Last Wednesday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Electronic Entertainment Expo to check out the new video games coming out this year. Okay, it wasn’t much of a pilgrimage; it was just a short subway ride from my work to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which has been the home to E3 almost every year since the trade show debuted in 1995. However, unlike many trips, it’s the destination and not the journey that matters, for E3 is like the video game industry Mecca, where publishers show off their upcoming releases to retailers and the gaming press.
Except that there seemed like a lot more elbow room in Mecca this year. Activision, Electronic Arts, and Wargaming were all no-shows this year, as was Disney, which is (once again) dropping out of video game publishing entirely. Whereas in previous years South Hall was jam-packed with ginormous booths numbing crowds with sensory overload, this year there were a lot of lounge area and recharging stations in the back of the hall. The reason: retail sales are losing their significance in an era of digital downloads, and there are now many more outlets for promoting games that through the gaming press.
For the publishers that did show up for the party, the games that they were promoting indicated that they were living in glory days of the past: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Halo 2, Killer Instinct Season 3, Gears of War 4, Elder Scrolls 5, Civilization 6, Resident Evil 7, and Final Fantasy 15. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some more Civilization and Deus Ex, but I would have liked to have seen something new at the show. The closest the AAA publishers had to anything innovative was in slapping virtual reality onto titles: Batman Arkham VR, Doom VR, Fallout VR Resident Evil VII Biohazard, Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission, and perhaps the best of the bunch, Star Trek: Bridge Crew VR. Now, these are all good indicators that consumer virtual reality will eventually go mainstream, but there was still no killer app that convinced me that I gotta have VR today.
Truth be told, I found the most interesting games not in the multi-million dollar AAA publisher booths, but in the modest IndieCade exhibit. Here are a few of the games that captured my imagination.
Beautiful Corner is indeed both beautiful and in a corner:the entire game played out in a small, fantastical bedroom. t has a set, and lights and sounds that react to the player’s progress. Two interactive puzzles are used to convey the narrative,a coming-of-age story that plays out through letters, trinkets and postcards from the player’s imaginary friend. It’s moving and sweet, while commenting on the realities of growing up (or not).
The player assumes the identity of a specific character, and is given costuming and props. The player enters the set and explores both puzzles to see how the puzzles relates to the character they are playing. As the player plays through the two puzzles, the set reacts to their progress by lighting and music changes. The experience ends with the player being asked to make a narrative choice on the outcome of the story. After choosing, the player experiences one of two possible endings
Lead designer and artist Martzi Campos created the game as her Master’s thesis in the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Design track. Her goal was to create an emotional tone in an interactive space of something besides fear or panic. By creating a single player experience, Campos’ hope was to bring about a higher degree of roleplaying opportunities for the player, bridging the emotional tones of interactive theater with the gameplay of escape rooms and creating a hybrid that sets players up as the main character in their own interactive play.
Speaking of escape rooms, I was once hired to write an escape room scenario, and ever since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of creating an escape room in a box that could be sold in retailed stores, like those murder mystery party games. Well, as they say in this business, ideas are a dime a dozen but implementation is everything, and two women beat me to making the idea into a reality.
Ariel Rubin and Juliana Patel are the co-creators of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, a tabletop gaming experience that crams together all the fun and social interaction of a party game, the event nature of a consumable game and the cooperative spirit and dramatic timed challenges of an escape room. You have 19 puzzles, 3 locks, and 1 hour to save your life! Doc Gnaw has sent you a mysterious box. When you open it, you release a poisonous vapor and need to solve her devious puzzles to unlock the antidote, or you will be forced to join her werewolf army. Unlike boxed “murder mystery” games, Escape Room In A Box consists us to try to capture the physical nature of escape rooms and not have our game consists not of not just pen and paper puzzles but also diverse materials and hidden objects to capture the physical experience of real-life escape rooms.
This game grew out of the duo’s deep passion for escape rooms and at home game nights and their desire to bring them together in a completely new way. Their initial plan is to sell their game at a real-life escape room locations, so that players have an opportunity to bring their experience home with them to play with their friends. I just hope some smart retailers who appreciate the growing escape room craze will offer to carry this product on their shelves, because I would be just one of the first to buy one.
You can learn more here: http://www.escaperoominabox.com/.
A tabletop game can be a lot of fun, but how about a thousand? PlayTable is a tabletop console system designed to let you play any number of board and card games without fiddling with rulebook and hour-long set-ups. The system consists of a full-HD 1920x1080p monitor that’s impact-resistant and waterproof, software compatible with any Windows-based laptop (future compatibility with Mac and iOS), and a set of standard pieces, cards and stickers. The system also comes with a recommendation engine allowing you out new games and find the perfect one for game night. It even includes a construction kit allowing you to make your own games using your existing game and toy pieces such as Infinity, Skylanders, and Amiibo figurines. However, at $599, the price of admission is steep.
You can find out more at http://playtable.xyz/.
Magic Dance Mirror is an interactive visual music and dance experience created by game developer Kinetic Magic, a seven-person team assembled by Game Director Kyle Ruddick. It uses a Kinect motion sensor to track player’s movement and create a stylized mirror image of those using it onto a giant screen filled with neon starbursts that reacted to their dancing.
The concept was inspired by Burning Man and the immersive art there.The goal is to primarily explore and let players’ own movements and sounds entertain them and spectators. The Magic Dance Mirror is designed to be fun for all ages and promote exercise and healthy self-expression. Not a typical game in tat there is no way to “win” or “lose”, Magic Dance Mirror was built for clubs or large parties, but thankfully not to the home living room, where my spastic attempts at dancing would result in all my furniture being trashed.
You can learn more here: http://www.magicdancemirror.com/.
From time to time I get on my soap box and talk about the need for more female game developers, and so I was really pleased to come across an exhibit for the book #Feminism: A Nano Game Anthology. Written by feminists from eleven different countries, #Feminism offers bite-sized takes on contemporary feminist issues. Each of the 34 analog nano-games (games that can be played in less than an hour, explained exhibitor Whitney “Strix” Beltrán) in this collection requires between three and five participants, and simple (if any) props.
The games range from silly to serious, including scenarios about selfies and rom-coms as well as reproductive rights and domestic violence. And of course, enjoyment has no ideological boundaries–there are games here for participants new to feminism as well as those experienced in making gender arguments on the internet. The book is available for sale via Indie Press Revolution.
You can learn more at https://feministnanogames.wordpress.com/.
Virtual reality was as popular among the indie games as they were with the AAA games, but the experience that most captured my imagination was not a game at all. The Zeiss booth featured a pair of their VR One Plus virtual reality headsets controlling and receiving camera images from drone suspended from above. The headset could only control the camera (you would need a second person to control the drone’s flight), but with the very lightweight headset (essentially a pair of lenses on which you mount a smartphone running the virtual reality software) and heads-up display, I felt like Iron Man flying above the South Hall exhibits.
You can find out more at http://vrone.us/flyfpv.
Maybe the reason I didn’t describe too many video games is that it’s a sign the E3 organizers need to rethink what their show is all about. Fun is fun no matter how you get it, and in a year when doing the same ole, same ole just isn’t cutting it, I’m tipping my hat to the innovators who are thinking outside the console box.
When I was a kid, I loved going trick-or-treating on Halloween: dressing up in costume, going from house to house, and filling my bag up with treats. I was crushed when, as a highschooler, I went to one house where I was told, “Aren’t you a little old for this?” and I realized it was all over. Fortunately, one is never too old for video games, and on the weekend before Halloween, I went from booth to booth at IndieCade, where I was able to indulge my sweet tooth for all things interactive.
The IndieCade Festival, or The International Festival of Independent Games, is a yearly event, held in Culver City, California since 2009, featuring indie games from around the world, an annual award show celebrating 12 different innovation award categories, and a three-day conference including a professional conference track, business networking, social activities, tournaments and entertainment, as well as fun programs for the entire family. The Festival is not just a celebration of indie games, its creators and the innovation within the industry. It also curates and recognizes those that the organizers identify as the top indie games of the year. More than 200 games of all types are selected by the Festival Jury and were made available to play.
One of the games I played was an IndieCade finalist called 60 Seconds!, created by Polish game developer Robot Gentleman Studios, who describes the game as “a dark comedy atomic adventure of scavenge and survival.” The premise is that the government’s early wanting systems gives you just 60 seconds to take cover in the fallout shelter under your house. During that one minute, you must make a mad rush through your procedurally generated house to gather all the supplies you need to survive. The decisions you make in the first 60 seconds will determine how the rest of the game will play out. How many days will you last? Will there be enough to eat? Can you risk going outside. It’s an interesting twist, front-loading many of the player’s decisions. It was a fun game to try out, but I have to admit… I was even more intrigued by the game developer’s hat.
Another game I played was just the thing to get me in the Halloween spirit. Nevermind is a biofeedback-enhanced adventure horror game that takes you into the dark and twisted world of the subconscious. As you explore surreal labyrinths and solve the puzzles of the mind, a biofeedback sensor attached to your ear monitors how scared or stressed you become moment-to-moment. If you let your fears get the best of you, the game will become harder. If you’re able to calm yourself in the face of terror, the game will be more forgiving. The game started as a 2012 MFA thesis project at USC’s Interactive Media Program, led by game developer Erin Reynolds, who returned to academia to pursue new ways to create “positive” games for traditional gaming audiences. After an academic year, Erin and the Nevermind student development team were able to create one fully-functional level—a proof of concept that demonstrated Nevermind’s unique vision and the feasibility of the core technology. The game is now available on Steam for Windows and Mac.
Virtual reality had a big presence at IndieCade this year, with about a quarter of the booths having virtual reality headsets. One that I played was Xing: The Land Beyond, a first-person puzzle adventure game. Players find themselves on a mysterious floating island, in an afterlife where they must uncover secrets as to who they are and why they are there. Gameplay involves exploration, solving environment-based puzzles and gaining/using powers such as rain and snow to progress through levels. Developer White Lotus Interactive began the game in 2013 as a Kickstarter project and hope to launch it next year. Developed using Unreal Engine 4, the game features 3-Denvironmental puzzles, an integrated day-night cycle, weather control, and a story told through poetry.
Another big presence at the show was advocacy for diversity in game development. The Gaming Is For Everyone pavilion housed tables for groups seeing gender and racial diversity in game development:
- Different Games Collective is a grassroots volunteer-run collaborative of a half-dozen core members, as well as an extended network of contributing members and a host of volunteer supporters that creates community resources and events such as game design workshops and lectures to support marginalized voices in DIY and independent games.
- Pixelles is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering more women to make and change games, founded by Tanya Short and Rebecca Cohen-Palacios. Pixelles organizes free monthly workshops, a mentorship program for aspiring women-in-games, game jams, socials and more.
- Fresh Out Of Tokens is a weekly podcast addressing issues of diversity, inclusion, intersectionality and feminism in gaming.
- The Code Liberation Foundation offers free development workshops in order to facilitate the creation of video game titles by women.
One interesting game I played in the Gaming For Everyone pavilion was one designed for players with sight impairment. Turning off the Screen‘s initiative is to take a closer look at accessibility in game design, development, and architecture in order to open games to an even bigger market. Turning off’s current project is adapting Fullbright’s debut game Gone Home to take a closer look how to modify existing games that have already been enjoyed by audiences in order to look at what goes into universal design.
Speaking of advocacy, a welcome sight for me at any industry event is the Extra Life booth. Extra Life is a charity organization of gamers doing what they do best to help sick and injured children at their chosen Children’s Miracle Network Hospital. Simply sign up, commit to play games for 24 hours from November 7, 2015 – November 8, 2015 (or any day of your choosing), and ask your family and friends to support your efforts! The money that you raise through Extra Life will go directly to your chosen Children’s Miracle Network Hospital as ‘unrestricted funds’. This means that the hospital decides where and how to spend the money to ensure the dollars you raise make the biggest impact in the lives of the kids they treat. For example, the money you raise will go to fund research and training, purchase life-saving equipment and pay for uncompensated care.
And that concludes my wrap-up of my Saturday afternoon at IndieCade. I came to see all the games, and left feeling impressed by the ingenuity and devotion of the independent game development comment and by all the advocacy groups that seek to turn games into a meaningful experience for people.