e3 2014

Editor Discussion – The Indies Of E3 2014

by Matt Miller on Jun 14, 2014 at 09:00 AM

There were hundreds of games on display at this year’s E3, many of which were brand new triple-A titles being built by massive teams and budgets. But some of the most exciting projects on display were smaller indie titles. Several of the GI editors had opportunities to play and demo these projects, with an eye towards pointing the Game Informer community to some of the smaller independent games worth paying attention to in the coming months.

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Miller: Kato, I’m interested to get your perspective on the indie stuff. You hit up a slew of titles at pre-E3, but then you helped hold down our home base in Minneapolis during the actual show. What sort of perspective did you end up with about the indies that were here?

Kato: Well, first off, it’s a shame I didn’t go, because with so many indie games around, I would have liked to have seen more. Having said that, I’m struck by how many flavors there are. I mean, off the top of my head I can think of four or five games I liked, and they are all different from each other.

Miller: Tell me a favorite.

Kato: I was really taken by Darkest Dungeon (below). It’s a turn-based dungeon crawler that is all about making your life as a party of dungeon crawlers f-ing miserable. I’m not the best strategy guy out there, but the sheer breadth of things they thought up with to mess with you is astounding. Your party gets stressed out, there are buffs/de-buffs all over the place, and the combat system is pretty deep. I also really like the look and dialogue, too. 

Miller: Yeah, Darkest Dungeon looks rad. I’m a big Lovecraft fan, and that game seems to be tapping some of that aesthetic. I didn’t get a chance to see it during the show, but I’m glad to hear you liked it. How about you, Jeff? Any standouts?

Jeff M: I really liked Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime. It’s a charming little space game where you and a friend (or lover, I guess) pilot a circular ship around in space and try to rescue bunnies and fight enemies. 

Kato: What kind of terrible enemy feasts on space bunnies?

Jeff M: I don’t know. Space jerks, I guess. But the cool thing about the game is that you have to run between all of these consoles on the ship that control different functions, like the propulsion or turrets.

Miller: I also really liked Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime. Apropos to its name, like you said, it feels like a game that would be really fun to play with a friend or a spouse. 

Jeff M: Yeah, I think that’s the point, Though I wasn’t playing the demo with anyone and the A.I. filled in with a dog. You could simply bring up a reticle and select what part of the ship you wanted him to control, and he’d run over there. It seemed to work pretty well, though a human co-op partner would definitely be more fun.

Kato: Yelling at your friends sounds fun. “Do the thing with the thing over there! Push that button!”

Keep reading for more on games like Below.

Kato: What about you, Miller, what was one of your favorites?

Miller: A big surprise at Microsoft’s press conference was this strange little title called Ori and the Blind Forest (above). It was a strange selection – this game no one had heard of from a team no one had heard of, sandwiched between all these giant triple-A titles. But after I played it, I understood why Microsoft decided to highlight the game. Ori has this beautiful art style that seems, at least in part, inspired by Miyazaki animation; there are anthropomorphised fantasy animal creatures, beautiful forests, and a whimsical style. And that’s great! But what you can’t tell until you play it is that it’s this really challenging mix of precise platforming (think Super Meat Boy) with gear-gated Metroid-style exploration. I think it’s a coup for Microsoft, and a lot of people are going to get excited once they play it.

Kato: Speaking of Microsoft and beautiful looking games, Below by Capybara, which debuted last E3 for Xbox One and PC, so far is as cool as I hoped it would be. The game strikes that balance between stoking your curiosity, but leaving that edge of fear that makes you cautious. I crafted a little, killed and got killed. I had no idea where I was going, but it was just fun to explore, die, and explore some more.

Jeff M: Oh, I saw another one you would’ve loved, Kato – the new Walking Dead pinball table (below) from Zen Studios!

Kato: Holy crap! I nearly fell over when they announced that! Tell me everything! What kinds of decisions did you have to make in it?

Jeff M: Well, it’s a lot like Zen’s other tables; the main modes are each based on an episode of the first season of Telltale’s series. The one mode I managed to activate made me choose between saving Duck or that other dope. However, the coolest thing about it was that Telltale had the actual pinball table in their booth. It plays the PC version of the game on a horizontal widescreen television, and has a second screen to display the dot matrix screen. It made me want to buy one. 

Kato: When I heard that they’d have decisions in that table, I was instantly intrigued. And as much as I love Walking Dead and Zen Studios, I can’t say I was sure they’d be able to merge the series and pinball well, but it sounds like they have.

Jeff M: Yeah, the Zen Studios rep said they’re avoiding the bigger, depressing choices, because at the end of the day it’s still pinball and they want it to be fun. But it seems like another solid addition to the library.

Kato: Who said pinball wasn’t depressing? Cork just topped my Han Solo score, and it’s ruining my life.

Jeff M: Good point. I guess it depends on who you’re competing against.

Miller: Well, from one post-apocalyptic version to another – I am really blown away by what I’ve seen of Hyper Light Drifter (above) so far. It’s reminiscent of old-school Zelda in many ways, but set in this beautiful science fiction future. It has a tight action loop with the combat, with lots of cool different weapons and attacks. But I get the sense that the story and world development is also really interesting.

Kato: I played that briefly, and I was so bad at it that I apologized to the developer on the spot. I was probably abusing that game in ways they never intended. That being said, I liked it. It’s demanding, but with multiple different weapons slots, you should have a good arsenal at your disposal. It looks freakin’ gorgeous too! By the way, I asked about the story, and they said nothing. I’m intrigued!

Miller: Jeff, you were telling me about a really strange title that is part of the ID@Xbox program -- something about searching through memories?

Jeff M: Yeah, the game was called Get Even (below). It is an interesting concept – you play an amnesiac character who has to go back into his memories to figure out what happened to him. However, you can slow down the memories and investigate actions and change the outcomes. One example involved identifying a character who had been shot in the face. The player jumped into an earlier memory before the character was shot, then scanned his face with his phone. However, he also prevented the guy from getting shot, which unlocked new memories. One of the coolest things about the game, however, is that the indie developer has created a technology to scan real-world environments, so the textures and visuals look surprisingly detailed for an indie game.

Kato: Is the gameplay like an adventure game?

Jeff M: It was a mix of investigation and first-person shooting. The FPS segments looked a little rough, though there was one gun that allowed the player to shoot around corners, which was pretty cool.

Miller: Kato, one title that I had wanted to make time for, but that I couldn’t, was N++. Didn’t you get a chance to check that out?

Kato: I never played N+, but I remember Tim and Jeff M talking about it in the office. I played a bit of N++, and I can see why. It’s deadly but fun game, and I can’t figure out how they came up with so many levels and ways to kill you. Passive mines (that activate only after you pass them) and invisible ninjas are just two that I saw. I’m definitely getting it when it comes out.

Jeff M: Did the game have a level editor? I’m a sucker for games that let player create their own levels.

Kato: It does. I didn’t get to see or try it, however. I imagine killing myself with my own creation shouldn’t be too hard. Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns from developer Metanet Software were there, and they said they did all of the game’s levels themselves. They must be demented people to think of all those ways to kill the player! But they’re Canadian and really nice, too.

Click on for dragons and alien worlds!

Miller: One of my favorite things when wandering the show floor is coming across really surprising new titles I know nothing about, and that was my experience right before the end of the show, when I came across EarthNight at the Sony booth. It’s really fascinating. The developer, Cleaversoft, is taking the incredibly simple formula of those runner games you see on mobile all the time, and making this really gorgeous, crafted experience. You control one of two playable characters who live in outer space in the years after dragons take over the planet. One day, they get sick of it and jump out of their spaceship, and land on these long Asian-style dragons and begin running towards their heads. There are really interesting control mechanics as your character runs along from left to right, secret treasures on each level to track down, and an awesome chiptune soundtrack. When you get to the dragon’s head, you kill it, and then leap off to go further down through the atmosphere, until you land on another dragon. It is really charming.

Another title I wanted to track down at the show, but couldn’t find, was The Long Dark. Kato, I think you got to see that one too, right?

Kato: The demo I played was sort of chopped up in that you could start in different sections without any story context, but the sheer idea of brute survival in the cold wilderness is cool. It’s not a horror game, per se, but it sure is scary. Every step you take uses calories, so you’re walking around getting cold and tired and just looking for some refuge. I was exploring this ski area, but wasn’t sure exactly where I was going. I fought off a wolf and just in the nick of time made it to a lodge where I could sleep and eat. After about a day of game time (complete with night/day cycles, of course) I died because I could make a fire out in the snow!

Miller: I also remember you being pretty excited by Metrico.

Kato: Another game I wasn’t good at, but liked. It’s a puzzle game where your movements directly manipulate the level. Jumping may move a certain platform while moving forward does something else. It can be confusing, but the easiest thing to do when you’re stumped is simple start jumping in place and seeing what that does to the level. Hopefully I wasn’t so bad at it in front of the developer that he goes back and changes everything to accommodate people like me.

Miller: Well, one game I know a lot of us are very excited about is No Man’s Sky (below). That project is crazy ambitious. Jeff, you were in on that demo with me – what did you think?

Jeff M: I was seriously blown away by what Hello Games showed us tonight. I have been enthralled by No Man’s Sky since it was announced, but couldn’t see how such a small team was going to deliver on such an ambitious project. The demo today makes me think that the developer is run by mad geniuses, and they seem to have the talent to pull it off. The procedurally generated worlds are really stunning.

Kato: You know, this sounds weird coming from a gamer, but right now, I’m not even interested in No Man Sky’s gameplay per se. All I want to do is fly around and explore planets and see what crazy wildlife is out in that universe. Of course, I hope there’s plenty more to do, but they’ve already got me hooked with the base gameplay.

Miller: The head of the development team, Sean Murray, actually talked about this concept during the demo. He has become really interested in recent years in games like Minecraft that have less central single plotlines or mission structures, and are instead about the experience of exploration and discovery. He wants No Man’s Sky to have that quality, but I do think they’re putting in a lot of stuff to give you stuff to do, whether you’re into combat, or exploration, or mining, or whatever.

Kato: So are other people going to be able to fly in and mess up my stuff? I don’t like people messing with my stuff.

Miller: Yes and no. I asked him about that. Here’s the thing. Other people are going to be flying around out there in the universe, but they’re likely so separated from one another that you’ll very rarely run into one another. The game universe is kind of unfathomably big, all created through this insane procedural generation system. So you’re likely to be alone most of the time.

Kato: During that Sony demo of the game, I actually chuckled to myself when they were showing the worlds because I imagined a Mako from Mass Effect barreling over a cliff. Man, exploring the surface of planets better be more interesting than that.

Miller: Yeah, I would hope so. I think Hello Games is especially interested in emulating that feel of classic sci-fi movies and books, where you come across these truly alien worlds, and a big part of the fun is just marveling at what you’ve found. But at the same time, the deeper you go in towards the center of the galaxy, the more challenging things become.

Kato: Clearly, they’ve nailed the classic sci-fi thing visually.

Jeff M: And in tone as well – the idea of being on the fringe of civilization and going where no man has gone before strikes all of the nerdy sci-fi themes I love so much, and that frankly most sci-fi games miss. I don’t want to save the galaxy -- I just want to be the first person to discover something cool.

There are still a lot more indies to namecheck! Read on.

Miller: So, yeah, Sony’s indie line-up is pretty stellar.They also had Counterspy (above), which played really well. It’s this action/stealth hybrid with a highly stylized look. You control a Cold War-era spy, trying to halt two foolish superpowers who are both competing to send nukes that will blow up the moon (loosely based on an actual crazy plan America had at one point to send a nuke to the moon. Seriously.) In Counterspy, you move stealthily along in 2D, taking out enemies as you go, but when it’s time for gunplay, the entire perspective shifts into 3D for you to aim at enemies and bring them down. There’s a whole alarm mechanic that is really tense and exciting, and you’re going on missions all over the world.

Kato: How does the 3D look? Is the transition visually and gameplay-wise jarring?

Miller: No, it’s quite smooth. The game is pretty dependent on that switch working well, because it flips back and forth all the time, so I think the developers spent a lot of time trying to get it right.

Miller: We’ve discussed a bunch of indies, and we’ve really only scratched the surface of all the awesome stuff that was at the show. If we had more time, I’d bring up great titles like Axiom Verge, #IDARB, Road Not Taken, Jamestown, Oddworld, Galak-Z (above), or Fenix Rage, just to name a few among many. But those will have to wait for another time. II take it you both feel like the current slate of indies is pretty healthy, based on this show?

Kato: Absolutely. You know, I don’t care about what “indie” means or doesn’t mean. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just more games to add to the pot. And if these teams are getting to fulfill their visions and still get the support they need without having to be a massive enterprise, then that’s great. I hope the word “indie” doesn’t make people thing they’re getting something unfulfilled, because man – that definitely doesn’t look to be the case.

Miller: I totally agree. And it seems like the big console makers recognize that they need to keep pace with these teams and give them reasons and opportunities to go beyond simply PC or mobile releases. 

Jeff M: Yeah, I’m super encouraged that both Sony and Microsoft are courting indie developers so heavily now, and working with them to bring their games to consoles. We’ve seen some really great and novel ideas coming out of the indie space, and it’s wonderful that gamers won’t miss out on them just because they don’t own a PC.

Kato: Can I just say, too, that I’m a little bit of a graphics snob. I don’t really get into 8-bit-looking stuff (at least I don’t have this nostalgia about it), and to think that nowadays you can make a gorgeous, stylish-looking game with a small team is awesome. There are no corners you have to cut.

Miller: Yep. It’s a good time, both to be a gamer, and to be a developer willing to take a risk on bringing a new vision to life. Thanks for chatting, guys!