Tag Archives: Indie Megabooth

An Indie Change

An Indie Change

Fun fact: there were more than 80 games at the Indie Megabooth at PAX Prime this year in Seattle. It was, needless to say, monstrous. There were four full alleys of booths spanning at least 30 or 40 yards, along with a back wall of even more developers, tables, TVs, and fans.

The kicker is that not even all of them could fit in there at once. If you went only one day, you would have missed out on more than a handful of games that only took one of the other days. The rotating lineup was the only way to cram all of those peppy, scrappy little games in there.

Yet it still felt like a bewildering flea market. Instead of formal lines and appointments going through PR reps, attendees clamored around tables and foldout tables, shifting and shambling around impossibly cramped quarters. Had PAX went on any longer, bartering would have started soon after.

Indie Megabooth at PAX East 2012

This is in stark contrast to just last year when you could still call the Megabooth an actual booth and not a Burning Man-esque roving city of small-time developers. Just one year ago and this was still a finely contained microcosm within an already diminutive subset of the entertainment industry (that is folks that go to video game shows).

Now we’re overflowing with indie games. Consumers don’t have the time to play every game that comes out already, but now that journalists don’t even have enough time to read every email that comes into their inbox about a new bite-sized product, the coverage has become an issue as well.

There was a time when I, even as an extremely inconsequential writer for a largely inconsequential website, could respond to every single email I got about previewing or reviewing another indie game. (Big retail games are somewhat covered by necessity since we’re not a strictly indie outlet.) I could tell them that yes, I would like to play this thing that they’ve been working on for the past year of their lives (it’s almost always an email straight from the devs) and that I would love to write something about it because this is something that deserves exposure.

Indie Megabooth at PAX Prime 2012

Now I get on mailing lists for studios that haven’t even put out a single game and employ less than three people. I have to go through PR to set up interviews and get assets. Don’t get me wrong; there are still a significant portion of those that handle it in-house, but the percentage of devs that have someone else handle it for them is growing. That’s certainly not a bad idea, mind you, especially if they’ve never done marketing before, but it certainly is a sign of the change in the winds.

The small is becoming the big. YouTubers used to make a killing on covering solely indie games because those were the sorts of developers that understood that YouTube exposure (or, more generally, gameplay footage that you don’t send for use in video features and the like) is the new hotness. It is where games coverage is eventually headed (says the guy writing a thousand words on the topic) and, whether through prescience or indifference, indies had long ago embraced YouTubers doing Let’s Plays and speedruns of their games.

And they, just like me, used to have enough time to do that for every—or at least mostly every—indie game they so desired. But the big guys are learning. After the debacle where Nintendo claimed monetization rights over Let’s Plays and whatnot, publishers began to learn what most traditional press are trying to repress: they are the future. Some even offer carte blanche rights to record footage and monetize on YouTube.

PewDiePie

Case in point: Arthur Gies of Polygon tweeted out that there’s a review event next month where there will be more YouTubers in attendance than traditional games media such as himself. Polygon itself, a heavily word-based outlet, has a large video component simply because they see the endgame as well: video. One of the reasons Giant Bomb succeeded was because of video (also because the original crew was so god damn lovable and unique).

So now we’ve got an overabundance of indie games trying to vie for the dwindling attention span of both the general public and the press. The one venue that they used to be able to rely on is currently on its way to earning “too big for them britches” status. This, no matter how you slice it, is a problem.

Valve saw it a while ago, another trophy to put in their case of Prescient Moves. Steam Greenlight was the answer to the flood of games, the deluge of titles that even they could not possibly regulate in any meaningful way. So they left it to the masses, the only entity that could possibly outnumber and out-muscle the growing number of indies.

Steam Greenlight

The result of that still remains to be seen, as does Steam Machines, SteamOS, controller, etc. But it certainly is indicative, if the other signs weren’t telling enough. If the largest digital distributor of games and one of the biggest developers in the world sees that something needs a solution, then maybe they’re right.

How do we thin out the herd? How do we decide what needs to be covered and what doesn’t? Many outlets long ago decided how to approach the incomprehensibly huge number of Kickstarter projects bombarding their inboxes. YouTubers—media who don’t have the traditional objectivity obligation of journalism—have a more relatable approach to the whole ordeal and much more efficient, but even they are getting outnumbered.

This could be the revitalization of the evaporating middle tier of video games. Or it could be the decimation of triple-A games. No one knows. And I don’t think I’ll be the one to figure it out with this full inbox of indie pitches. (And if you are an indie developer, please do feel free to email me about your game.)

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Contrast: A Study In Art Darko

Contrast

Walking into the sizable Indie Megabooth at this year’s PAX East, I both knew what to expect and knew that what I expected would likely be subverted. I knew Transistor would drum up a lot of floor buzz and its line would be damn near unfathomable in length. I knew the Double Fine/Capybara Games booth would make a big splash and feature a beardless Tim Schafer. But I didn’t know that an indie-er game would steal my heart.

I passed by what felt like a dozen times, never really giving it much thought. From the looping trailer that played on the TV, it looked an awful lot like the 2010 Wii game Lost in Shadow. Everything I saw was just a shadow running across other shadows, leaping gaps and hugging walls. As the convention began to wind down for the second day, though, I happened to walk by one more time and, for some reason or another, finally decided to give it a chance.

And boy am I glad I did.

Contrast

Contrast is a game four years in the making from a tiny studio out of Montreal (they run slim on just seven team members) that is about light, shadows, and a little eight-year-old girl named Didi. Set in the 1920s at the height of the Jazz Age and the burgeoning of Art Deco, Didi lives with her mother but spends most of her time with her best friend Dawn.

Dawn, however, isn’t real. To Dawn, though, none of us are real either. Compared to her tiny progenitor, Dawn is strong, capable, and older, but she’s also imaginary and only sees people of the real world either in shadows or not at all (save for Didi). Whereas Didi is young and innocent and unsure of the world, Dawn is mature, lascivious, and knowing enough to be wary of what lies ahead. The contrast is as strong as the light and dark that the game trades in.

Shadows are something of a specialty for Dawn in that she can merge into nearby walls at will, at which point she is in this alternate state of being where she can walk on and boost through shadows. This is the key point at which Contrast diverges from Lost in Shadow and other similar games: Dawn can be controlled both from a conventional, three-dimensional perspective and from a flat, two-dimensional scheme. As a corporeal form (as much as you can get when you’re imaginary, anyways), you can move light sources, collect luminaries (a hybrid collectible and in-game resource), and explore this strange, broken world.

Contrast

I say broken because the world that you explore as Dawn is obviously not the same one that Didi lives in. After a brief tutorial of how to go in and out of shadows, we break out into a wide open 1920s strip of nightlife. Not content with simply going through the motions and immediately following objectives, I wander a bit (to the point where the PR person thinks I’m lost) and quickly stumble upon the end of the world. I mean the literal end; the street bends and sags and snaps off into a void.

“Did you see that? Not many people see that,” says level designer Joshua Mills. “We want the game to open for interpretation, so some things that people want explained may not be explained.” Beyond certain vagaries of Dawn’s world, this could extend to the Shel Silverstein ending to the road or to the intricacies of the shadow world or Didi’s growing relationship with a fictional reality.

The first real puzzle presented to the player in the demo is admittedly from several hours into the game, but it gives a chance to introduce luminaries. Luminaries are little floating balls of light that are scattered about the level in limited quantities and, possibly, in hard-to-reach locations. The function as both a collectible (“1 of 9 luminaries collected,” the game says) and as a resource. They power anything that produces light and light is often the first step for solving a puzzle, puzzles that include illuminating a jazz band, untangling a tangled hot air balloon, and powering up a carousel.

Contrast

The first step for Compulsion Games, though, seems to be creating a whole bunch of content. Even in these small bits of the game that I played, I was blown away by how much stuff is in the game. Everything is voiced and each setting seems to be wholly visually distinct from every other area. And all of it is absolutely drenched in the 1920s. Dawn with her old timey acrobat getup, shadows with fedoras, and buildings with gilded architecture. But why the 1920s?

“I think it’s just personal preference,” said Mills. “When I started with Compulsion, we have a drive with a bunch of movies on it, and it’s like you have to watch these if you want to work here.” One of them was Dark City, the 1998 neo-noir film about a fella with amnesia who finds himself accused of murder. “A lot of the levels and stuff I designed is directly inspired by that.” Dawn, though, in particular seems to draw from a different well.

“Alice,” said Mills matter-of-factly. “All that stuff that American McGee does.” It becomes readily apparent when you compare Dawn and Alice from Alice: Madness Returns side-by-side as compatriots of a dark, twisted fantasy. But it’s also more than that. “Some of the camera techniques really inspired the way we handle some things.”

Contrast

That, especially, comes to the forefront when after a puzzle involving fixing spotlights, you are treated to an extended jazz performance. A sultry singer, a smoky sax, and lingering shots of shadows skewed against the sharp Deco angles of the stage. The camera follows from the edges of the ostentatious proscenium to a door as a man and a woman dart out into the side stage, though they appear as only shadows to us. Didi calls out to one and gives chase as Dawn follows. Possibly an estranged father figure and possibly not even real. Mills explained it to me thusly: “if somebody has an imaginary friend, the parent will play along but they still don’t believe.”

There are obviously holes in Didi’s life that we will hopefully see filled. Dawn is “only there because [Didi] needs you to be there,” and she is presented as an acrobat because Didi sees things as a “performance piece,” her imaginary counterpart a warped version of a Cirque du Soleil performer. And it all serves to explore what the player wants to fill in the gaps with.

Contrast

“Any good story allows somebody to feed their own input into it and that’s the way we want to keep it,” Mills said. “Everyone on the team has their own take on it, but it really is open for people to fill it in themselves.” And that seems to be the resonant theme of Contrast. Light fills in the dark of the shadows, Didi fills in the holes of her life, and we fill in the gaps with our interpretation. If nothing else, Contrast seems poised to push some buttons, tug some heartstrings, and, most importantly, ask some interesting question.

Look for Contrast on Steam in the next two months.

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Why Not Guacamelee!

“So why can you turn into a chicken?”

“Why CAN’T you turn into a chicken?”

Though the response doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s very fitting of the world of Guacamelee!, an upcoming Metroidvania-style game about a luchador, alternate dimensions, and absurdity. In the time I spent playing the game and speaking with Drinkbox Studios designer Chris McQuinn (who said the chicken thing actually has some serious story implications), I gleamed two facts about Guacamelee!: it’s 100% silly, and it’s 100% worth your time.

As previously mentioned, you can turn into a chicken, but as you would expect due to the nature of luchadores and the title of the game, you also have a wide variety of melee moves at your disposal as you explore the world in search for El Presidente’s daughter. You are down-on-his-luck Mexican Juan Aguacate and you can punch, kick, dive roll, wall jump, air charge, and so much more to get around.

And as is true of Metroidvania games, not all of these abilities are unlocked right from the get-go. At one point in the demo, you are presented with two paths: upwards or through a door (opposite an entrepreneurial personal trainer, but we’ll get to him later). Upwards, however, is seemingly unreachable at this point. You can see the exit up top, but with the lack of any platforms along the way, you are left with two sheer walls and a very ornate door, so the door it is.

You eventually return to this room, but as a slightly more improved luchador than before. Taught to you by an old man that can turn into a goat (or is the other way around?), you learn the Goat Jump, which is basically a wall jump but presumably in reference to how mountain goats seemingly and effortlessly ascend near vertical cliffs. So you have an open world with progress cordoned-off by gaining additional abilities from currently accessible areas. Metroidvania? You bet. Only Metroidvania?

Not even close.

Remember those alternate dimensions I’d mentioned earlier? Well, they play a significant role in the game, too. Throughout the game, there are floating portals, black hole-ish things hanging around in the world. Whenever you touch one, the world flips into one of these alternate dimensions (such as The World of the Dead and The World of Nightmares, neither of which sound particularly pleasant to be in). These transitions will affect the existence and placement of traversal elements and environmental obstacles as well as enemy vulnerability. It happens in an instant and will require you react accordingly. If you think you can stop to catch your breath, you’re dead wrong.

You may start out by wall jumping across an open chasm, but you’ll pass through a portal, swapping in the fickle solidarity of another wall for abject emptiness and certain doom in the pit below. But then you’ll have to avoid another portal to get through to the other side that will allow you to fall through to your goal. It feels a bit like the water-freezing mechanic of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, which is a good thing considering that was one of my favorite parts.

They also add a nice wrinkle to the co-op play where the second player takes the place of an ostensibly female character named Tostada. If you don’t work together to time jumps together, you’ll quickly get out of sync and one of you will probably be cursing the other as you fall and die. Dying isn’t that big of an issue, though, as you’ll simply come up as a bubble à la New Super Mario Bros. Wii. You’ll float around until your partner can come around and pop you out of purgatory. I don’t know what happens if both of you get bubbled, though, as my newfound PAX buddy and I were not wanting for skill.

But the biggest thing Guacamelee! has going for it is that the game is just absolutely funny. Upon meeting a mostly ineffectual seductress, she eventually succumbs to being overt rather than subtle and even finds time to make a pun along the way. It’s hard enough to make a game entertaining but to create one that will have you outright laugh out loud is a feat in and of itself.

This is on top of, however, the fact that it is also a tight brawler. Things can get a bit hard to keep track of and you will occasionally feel overwhelmed at the fault of the game and not your skill, but the breadth of your abilities makes for some fun combat. You can punch and kick and whatnot, but you can also grapple with enemies and kick straight into the air for either additional juggling or heightened jumping capabilities. Rolling will get you out of sticky situations and past thorny walls. It feels a bit like Shank in the way that every move is short yet impactful but it is also much more about movement in combat than straight-up ravaging foes.

And either out of coincidence or homage, there is a portion of the demo that is similar to the Skulldozer level of the Mariachi-theme area of LittleBigPlanet where you are running away from a giant, stumbling, bumbling dragon-ish beast in a bit of forced scrolling platforming. You’ll beat up a few guys along the way, but by and large, the best way is to avoid them altogether and handily navigate your way to safety rather than punch your way through.

These aforementioned skills are things you can upgrade, too. That trainer in the room I mentioned before will trade skills for coins, improving your melee damage or health or whatever. It makes upgrading easy without the need to include experience points.

But Guacamelee! is also still very much under development. Just to the left of the trainer is a chest full of coins, enough, actually, to help you actually afford an upgrade. As I played, McQuinn said, “you know, it seems like it would be better for the chest to come first.” And you know what, he’s not wrong. That definitely would have helped understanding the trainer menu a bit better and removed an unnecessary instigation of trainer dialogue.

With that being the only qualm I have so far in my short 15 minutes with the game, I must say that I’m extremely looking forward to Guacamelee! It looks to be a more than capable side-scroller with the Metroidvania trappings that make me play and obsess over Metroidvania-style games; it’s genuinely funny; and it looks so incredibly charming.

Though playable since PAX East this year (and announced just the October before that), this is the first I’ve had with it and you know what? Everyone was right; Guacamelee! is pretty great. As I bring up that the only moderately recent luchador-themed games involved Saints Row 3 and that one pretty bad brawler for XBLA, McQuinn is sure to point out that they are trying to explore the lesser known parts of Mexican culture without poking fun at it, which seems that so far, they’ve done.

But still no word on that chicken. Look for Guacamelee! on PSN and PS Vita sometime next year.

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