodox visual style. As I put the headphones on and steeled my resolve, little did I suspect that no amount of preparation could have saved me the heart-throbbing terror that awaited me. While riding a train, a mother watches as her son is torn away from her by an unknown force, and must use only her hand and a shard of glass to defend herself. At first, the game just seems like a freaky technicolor acid trip, with dark colors bleeding together to create sinister environments that, while still part of the train, started departing from the norm in strange ways. As you continue down the terror train, the sounds start really getting to you. Combined with the loose, impressionistic visuals, you realize you are alone and helpless aboard a train traveling through... well, I don't know where. About halfway through the game, after defeating a creature which looked like some kind of demented cross between a glowing, disfigured torso and a shrieking bird of prey, the colors invert on you. Now your eyes, which had just recently adapted to the strobing, multicolored hell, now had to adjust to unnatural, eye-burning brightness. Everything starts to get blurry, and the train becomes something entirely different. As I receded from the game, the small gathering of representatives from the Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment turned to me, and one of them spoke up, “You're shaking, man!” I didn't even realize it, but in the middle of a crowded, well-lit convention hall, I had been reduced to quivering by the scenes I'd witnessed. Saying any more would spoil one of the most genuinely terrifying experiences of my gaming lifetime—just go find this game, download it, and be sure to turn off the lights and keep your headphones on.
After all that, I had to return home, braving the long 10-hour drive from LA to SLC. As I reflected on the time I spent in IndieCade, I realized that indie developers really were some of the hardest-working people in the industry. Their tireless efforts to provide fun, novel experiences with gameplay showed through the passion with which they described their projects, and the unique concepts underpinning their designs. I honestly look forward with more enthusiasm to some of the incomplete projects I'd seen at IndieCade than virtually any other game I'd seen during my entire E3 trip. While major developers will continue to push the boundaries of what is graphically or conceptually possible with the videogame medium, indie games are where the real action is at. And, as far as I'm concerned, for all their spectacle and luster, triple-a titles are still lightyears behind the innovations initiated by the indie scene.