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gdc 2015

The Very Best Indie Games Of GDC 2015

by Tim Turi on Mar 06, 2015 at 04:20 PM

Update: We continue looking at the greatest indie games of GDC 2015 with Push Me Pull You, Super Slam Dunk Touchdown, and more.

The Game Developers Conference in San Francisco is a mecca for intelligent talk about triple-A game design, but it also hosts a huge assortment of indie games. We've got boots on the ground at GDC 2015 and controllers in our hands, playing and vetting through dozens of upcoming indie games to let you know what's worth getting excited for. Check out our evolving, expanding list of the best indie gems from GDC 2015.

This story includes contributions from the GDC 2015 crew, including Jeff Cork, Kim Wallace, Matt Bertz, and me (Tim Turi)

Megaton Rainfall
Developer: Pentadimensional Games
Platform: PC
Release: 2015

Megaton Rainfall caught my eye the first time I saw it in the Indie Megabooth. It's a first-person superhero game, where you fly around the world and fight robotic aliens. As someone who may or may not have spent his formative years running around his house with a towel clothespinned to his shirt, I was immediately sold on the concept. I waited to play the until an Oculus Rift was connected to the PC, and it was worth it. It looked interesting displayed on a monitor, but the sensation of flight that comes via the VR headset ratcheted it up several notches. The demo was fairly simple – waves of enemies came from a saucer-shaped mothership, and I had to intercept and destroy them before they wrecked the city. I zipped around and fired energy beams at them, and quickly learned that I was just as much of a menace as the robots. My first errant shots tore apart skyscrapers and blew up cars on the street. Try as I might, I couldn't fly faster than the speed of guilt. Lesson learned. From then on, I got better at pinpointing my shots with subtle head movements. Aliens' weak spots were helpfully marked with red lights, and they came in a variety of tricky forms. One looked like a dumbbell, and had a series of panels that fanned out like petals in a flower. I only had seconds to hit the red panels, a tricky feat considering they were spinning around behind shield panels. The battle culminated with a fight against the mothership itself. After I destroyed it from below, I celebrated by knocking down a few buildings, standing in traffic, and sending cars flying. Even good guys need to blow off steam sometimes. – Jeff Cork

Through the Woods
Developer: Antagonist
Platform: PC
Release: Q1 2016

Creative director and game designer Ole Helland says he doesn't want to subject players to strings of jump scares in his horror game, Through the Woods. Instead, the goal is to sell a feeling of overwhelming dread throughout the whole story. Considering the setup, it shouldn't be too tough. You play as a mother whose son has been taken by someone (or something) called Old Erik. The demo begins with audio of her being interrogated by the police, which also cuts in as a narrative device as the story progresses. The mother heads into the forest at night to rescue him, armed only with a flashlight and her resolve. It's creepy, and I got the sense that she's just as apprehensive of what lurks in the shadows as I was. The excellent audio does much of the heavy lifting, whether it's the sound of the wind kicking up, her son's sing-song voice off in the distance, or her own breath hitching up with fear. I followed a series of clues her son left behind – fortuitously enough, he collected reflective toys – working my way through a cabin (complete with a pounding door), before running into something terrible. Helland says the game borrows from Norse mythology, and the troll that chased me down fit that description. I tried again, and died after noticing too late that the tree I was edging closer too was actually the same murderous creature. I finally sprinted past him, and my headphones filled with the sounds of her gasps and its frustrated bellows. I made it safely into a cave, where I made an awful discovery: The tunnels were lined with piles of toys and clothing that belonged to Old Erik's victims. At the end of the passage was her son's coat. The demo ended with more audio, as she explained that seeing evidence of her son sent her into a rage. She was going to find Old Erik, and she was going to kill him. Why is she telling her story to the police? Is her son OK? Did any of this even happen? I left with a lot of questions, but I'll have to wait until early next year to get the answers. – Jeff Cork

Developer: Roland Studios
Platform: PC
Release Summer 2015

This strange gem has been on my mind since I first stumbled upon it in the Moscone Center’s GDC Play area, and that’s mainly due to its insane art style. The simple premise involves a little boy trying to rescue his little brother while using weapons like laser guns and flamethrowers, as well as pet companions to take out huge, twisted bosses. These huge enemies, like a demented rabbit with laser eyes or a huge, bipedal  lip monster, are bizarre and captivating. These characters are rendered and disturbingly detailed in 3D, then turned into 2D sprites, giving them a uniquely physical appearance (think Donkey Kong Country on SNES). The resulting janky animations give Daydreamer a signature look that could make up for the unremarkable GunStar Heroes gunplay, which still needs work. – Tim Turi

Outer Wilds
Developer: Team Outer Wilds
Platform: PC
Release: TBA

The latest in an ever growing expanse of space faring adventures, Outer Wilds took home the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF Awards earlier this week. The game puts you in the spacesuit of an budding alien astronaut prepping for its first journey off the homeworld.

Not unlike a Zelda game, before lift-off the character explores his home village, chatting with residents, learning the basics of flight mechanics, and visiting a heritage museum that chronicle's the race's forays into the unknown. Once I practice controlling a model spaceship and learn the basics of zero gravity navigation it's time to take off, but not before some strange sense of contact is made with the ancient artifact housed in the middle of the museum.

Leaving the home planet, players can explore the rest of the solar system, visiting a host of hand-crafted planets and discovering their secrets in the hopes of unraveling the truth behind the ancient artifact. In a nod to Majora's Mask, after every 20 minutes of playtime the universe ends with a supernova explosion, leaving you to start from square one again with only the data you recorded in your spaceship to guide you.

With no player leveling, proper mission structure, or resource gathering to worry about, you can devote all your time to unraveling this charming game's mysteries. Outer Wilds is currently in early access, and the team of USC students who are making the game won't push the final version to market until it's ready. Since the team just won a $30,000 prize, they can take their time. -Matt Bertz

Three Fourths Home
Developer: Bracket Games
Platform: PC
Release: Spring

One of the finalists for the Best Narrative IGF award, Three Fourths Home is a visual novel that explores the struggles of a family trying to cope with a traumatic event. The player character, Kelly, is driving through the rural expanse of Nebraska on her way home after being away for quite some time. Along the drive, the weather takes a turn for the worse, with the pounding rain bringing the greyscale art aesthetic to life. Along the drive, Kelly's mother calls, and the 45-minute conversation that follows gives the player a glimpse into the family dynamics. The conversation choices the player makes peels back different layers of the complicated relationships, changing the course of the story. Look for the Extended Edition version of the game, which adds an epilogue that takes place in Minnesota, to release on Steam in the coming weeks. -Matt Bertz

Developer: BitMonster
Platform: PC
Release: TBA

We've taken a look at Grav on Test Chamber, but GDC 2015 is the first time I've had a chance to see the survival-based sci-fi MMO in action. I'm intrigued by developer BitMonster's ability to procedurally generate a bunch of planets, then populate them all with unique continents, biomes, and unique monster types. The environments vary from surreal, blue-tinted jungles to mysterious deserts with twisted trees. Combine this all with the ability to harvest resources, craft a base and new weapons, and a handy jetpack, and you've got a recipe for spacefaring fun. The game is in early access now, so dive in if you're feeling ready to stake your claim among the stars. - Tim Turi

Push Me Pull You
Developer: House House
Platform: PC
Release: 2015

What happens when you combine Noby Noby Boy, The Human Centipede, and sports? The answer is about as disturbing as you might imagine. Push Me Pull You is a four-player local competitive title that pits two players controlling a double-sided humanoid abomination against another team of two. The two player-controlled halves coordinate, grow, and shrink their shared body in an effort to defend their own ball while pushing the opponents' off the edge of the arena. The sound the "characters" body makes when it transforms is disgusting, made even worse when it envelopes a sports ball like a twisted boa constrictor. The local PC multiplayer is already weird with games like Gang Bros. and Lethal League, but Push Me Pull You is the perfect type of strange. - Tim Turi

Owl Boy
Developer: D-Pad
Platform: PC
Release: 2015

One of my favorite video game memories involves using Tails the flying fox to carry Sonic to new heights in Sonic 3. Owl Boy hits a familiar note for me, using 16-bit visuals to convey a story about a gifted flying bird boy as he carts around useful allies. Developer D-Pad pitches it as Kid Icarus meets Mega Man. Owl Boy is vulnerable to enemy attacks when flying solo, but carrying a gun-toting friend allows him to defend himself. For example, Owl Boy's buddy can blast monsters with his laser pistol while the owl critter navigates the skies. Players can swap out the gunners for new artillery, like a shotgun-toting pirate character.  As Owl Boy allies with new friends carrying different firearm types, new paths will open to him. The premise and aesthetic are promising enough to keep this retro side-scroller on our radar. It could be a hoot. - Tim Turi 

Super Slam Dunk Touchdown
Developer: Tipping Goat
Platform: PC
Release: Winter

You like sports? How about all of 'em? Super Slam Dunk Touchdown is a retro-style mash-up of sports and sports games. You pick from one of several athlete types – a basketball player, football player, hockey player, etc. – and battle it out on three-on-three matches. The goal is basically a hockey net with a football goalpost topped with a basketball hoop. It's ridiculous, and completely appropriate for the action. Each portion of the worth a different point value. Hit a bowling ball into the net, and you earn a measly three points. Knock a soccer ball through the uprights, and you've scored four points for your team. Manage to get a puck into the hoop, and you'll be five points up. The balls ultimately don't matter, but they all handle differently thanks to some under-the-hood physics that its NES inspirations didn't have. Scoring isn't easy, however, since the ragtag teams are constantly stealing the balls from one another and occasionally sparring in cartoon-style fight clouds. The game's a riot, and it brought me back to those classic arcade sports games I loved so much – Double Dribble-syle dunking animations and all. – Jeff Cork

Developer: The Good Mood Creators
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release: Q4 2015

Sometimes I feel as though I'm approaching side-scrolling platformer fatigue, but then I stumble onto something like Mekazoo. Atually, I don't think I've stumbled on many games like Mekazoo. The level I played was reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country, with snaking paths lined with plenty of spikes, wasps, and collectable doo-dads. You don't play as a lumbering ape, however. Instead, you control several highly stylized critters, which you need to swap between as you progress. The armadillo can roll into a ball and then speed up ramps with a boost. The frog can latch onto pivot points with his tongue and swing off of them. The final one I played as was the wallaby, a kangaroo-like creature who's in a constant state of bouncing motion – and who can rocket into the air if his jumps are properly timed. I got a kick out of seeing how the characters' skills played off of one another. For instance, in one area you might have to zoom up a ramp and then quickly swap to the frog character to swing to safety. Levels got progressively more difficult, culminating in a section where the wallaby had to work his way to the top of an autoscrolling section as lava steadily raised beneath his paws. It took me a few tries, but I eventually came out on top. The game will have a couple more creatures, and I'm eager to see what they are. It has a frog, so I'm already happy. – Jeff Cork

The Behemoth's Game 4 (Working Title)
Developer: The Behemoth
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Release: TBA

The Behemoth is going back to the type of goofy lighthearted fantasy setting that it nailed starting with the XBLA hit Castle Crashers. This time around the action is all about streamlined yet satisfying strategic hex-grid combat. It's up to players to position their troops on the map, then hit the confirm button to make them all attack the opposition all at once. What you equip your units with affects their effectiveness. For example, a big mallet is strong against helmeted foes, and a big shield helps deflect a percentage of ranged attacks. Speaking of ranged attacks, did I mention an uzi-wielding enemy jumps in out of nowhere during one battle? This shouldn't be too surprising, though, considering the plot revolves around a gigantic, Galactus-sized bear that is playing puppet master with the planet and bleeding acidic green blood all over it. - Tim Turi  

Extreme Exorcism
Developer: Golden Ruby Games
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release: Summer

It's great to see the local competitive game scene is still alive and well with quirky titles like Extreme Exorcism. Similar to titles like Towerfall and Samurai Gunn, up to four players can compete in this pixelated, 2D arena game, trying to kill one another and their ghosts. Yes, when you die in deathmatch your ghost comes back and can hurt anyone who gets in the way. Thankfully these spectral fiends are week to cool weapons like assault rifles, minds, shurikens, and grenades. Players can also vacuum up and permanently eradicate ghosts by vacuuming them up with a powerful, area-of-effect exorcism power-up. In addition to a competitive mode, players can also get couch co-op going and work through the haunted mansion together, clearing out the ghost infestation while avoiding their own phantoms. Every time you die, a ghost continues to reenact your previous actions at your peril. If you moved and attacked erratically in a past life, good luck.

Developer: 13AM Games
Platform: Wii U
Release: 2015

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U gave up to eight players a reason to huddle around the TV. Runbow takes the multiplayer ball and runs with it, bumping it up to nine. The goal of the main game is simple: move your character from the starting line to the trophy cup before your opponents get there. Of course, it's never that simple. The game features platforms of various colors, which disappear if the background color changes to the corresponding hue. You get fair warning as the next color pulses into view  from the edge of the screen before taking complete control. If you're on a red bridge and the background shifts from orange to red, unless you can leap to safety, you're out of luck. Get to the cup first, and victory is yours. Stumble along the way, and you're out for the match. You can make it harder on your fellow runners by punching them or using powerups that provide a variety of sneaky equalizers. My favorite is one that swaps your position with another players. That is, it was my favorite unless I was in the lead. Another mode, ColourMaster, allows one player to use the GamePad's screen to drop obstacles and manipulate the world while the rest try to make it through the gauntlet. Attacks are on a cooldown, so you can't just spam them. It was a lot of fun, even though I wanted to push the ColourMaster into the ocean by the time it was over. – Jeff Cork

Affordable Space Adventures
Developer: KnapNok Games
Platform: Wii U
Release: April 9

One of the hooks with Affordable Space Adventures is that it requires players to juggle multiple systems on tiny spaceship using the Wii U's GamePad. It's chaotic, overwhelming fun, as you try to figure out when you need to adjust your ship's density so it dives underwater, when to max out your thrusters, and more. Something fairly big has been added to the game since last year: multiplayer. Now, up to three players can team up and work to pilot the ship through a hazardous planet in search of rescue. The pilot uses a Wii U Pro Controller to fly the ship on its most basic level. Engineers take control of the GamePad, and are responsible for many of the systems previously described. The science officer uses a Wii Remote, and they can fire flares (useful for hitting switches), and controlling the spotlight that illuminates the way for the pilot. Players can drop in and out at any time, and it's the same story experience whether you go solo or bring friends along for the ride. I had a great time piloting other players through the tunnels, and it was a different experience than my solo attempt. I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the visuals more, since I had a few teammates picking up my slack. If you're playing alone, it's still the same "Hang on tight!" gameplay that made it such a standout to me last year. – Jeff Cork

Box Boy
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Platform: 3DS
Release: Spring

Box Boy looks like one of the most boring games imaginable. The main character is a tiny box, with a pair of short, spindly legs below him. Qbby, the character, has to work his way to a door while avoiding obstacles. If I haven't lost you yet, good. The character has a neat little trick at his disposal: He can summon boxes. It's better than it sounds, honestly. After entering his little "spawn box" mode, players make the boxes form around him. You can tap right several times, and you end up with a horizontal bridge. Tapping up twice and then left forms a little L. Once they're formed, Qbby detaches from them and can toss them around in levels to allow him to reach high ledges, press buttons, and more. Creating more blocks destroys the first ones, which keeps puzzles manageable. It's a simple concept, but later levels get quite tricky. HAL made audiences fall in love with a little pink circle. Who knows? Perhaps this white square could be their next Kirby. – Jeff Cork

Swords & Soldiers II
Developer: Ronimo Games BV
Platform: Wii U
Release: Q2 2015

Swords & Soldiers II is the sequel to the side-scrolling RTS that hit the Wii in 2009. The core is the same: Move from your base toward enemy territory, building support weapons and other structures to help you along the way. In RTS fashion, you have a variety of units to build, including resource gatherers, low-level grunts, and specialized (but potentially weak) attackers. I played as the Persians, which had genies, summoners, and other strange units. My opponents were Vikings, who seemed to specialize in brutish, but generally simple, physical attacks. My units may not have been the toughest, but after they survived a conflict they would heal themselves automatically. The Vikings would have to use a spell to accomplish the same thing. The followup adds features including new factions, the ability to construct your own tech trees, and random supply drops. Perhaps the biggest change is how cooldown times have been greatly reduced, giving players more freedom to take chances and change up strategies instead of effectively being forced down a particular path. The game does maintain the silly sense of humor in battles, with highly detailed, cartoonish characters battling to destroy their opponents' base. – Jeff Cork

Developer: Studio MDHR
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Release: 2015

This 2D throwback to vintage animation has had me drooling since it first appeared in an indie sizzle reel at a Microsoft E3 press conference. I’ve finally gotten my hands on the game, and it plays as good as it looks. This gorgeous action game is a series of hard-as-nails boss battles, featuring some absurd set ups like a pirate that’s awfully similar to Popeye’s Bluto, evil garden vegetables, and a faceoff with two dastardly frogs. The battles were so tough that I didn’t defeat a single one in my brief hands-on time, but I did make steady, satisfying progress.

The duo of frogs take turn shooting flaming insects and fiery punches at Cuphead. The plucky little protagonist can absorb pink projectiles by hitting the jump button when he collides with them, which builds up his power meter to unleash a devastating liquid blast from his head. Eventually the frogs bizarrely transform into a huge slot machine and begin coughing coins at me. My fate was sealed here, but consider me a true believer in Cuphead. This is one of the most aesthetically intoxicating video games I’ve ever seen. - Tim Turi

Earthlock: Festival of Magic
Developer: Snow Castle Games
Platform:  PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PC, Mac, Linux
Release: October 2015

Earthlock has some triple-A talent behind it. The small team is comprised of developers who worked at Ubisoft, LucasArts, and Rockstar North. Developer Snow Castle Games' first project is a turn-based RPG, and I'm already digging the depth of the battle system. You play as a young hero who just loves adventuring, but soon he finds a good reason to explore: The world has stopped spinning. This left half of it dark and the other half light. Throughout the game, you recruit up to eight playable characters and engage in fun battles. Every character has their own skillset. In my demo, the hero, Amon, had the brawn and a rabbit named Gnart packed the healing and support abilities. You're always aware of your turn order as it appears in the upper-right corner, allowing you to anticipate when the enemy gets their next shot (very much like Grandia). What's cool is that every character has two different stances that lends them different abilities. For instance, one stance allows Gnart to steal from enemies, while another gives him support options. Switching between stances costs you a turn, but gives you more options in the heat of battle, forcing you to assess the best move in the long run. 

I also found the crafting system interesting. Essentially, you can collect seeds and grow ammo with different elemental perks. I enjoyed what I played so far and how every character played differently. Later in the demo, I recruited Olia, who had her own arsenal of attacks. You use a turn to increase her chances of counterattacking. I like manipulating turns and maximizing every one to its full potential, and that's Earthlock's real lure. Now here's hoping it holds up in the story department. - Kimberley Wallace

Hyper Light Drifter
Developer: Heart Machine
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One PC
Release: 2015

I played Hyper Light Drifter at last year's GDC, and I walked away impressed. This year, I got to play it again, in a much less guided demo. After spawning into the game's weird world, I was given free reign to explore. The section took place in an ominous-looking part of the world, with deep purples and dark hues dominating the color palette. It took me a few minutes to get reacclimated with the controls, which allow your hero to dash, perform quick sword slashes, and use several powerful weapons. It's definitely a tough game, and I learned that sitting still for a moment was an open invitation for the game's various monsters to tear me apart. Limited use weapons like shotguns and railguns helped equalize encounters with particularly brutish opponents. Once you're out of weapon energy, you can regain it by thwacking bad guys with your sword. One fun little touch came after I cleared a field of green goblin-like creatures. The sole survivor realized what was up, and he fled as quickly as he could. I also got to check out a couple of the game's tough bosses. The standout was a crystalline quadruped. The battle took place on a fairly large platform, but as the boss sent out waves of crystals and little spider minions, it felt uncomfortable small. I tried to beat it several times, but it came out victorious. Maybe next time. – Jeff Cork

Developer: Uppercut Games
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC, iOS
Release: Spring 2015

Taking cues from titles like Shadow of the Colossus, and Journey, Submerged is a title about exploration and relationships. Set in a beautiful yet subtly forlorn post-apocalyptic water world, Miku is a concerned sister trying to mend her brother Taku’s mysterious wound. We don’t know how the duo washed up in this drowned city, but I had fun trolling between overgrown skyscrapers hunting for what appear to be in-tact emergency supply crates from a lost era. I guided Miku towards these goals by scanning the environment with a telescope for an objective, puttering over to them in my trusty boat, and climbing ledges to reach the top of a building. I love the tasteful visual cues for finding routes, like red petals floating downwards from vines that can be used to reach new heights. If you’re looking for a calm yet emotional adventure, like Journey or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, keep your eyes on Submerged. - Tim Turi

The Flame In The Flood
Platform:  Xbox One, PC, Mac
Developer: The Molasses Flood
Release: TBA 

We felt pretty confident that The Flame in the Flood would stand out, even running a feature about its development when its Kickstarter launched in October. For a refresher, The Flame In The Flood comes from developers who worked on top-notch games, such as BioShock, Halo 2, and Rock Band. Finally playing The Flame in the Flood reaffirmed to me why it's a game you should anticipate. The Flame in the Flood is about survival, learning the ropes, and exploration. As Scout, you'll try to survive the harsh wilderness. Your only companion is your trusty dog Aesop, who can sense danger and carry supplies for you. The two must travel by foot and on raft tackling an unpredictable river. 

The basic goal is to pay attention to Scout's energy, thirst, warmth, and hunger, making sure you don't neglect one and die. This game has peramdeath. Once you die, it's over, but what's refreshing is that the river is procedurally generated, meaning you can never predict exactly what challenges it will throw at you – like choppy currents  or dangerous weather – that force you to second guess if you should trudge on. The crafting system is very important. You scavenge resources whenever you explore and decide what to put together. You also have limited inventory space that you need to manage, making you choose between what's best to keep Scout alive. Even where you dock your raft is a strategic decision. You might spot a gas station, but if it's pouring rain, it's not the best place to seek shelter. Also, if your character does get wet; you need to dry them off by the fire. This may require that you craft some wood to get it going.  Everything you need to get by is a decision. You only have so many crafting materials. Maybe making the insulated gear will help you in the long run, but you need to use those supplies for your immediate needs. I enjoyed the difficulty of The Flame in the Flood; you definitely need to think carefully about each situation, but I suspect part of the fun is getting better with every try to best the challenge. - Kimberley Wallace

Beyond Eyes
Developer: Tiger and Squid
Platform: Xbox One
Release: 2015

Artful indie games are a common breed these days, so it can take a lot to surprise me. That didn’t stop me from staring curiously as a representative from the publish Team 17 demonstrated this unique, heartfelt indie project. Beyond Eyes stars Rae, a 10-year-old girl who lost her sight at an early age. She’s on the hunt for her cat in the backyard, but her condition makes the simple task much more daring. The world surround Rae is a blank canvas, painted upon only when she hears or touches objects. Hear trickling water in the distance? Rae will project an image of her family’s fountain, which she presumably saw before losing her vision. Upon further inspection this object will transform into a gross runoff drain when she touches it. The same thing happens when she interprets a creepy scarecrow as the sound of clothes flapping on the line, only to be frightened when a blackbird caws loudly.

I was surprised how quickly I felt a sense of responsibility for Rae, even though I wasn’t even playing. She’s a vulnerable little girl in a world that’s dangerous enough for people who can see, let alone are blind. The demo concludes with a nail-biting sequence where she must first identify the sound of a busy road, then decide whether to trust the sounds of the crosswalk and step across the road. I never thought such a simple act could make me so tense, but Beyond Eyes made me feel surprisingly empathetic for the curious little girl. - Tim Turi

Christopher Brookmyre's Bedlam
Developer: Standfast Interactive/RedBedlam
Release: Spring 2015
Platform: Xbox One, PC

Christopher Brookmyre is a Scottish author that is known for his gritty crime novels, but he also injects plenty of comedy into his writing. When he worked on his next book Bedlam, he decided to do something different and collaborate on a video game with the same name. Bedlam, the game, is also written by Brookmyre. The game is based on the same story, but it's not a mere adaptation. This follows protagonist Athena, who goes in for an MRI, and wakes up inside a game she played in the '90s. She's now one of the bad guys though – a cyborg. Athena soon finds out that people are being trapped in games by a dark force, and it's up to her to make sense of it all. Can she figure out why?

The game is heavy on story, but what's also cool is that you get to visit levels based on various video games – from contemporary to the classics. In this first-person shooter, you explore levels that are a play on Skyrim's RPG style, an RTS, a Halo-style shooter, and even one dedicated to Pac-Man. The game pokes fun at the games and conventions it explores. I played a level dedicated to survival horror – and immediately a cheeky comment about it of course being in a sewer surfaced. The Pac-Man level has you looking up at the projection of the screen, so you can locate which ghosts are around the corner. It's like you're right there inside the game. Bedlam feels like a love letter to video games, even more promising is where the story will lead. NPCs, who are real people trapped in specific games, are located throughout the levels to provide some clues, but who knows where this crazy story is headed. It might be darker than we think. - Kimberley Wallace

Developer: Mike Bithell Games
Platform: PS4, Vita
Release: 2015

Mike Bithell’s narrative-driven puzzle platformer, Thomas Was Alone, surprised me with how its simple polygonal shapes delivered emotional moments. Volume is a completely different type of game – a slick stealth game with visual influences stemming from Metal Gear Solid’s VR missions. The top- down action plays as good as it looks, too. Hugging walls, whistling to distract guards, and narrowly sneaking past sentries delivers satisfaction that comes close to the best moments of Kojima’s revered series. Generous checkpoints also remove the brutal sting of death that makes most players put down tough stealth games. Extra gadgets like ricocheting bang snaps, holographic decoys, and muted sprint shoes help mix up the gameplay a good deal. – Tim Turi

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
Developer: Steel Crate Games
Platform: PC, Samsung Gear VR
Release: TBA

Kyle and Mike Futter played the bomb-defusing game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes at PAX last year, but Steel Crate Games had a new build of the game at GDC. I was paired with a stranger, with one (seemingly) simple task at hand: work together to keep a ticking timebomb from detonating. My partner wore a Samsung Gear VR headset, and he was the only one of us who could see the virtual explosive. I had a binder with deliberately convoluted instructions on how the device could be neutralized. In our demo, there were three components to the bomb. First, I had to have my partner tell me how many wires there were in the device. After that, I had him run down the arrangement (how many wires were white, were there any yellow wires, etc.) as described in the binder. Working through it, I told him to clip the last wire. So far, so good. We breezed through a sequence with a button marked “Detonate” (after learning the number of batteries in the randomly generated device, I told him to press the button once to move on). The last section featured a row of odd symbols. As time ticked down, I described what symbols I had on my sheet, and we figured out what buttons he needed to press on a keypad. It was mostly successful. He may or may not have pressed the wrong one, which ended up detonating the whole thing. Even though we lost, it was more fun than I’d expected. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t the guy who had to watch the contraption explode in his face. – Jeff Cork

Jenny LeClue
Developer: Mograf
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Release: Winter 2015 

Jenny LeClue caught my eye when it appeared on Kickstarter last summer. You play as Jenny LeClue, an intelligent young detective, who is trying to prove her mother’s innocence in a murder. The game is story-focused and choice plays a big factor, changing the outcomes between chapters. I played a demo, and the handmade art style stands out; the game is gorgeous. I also was impressed with how sound was used wonderfully to create scenes and moments. A narrator also tells Jenny’s story, but your choices can also change his story. But what I really love about Jenny LeClue is how it harkens back to old-school point- and-click adventures. I enjoyed clicking through every little possible option and the game rewards you for doing so, whether it’s with humor or new observations. Smart writing, tackling choice, a great female lead, and delving into deeper issues like loss and identity makes Jenny LeClue worth keeping an eye on. – Kimberley Wallace

Spider Rite of the Shrouded Moon
Developer: Tiger Style Games
Platform: PS4, iOS, PC
Release: Spring

Arachnids freak me out, so I was surprised to have some much fun controlling on in this indie title. Players control a tiny spider as it skitters along walls and ceilings, hunting down insects to feast on. The spider is a nimble little bugger, and its jump trajectory can be dialed in using an analog stick if you're playing on controller, or aimed swipe on iOS devices. The spider can also trail a sticky line behind it while jumping, which forms a web when strung into a geometric shape like a triangle or rectangle. Players then collect trapped moths or flies to unlock new levels.

Another unique feature of Spider relies on current weather data to determine what's happening in each stage. For example, if it's raining in the city you're playing, the game knows this via weather data and lightning may strike a rod on top of a house. Or a windy day might cause a windmill and the gears within it to spin rapidly, turning the cogs into deadly hazards. It's a novel concept, and the spider gameplay feels leagues better than other games that have attempted similar mechanics. – Tim Turi

Hero Generations
Developer: Heart Shaped Games
Platform: PC, Ouya
Release: April 2015

Hero Generations is arriving a year after its successful Kickstarter campaign. The concept draws from several genres, including roguelikes and 4X games, but it carves out its own spot thanks to a clever core idea: You play as a 16-year-old adventurer on a board-game like grid. Every step you take ages you one year. Your goal is to explore the area while acquiring fame and fortune, fighting monsters, and building up the world. Before you get too old, you have to head into a town and make a love connection. Your hero will then carry some of their traits to their child, who will continue the cycle as they turn 16. There’s a nice balance at work between wanting to explore as much as possible without dying of old age out in the field. Combat is simple, and resolved quickly by the roll of a virtual number. You can see what you’re up against before committing to battle, and if you’re overmatched you can always flee. Doing so will cost you fame – which could end up hurting your family later on. Players who last long enough can pass along heirloom weapons, and their offspring will earn money by passing through the upgraded buildings and areas that their forefathers (and mothers) developed before them. It’s a great approach, and it’s handled elegantly. - Jeff Cork

Blues And Bullets
Developer: A Crowd of Monsters
Platform: Xbox One
Release: Summer 2015 

This episodic noir story has you investigating the kidnapping of Al Capone’s granddaughter. You’ll actually work with Capone, but he functions more as a sidekick. Your job is to investigate crime scenes and piece together information. After you find the right clues, you match them to different leads in the investigation, such as witnesses and facts. Investigating clues opens up more branches. For instance, you might have a thread that shows torture happened, which leads to finding a lynching occurred. During my demo, I saw some pretty grotesque scenes, such as opening up two severed hands that were clasped together – finger by finger – to find the next clue. I liked that it didn’t dial down the horrific scenes. After all, murders are grisly. The investigations are only a fraction of what Blues and Bullets offers – expect tough choices and tense shootouts to also be a part of the adventure. – Kimberley Wallace

Developer: Pixel Titan
Platform: PC, Oculus Rift
Release: Spring 2016

Tons of indie games bank on players’ nostalgia for the pixelated 2D titles of yesteryear, but few dive into the low-poly realm of mid-‘90s FPSs. Inspired by titles like Doom and Quake, Strafe combines fast-paced first- person shooting with roguelike progression. Players blast their way through procedurally generated sci-fi labyrinths with standbys like the shotgun, machinegun, or rail gun. Merchants are available to purchase upgrades from, and some can be discovered in the levels like steroids that boost damage or speed. Death is permanent, so be sure to hunt down the wall-mounted health stations that look conspicuously like EVO suit regenerators from Half-Life.

The procedural generation tech wasn’t in place during my time with the game, but I did have a riot working through a set level one shotgun shell at a time. Having been on an old school FPS kick lately (Doom, Blood, Duke Nukem 3D), Strafe demands twitch reflexes and full awareness of your surroundings. Watching the charmingly crude enemies explode into bloody bits warms my heart in the strangest way. – Tim Turi

Seasons After Fall
Developer: Swing Swing Submarine
Platform: PC, Consoles TBD
Release: 2016

If you’re looking for a break from games that revel in destruction and death, Seasons After Fall could be for you. This gorgeous puzzle-platformer stars an adorable fox who finds itself in a world that’s simultaneously similar to ours with some surprising differences. To navigate through a forest lit in amber autumnal hues, for instance, fox has to find its way up onto a platform. Its tiny legs won’t make the leap, but after exploring for a bit it discovers a jellyfish. Not only that, but it’s a jellyfish that flies. After leading the glowing companion to a plant with a similar luminous hue, a pod opens up, giving fox enough height to make the jump. That’s fairly run-of-the-mill stuff, but fox also gains a powerful ability through its adventure: changing seasons at will. That adds another layer of manipulation to players. A gap might be too far in summer, but switching over to winter uncoils a branch and gives fox a makeshift bridge. Swing Swing Submarine isn’t incorporating violence into its puzzles, and fox can’t jump anyplace that will lead to its death. Instead, players are rewarded for their curiosity. Seasons After Fall looks like a great pick for families, or puzzle lovers who want to explore a rich and inviting world. – Jeff Cork

Developer: Mudvark
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PC
Release: TBA

Yes, you’re going to push a lot of boxes around in Mudvark’s upcoming game, Hue. Fortunately, there’s a nice twist to differentiate it from the long line of similar games that preceded it. As the name suggests, the game makes use of color, and to great effect. At first glance, it looks a little strange. There are few colors displayed on screen, and your character is an odd little Limbo-like fellow. Walking around, he might come across what looks like a dead end. Players can pull up a color wheel and change the shade of the background, which in turns opens up the game. A crate may reveal itself once the color shift happens. Pushing it into place gives the player just the lift he needs to hop up and move on. Puzzles in the demo start off simple, but eventually build up to require multiple color swaps as blocks need to be revealed, repositioned, and manipulated. There’s a lot of potential here, and it’ll be interesting to see how much variety Mudvark can introduce throughout the full game. What they showed certainly held promise. – Jeff Cork

Developer: Broken Window Studios
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release: April 2015 (PC, Mac, Linux), Summer 2015 (PS4, Xbox One)

Reflections is one of the more intriguing games I’ve seen at GDC. This experimental narrative has you exploring the environments in first-person and deciding what you want to do the day before you head off to college. Everything you explore and choose to do affects your future. Maybe you decide you just play horseshoes and neglect important things like calling movers or spending time with your girlfriend. Or maybe you want to repair a sink before you leave, showing you can’t let go of your childhood home. Reflections is about how sometimes the littlest decisions can affect the course of your life and examining what these little interactions say about you.  At the end of the journey, the game assesses your personality type based on the things you chose to do with your time. You actions can lead you down the path of being an office executive, going out in the wilderness, or living with your family, to name a few. – Kimberley Wallace

Read Only Memories
Developer: Midboss
Platform: Ouya, PC, Mac, Linux
Release: Summer 2015

Read Only Memories is an adventure game that’s vastly different from most games. The year is 2064 and you explore Neo-San Francisco with the world’s first sentient robot. Your duty? As a journalist, you must investigate a company called Parallax that’s released new technology, called ROM. ROMs have replaced all mobile technology, but something seems awry. Your friend mysteriously decides to leave the country and Parallax is where he worked, something tells you everything is connected. The game stars LGBT characters, tackling LGBT themes. It’s your basic point-and-click with dialogue options and small puzzles, like giving the right objects to various NPCs. You’ll meet lots of people along the way and you decide who you want to trust and who to leave behind. Read Only Memories already holds plenty of promise, and I like that it’s delving into deeper issues that often don’t make it into games.  –Kimberley Wallace 

The Westport Independent
Developer: Double Zero One Zero
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux          
Release: TBA

The Westport Independent caught my eye because it had an aesthetic similar to Papers, Please. It also turns out it has just as interesting as a premise. The Westport Independent is a censorship simulator. You’re editor-in-chief of an independent newspaper that’s in its last weeks of being one. A new government bill is shuttering it down. Now’s your chance for payback right? Or at least to rock the boat a little. What can it hurt? You’re out of a job anyway. That’s part of what makes this game so exciting: You’re in charge of what gets printed and what doesn’t. Will you abide by the government’s wishes? Sensationalize headlines? Strive for journalist integrity? That’s up to you. But remember what you print has impact, so you’ll see if affect the people and the future of Westport. You’ll also need to manage your writers, who have their own idea of what you should print. Don’t expect them to do you any favors if they don’t agree with your decisions. This game already looks like a simulation delight. – Kimberley Wallace

Keep checking back for even more of the best indie games from GDC 2015!