I attended L.A. Comic Con for my sixth straight year and witnessed first hand how it's grown almost exponentially during that time. In 2013, Stan Lee's Comikaze (as it was known) was in its third year and attracted over 50,000 attendees. This year, organizers expected 100,000. If crowds are any indication, this con easily hit that mark.
The attraction always has been its more accessible show floor (though managing growth is going to be a big issue moving forward), the variety of vendors especially comic book/graphic novel exhibitors, and the opportunity to meet creators, in particular indie artists trying to carve or expand their niche. In that regard I'm reminded of shows like E3 or IndieCade, where attendees and creators can inspire each other.
This con was no exception as the show floor once again had a large area devoted to the Artist Alley; a sizable section for comic books, graphic novels and publishers; a significant area for toys, games and collectibles; and a few aisles each for anime, cosplay, fantasy, steampunk and sci-fi, in addition to a horror section sponsored by Fangoria.
Among the artists whose booths I visited was Wizyakuza (Ceasar Ian Muyuela) of the Philippines. His work is based on a lifelong love of pop culture characters and references. The specific art that caught my eye were 3D transition lenticular prints, the kind that change appearance as you pass in front of them. My favorite was his Fire Vs. Ice print of Game of Throne's Daenerys Targaryen and Drogon/The Night King and Viserion.
Wangjie Li is another impressive artist. His digital images have the appearance of detailed portraits in some instances or Impressionist canvases in others. A self-described concept artist/illustrator, he also is an instructor. His online class IE-Art Studio forms the basis for the book The Art of Wangjie Li, which collects materials from the class in the form of demos that show his steps in creating digital art. It is beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully explained.
A creation that likewise attracted my attention was the comic Angela and the Dark. With colorful artwork on display that depicted a confident child amid a neon-lit steampunk future, I was drawn to the booth and writer Umbrus Syn (A. Diallo Jackson). He explained that Angela is a kind of Pippi Longstocking -- an adventurous, strong-willed, independent and self-sufficient girl.
The story is set in a mega city of the future, Metron City, that is beset by the opposing interests of the Federal Police, the seven crime families that run the metropolis, and a group of cat-burglaring techno-thieves known as The Dark. It follows Angela's adventures as she navigates this treacherous landscape while discovering more about her past and the person she is becoming. Published by Forge Creation, with artwork by Russell Fox.
Brielle and the Horror is a graphic novel whose genre and artful, deep red cover piqued my curiosity. The story of a Catholic high school girl possessed by a demon and pursued by a secret agency and fanatical priests is lavishly illustrated in a volume that the creators call a live-action comic book. Jarel Barel explained to me that they staged photo shoots of the action, then illustrated them, resulting in the unique, cinematic quality of the book by Loaded Barrel Studios.
Finally, while a variety of collectibles caught my eye like a Pip-Boy pin at the Wasteland Exports booth, a Leeloo Dallas Multipass at the World-8 booth, and a Fallout mystery box from another exhibitor, I ended up at the booth for Collector's Edge where I marveled at the variety of statues/action figures on display representing Japanese pop culture icons like Godzilla, Gamera, Ultraman and Giant Robot, and their villains. They even had The War of the Gargantuas figures!
No comic con would be complete without a multitude of booths selling a wide array of comic books, graphic novels, books, prints, posters, action figures, plushies, models, pins, T-shirts, cosplay accessories, hats, jewelry and all manner of pop culture merchandise. Plus cosplayers were out in force representing characters from DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Star Wars, video games, etc. See accompanying photos for some of the impressive costumes on display.
For more on the 2018 L.A. Comic Con experience, please see the following blogs:
L.A. Comic Con 2018: Prospect Panel Q&A: A discussion with select cast and crew on the production of this new independent sci-fi Western, which opens this Friday, November 2.
L.A. Comic Con 2018: Neon Future Interview: A discussion with co-creator and co-writer (and Impact Theory founder) Tom Bilyeu on the futuristic comic book's concept and story.
Neon Future is a new comic book series created by DJ Steve Aoki, Eisner Award winner Jim Krueger and Impact Theory founder Tom Bilyeu (CEO and co-writer, along with Krueger, Dana Brawer and Samantha Levenshus). The story is set in a near-future civil war between the Augmented, who are persecuted for integrating technology into their bodies, and the Authentic, who reject augmentation.
The Neon Future resistance movement is led by Kita Sovee (a charactered modeled after Aoki), whose goal is a peaceful future in harmony with technology. When Clay Campbell, a leading Authentic, is resurrected with the help of technology, he learns from the resistance about his true past and his role in the burgeoning civil war. This sets the stage for the conflict to come.
The comic book trailer features musical elements from Aoki's upcoming Neon Future III album.
I briefly stopped by the Impact Theory booth at L.A. Comic Con for a quick discussion with Tom Bilyeu about the comic book:
Q: Augmented humans are becoming a common theme in pop culture such as video games, film, etc. What were the principal inspirations for this story? And what makes it different from the stories being told right now?
Bilyeu: Part of why we're seeing this theme more and more is that this is an inevitable reality of where human evolution and technology are going. So when you look at what Elon Musk and Brian Johnson are doing with actual computer-brain interfaces, people are really trying to make this a reality. The reason that we wanted to tell this story and what makes it different is that we're coming at it from a techno-optimistic perspective. Normally it's like the humans vs. robots or AI, and our thing is, what makes the world dystopian is that they've made technology illegal. So how can we use technology to get out from under that to show people a more beautiful future that's in harmony between humanity and technology.
Q: Is the character that's based on Steve Aoki kind of a prophet for that, or is part of his inspiration or motivation to find balance?
Bilyeu: Balance might not be the right word, but certainly harmony -- finding ways to integrate them. In the story that character is basically our Morpheus. He's trying to paint that picture for people. Since the character is inspired by Steve and his real-life beliefs on technology, the sort of arc of the character is modeled on Nelson Mandela. What Mandela realized in apartheid South Africa -- and you're going to see a lot of those themes play out in the book -- is that there are three options for anyone being oppressed: You can continue to be oppressed; you can become the oppressor; or you can find a third way to do things that are in harmony. That's what the story's about. That character, the question that they're going to be asked in the story is, how far would you go to give the world hope? Would you kill? Would you die? It will be interesting to see him -- the secondary character -- struggle with that. The main character is someone who was the world's most famous anti-technology person. They die and are resurrected with illegal technology. So he wakes up into the world where he's the catalyst for civil war between the Augmented and the Authentic (who don't have augmentations), and he has to decide, which side of this war do I fight on? I hate technology and have railed against it my entire life, and have profited tremendously from that hate, and so now that I am one of them and have empathy for them, but all of my cultural momentum is pushing me the other way, who am I and whom do I fight for? There are a lot of themes that I think are really relevant right now for better or worse. And people will be struggling with some real things.
Q: I'm guessing that there are some gray areas and that he may be trying to find a different path, not necessarily one or the other?
Bilyeu: If you've read Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, he's in prison 27 years and at, like, year 19 he starts realizing that these very radicalized militant young South Africans are coming in to the prison system and are criticizing him because he won't resort to violence. So he realizes these guys have so much energy and passion but he saw that they could become the new oppressor. And he just fundamentally believed you sell your humanity when you oppress somebody else. That's the tension in the story. It's viable to say I refuse to be oppressed and I'm going to rise up by any means necessary. We're very familiar with that in America with our own narrative between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The nonviolent approach vs. the violent approach. You'll see that in the story. There are two different characters. Both refuse to be oppressed, but they go about it in different ways. Ultimately who's right? That's going to be the intriguing answer in the story that people are going to have to judge for themselves.
Q: How long has this story been in development?
Bilyeu: About 10 months.
Q: So has the current political climate in the country had anything to do with the story?
Bilyeu: Definitely. You're not going to feel a lot of politics in the book. The book takes very much a human emotional approach. But for sure, any story is a product of its time to some degree in order to be relevant. We don't deal with any of that directly, but people will know exactly where some of the ideas come from.
Prospect is described as a sci-fi Western. The story follows a father-daughter team searching a moon for a rare substance and finding a dangerous world and deadly foes. This is the first feature film distributed by Gunpowder & Sky's sci-fi label DUST. It opens this Friday, November 2, in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a wider distribution thereafter.
The panel at L.A. Comic Con was moderated by Scott Mantz and featured Sophie Thatcher (Cee), Jay Duplass (Damon) and writers/directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl. The discussion included insights into making the film, including the creators' sci-fi inspirations and goals, the prep work and background development, the rigors of filming in costume on cramped sets and on location, and how it all came together to produce a unique experience.
Watch the official trailer here.
See the exclusive L.A. Comic Con clip (SPOILERS) here.
Mantz: What was your inspiration behind this?
Earl: The starting point was the forest where we shot the movie up in Washington state. Chris and I growing up went hiking, backpacking and camping there, and it always felt this could be the backdrop for an alien world so we starting discussing what sort of characters and scenarios could exist in this location?
Caldwell: There's a whole stew of ideas when it came to what we wanted to see in science fiction. One of the things that was most important to us was original universe science fiction. This goes back to that experience of immersion that you get when you're a kid and a lot of the films that we grew up on like the original Star Wars trilogy, Alien and Blade Runner. We wanted the world to feel like it was alive and densely detailed. And at the same time, both a factor of working with limited resources as well as a kind of Western blend, we focused on kind of a smaller, more intimate story. This isn't about heroes battling over the fate of the universe, these are blue collar people that are just trying to scrape by.
Mantz: You've got the sci-fi element, the Western element, and you also have a coming of age story. How did you blend those fusions, and balance them out?
Caldwell: Starting from the conception of the short film, which centered very much around this father/daughter relationship and the daughter being put into a situation where she has to grow up really fast, and then the other layer of that was the world-building development that we did, one of the surprising things for us over the experience of taking this film from the short to the feature film was that it took a long time. We spent a long time trying to get the financing together to get to the green light. But what ultimately happened over the course of those years was we were always going back to the script and to the world. We were working with key collaborators that were constantly pumping out ideas that just deepened the world in terms of coming up with new angles on the culture and the histories and that kind of thing.
Mantz: In terms of casting, it's an intimate film, there are a lot of quiet moments. What were you looking for when you were casting these three main roles?
Earl: One of the things that immediately stood out about Sophie's tape was that not only was she a very competent actor but that she kind of had a sense of timelessness. Prospect doesn't take place in a contemporary world; you don't want Cee to feel like a normal American teenager, you want her to feel like she's from somewhere else and Sophie had this kind of quality that she could be in a period piece, which is often how we talked about prospect.
Mantz: Sophie, how did this come about for you and how did you connect with the directors of the movie to nail down the character?
Thatcher: I was sent the audition from my agents, and a lot of the auditions I do are self-taped. I got a callback, I did the self-tape for that and they flew me out to Seattle, and I read through the script and I was really drawn to Cee's character. Her character trajectory as she grows into this really powerful young woman -- that's what struck me. When we met, I trusted them, and I feel like this is going to be a special project.
Mantz: Jay, how did you connect with these guys and their approach to making this movie, since you've done so much behind the camera as well? And when you first met Sophie, how did you formulate the father/daughter relationship?
Duplass: I read the script, and I saw their first film, a short film that basically contained the seeds of this world. The way that they hand make everything felt very familiar to me. I really just love that they have great vision and it's original. When I Skyped with them, they're super smart, super conscientious and good communicators. One of the things that I needed in order to do the movie was to see the tape of the girl that was going to play Cee because that's pretty much everything. And they showed me the tape and in the first 10 seconds I was, like, she's amazing, I'll do it.
Mantz: When you first started working together, Sophie and Jay, how did you expand on the relationship that was originally established in the script?
Duplass: We just hung out a lot at first. There was a lot of getting up to speed on the universe that these guys built, so we were just making each other laugh and getting used to it. We both understood from them that what they wanted was a very realistic rendition of a father/daughter relationship. They wanted it to be kind of hard because these guys are going through hard times.
Thatcher: We would improvise, and that helped with the mindset of the character, getting to that natural sense of the relationship.
Caldwell: The first week of shooting you guys spent it in that pod, which was a 360-degree set and it was very cramped and there were all the camera guys in there. You couldn't stand up, you were always hunched over. Aesthetically that was something we were really going for, we wanted space travel to feel tedious and arduous, it's a grind. At the same time I think that helped expedite the formation of that relationship. Because of the grind of space travel, obviously one of the movies that I really thought about was Alien, which was such a huge inspiration on this movie. Another film I thought about was Outland, just in terms of how unpleasant looking space can be. And also some of the early films of John Carpenter.
Earl: Jay, I forgot that you kind of had to go to school for this movie. We don't let the characters just push buttons and fly up into space. There's like a 10-minute long sequence of you doing all the flight stuff.
Duplass: Yeah we went through the sequence of what it means to undock your pod from a space station, to launch toward a planet, to land it in an atmosphere, to go through atmosphere, to pull a parachute. It was a sequence of no less than 25 directives that I had to memorize. It started to seem really freaking intimidating. What we ended up doing is we did it live, you guys filmed it for me, ordered me through all the buttons to push and then I basically spent the next two weeks memorizing this sequence. I spent way more time on that sequence than I did on the script! It's kind of like a Toyota Corolla, this pod, it's an old piece of equipment in this world, so it had to be as if it's what I do on a regular basis. It had to be very seamless.
Earl: So they're going to this toxic alien moon in essentially a Gold Rush scenario to harvest this valuable substance out of the ground. And you had to learn how many steps for that?
Duplass: That was probably another 25.
Earl: And the other thing I want to point out is that there are several original languages that we developed for the film and you see in the first few minutes of the movie Sophie writes it fluently. It's super impressive that she had to learn an entirely new way of writing. How long did that take?
Thatcher: It took like three weeks, because you sent me it before filming.
Earl: It's like a four-second shot and I think that's the only time you see it.
Mantz: How did you make it all feel so easy-looking?
Thatcher: I called you guys and we discussed her backstory, and this was months before filming, so I had an idea of who she was.
Caldwell: A lot of this conversation we're having now about all this tedious detail goes back to it being a stylized space Western adventure but at the same time we wanted it to feel really grounded within its own world. We get off on those little details. Apollo 13 was one of my favorite movies growing up. We were big NASA fanboys and we wanted to capture some of that. We wanted to go through that experience with the characters. Not only that, part of the premise of the film is that these people don't have a lot of money, and spacecraft and good equipment are expensive, so they're in the space equivalent of a U-Haul, something that's rented, that a bunch of people have abused, and they're risking their lives. So a lot of the tedium that these guys had to go through was to give the world that grounded feel.
Mantz: Sophie, because you're in every scene, do you ever get to the point where you're, like, whoa!?
Thatcher: The scariest part for me was being able to portray her character arc gracefully. It helped that we were filming it in order. I remember leaving the set feeling more confident as Cee feels more confident, as she starts standing up for herself. The feeling stayed with me.
Mantz: So you filmed this chronologically, which is a luxury in this field. How rewarding was that for you to direct a film just as you wrote it?
Caldwell: I think it was really important because the entire film is through Cee's eyes and we wanted to preserve that trajectory. At its heart it is a coming of age story, and we wanted to preserve that.
Mantz: Both of you, you're in a spacesuit the whole time. What was that like?
Thatcher: The first week was really difficult because it wasn't easy to breathe but then they worked through that. It kind of served as an acting tool: Once I put on the helmet, I became that character.
Earl: You know like in Prometheus, and a lot of sci-fi movies, about five minutes in they come up with an excuse to take their helmets off. We didn't in Prospect. Our characters don't get to escape this environment. It's a survival story: They're stuck on this toxic moon, they're stuck in their environmental suits, and I think we must have set some sort of record for amount of scenes in the suits. I had to ask Jay before this if he had permanent neck damage and thankfully he does not. But we really didn't realize what we were signing out cast up for because this was a physically rigorous process. We were out on location in an actual rain forest hiking in these suits. Thank you, guys.
Thatcher: They gave me a helmet just a couple months before so I could get used to it.
Earl: Yeah we shipped Sophie a motorcycle helmet to strengthen her neck.
Thatcher: And I took some martial arts classes ...
Earl: That's part of it. You're trained astronauts. Miners, really. You've got to be like, "Yeah I wear this thing all the time."
Duplass: Like Sophie said, the whole first day she and I were freaking out. We were like, we can't breathe! We were doing these walking scenes and I couldn't say the lines because I was hyperventilating. And I was like, it feels like I'm nervous but I don't feel nervous; I think we don't have air! It's so disorienting. You're trapped in this thing, these guys are talking to us on headphones, other people are talking but you can't hear them, you're in a rain forest where it's beautiful for the first 24 hours then it's just stuff to trip over. The next day we would cut holes here. The first week we were just adjusting the helmets. And the suits, like we need a pee hole in the suit otherwise it takes 25 minutes off set to go urinate somewhere. There was a lot of strategy involved.
Mantz: Sophie what was it like to spend the majority of your screen time with Pedro Pascal (Ezra)? It's a battle of wits but it's also an uneasy alliance.
Thatcher: Their connection is really interesting. At first she doesn't trust him but then she opens up to him and tells him things that she probably never told her father because they spend so much time together they have to trust each other if they're going to make it out alive. And Pedro is just an amazing guy. He brought this energy and this lightheartedness to the set that really helped.
Mantz: Tell us about casting Pedro for this movie.
Caldwell: We were big fans of Oberyn, from his work on Game of Thrones. We just asked him to be in the movie. For Ezra we always knew he was going to be a challenge. He's kind of modeled after that classic Western hyper loquacious archetype. I can't imagine anyone executing that better. It's the type of guy that's always wavering on the line between being super charming and being super menacing and you never know where he's going to land in any situation. Pedro just has that magnetism. All credit goes to him.
Mantz: What were some of the ways you were able to improvise?
Caldwell: A lot was put in to the language, the way that the characters speak. Like Zeek mentioned early, it almost has the feeling of a period piece. We wanted the tenor of the language to feel like it was from another time, which is a hard thing to improvise. I think Jay brought some of that into the set, where you were suggesting playing with the lines and improvising a lot more, which was a really fun, we ended up using quite a bit of it.
Duplass: I've always used improvisation in my movies. It's about humanizing language in interaction and I just feel like when improvisation is on the table and the other actors in the room know that anything could happen it creates a feeling in the room. I feel like audiences understand when all bets are off and when a moment is potentially dangerous. Once you and I started improvising we were in a place where anything could happen or be said so you get off the pattern of memorizing lines and waiting for your time to talk. It's more about listening and tuning in to what is being said. What these guys are looking for is a very human, very vulnerable and tense interaction.
Caldwell: It's interesting because on the flip side of that you have a character like Ezra and he's often the one who's driving the conversation. His language is steeped in all of this kind of fictional vernacular. The way Pedro talked about it, he compared it almost to performing in a Shakespeare piece because you have to internalize the meaning. We were throwing all kinds of lingo into his lines.
Mantz: For Sophie, there's not a ton of dialog. A lot of it is a nonverbal performance which is more challenging because you don't have the words to fall back on. What was that like?
Thatcher: The thought of keeping the audience engaged with just my eyes was really scary to me. Like I said the helmet helped. Once I put it on, I was in the mindset of Cee.
Caldwell: So much credit goes to Sophie for realizing this character and that there is a shape to her journey. So much of that is not on the page in dialog. So much had to be done non-verbally. We didn't fully comprehend how risky that was, for the entire emotional journey of the film to be in that space. We were incredibly lucky that Sophie was able to do it so well.
Mantz: You guys set up your own facility to work on the movie, come up with the production design, edit the film; there's a whole backstory to that, so tell us about it.
Earl: We couldn't just call up a Hollywood production design house. We had to completely start from scratch so we rented an old boat building warehouse in Seattle. Chris and I had been sort of acquiring friends who could make things. These people had never worked on a film before. We had a bike builder who designed the spaceship you were just watching. We had a friend who remodeled houses. We had a friend who was just laid off from Boeing who was an electrical engineer. Our production designer's background is in medical insurance. All these people were watching YouTube videos on how to make stuff. We assembled an entire shop. Our core group got to 16 to 20 people. We fought for seven months of pre-production which is a really long time for an indie film. Indie films usually sometimes only get like five weeks. And we told our financiers, look, if you give us all this time, with this small group of people in a warehouse, we can make this whole sci-fi world. And that's what we did.
Caldwell: We always knew, and this is due to our influences from classic science fiction films before green screens and CG were so prevalent, we wanted to channel some of that texture into this film. We wanted this world to be rendered in real physical artifacts -- the props, the sets, the costumes -- and we also wanted to see how far we could push an indie film budget in terms of rendering a scope of detail that was hugely important in making it feel real. So that practical approach was very much a part of the DNA of this film.
Earl: We had a producer come down from Canada to oversee the film and he laughed because of how much more production design there was than on the average film that he was involved in. Honestly, half of it doesn't even show up on screen. We developed advertisements, brands, all the tags on the clothing. There's a whole set of cartoon characters that appear throughout the film as part of this fictional childhood TV show. For me that's the really fun stuff. There's another layer of stuff behind the movie that you're watching.
Mantz: Let's talk about the wardrobe design for the spacesuits.
Earl: Our approach is to start gathering so many inspirations and so many little pieces that you eventually end up in sort of original territory. So the suits that Sophie and Jay wear are a little more inspired by the '60s and '70s space race. Again, we wanted Prospect not to feel contemporary, we wanted it to feel like it was from another time and place, so we used a lot of older inspirations. It feels strangely in the past. There are a whole variety of designs. This guy, Zed [actor Chris Morson, in costume and seated to Earl's left], is from another planet and culture, and you don't really get his backstory, but we actually wrote it out. We created, at the beginning, a kind of Prospect Wikipedia with everyone's backstories, their economic situations, why they all land together on this planet. So even though you don't get Zed's full story on screen, you sense that there is a bigger world and bigger history behind the smaller story that you're watching.
Caldwell: In a lot of science fiction you see a homogenous aesthetic being applied where it's all under the umbrella of some giant corporation or military organization. Given the Western fusion we were trying to channel these are all freelancers, independent people who bought their gear from an outfitters or like an REI equivalent, so every costume has manufacturer's labels and branding on it, they all came from different places. We wanted to feel that diversity of sources, that everything from pop culture to the gear that they're using was coming from all different places across the universe.
I caught up with Zeek Earl after the panel to discuss inspirations, and he acknowledged that the reference to early John Carpenter films was related to his cult classic Dark Star. (Dark Star was Carpenter's first film and has been an influential sci-fi movie renowned for its independent quality, resourcefulness, vision and humor.)
While the influential sci-fi films they mentioned all shared a theme of corporate exploitation, Earl suggested that Prospect's more intimate story means that such larger scope issues might form part of the backdrop but aren't at the forefront of the main narrative being told.
Video game ingenuity was a theme that ran through the games I sampled on my second day at IndieCade. While they all were creative and fun, they offered different gameplay mechanics and were alternately existential, touching, nostalgic and humorous. In this way, Phenomenology, A Memoir Blue, Pixel Ripped 1989 and What the Golf? distinguished themselves and provided memorable gaming experiences.
Phenomenology (The Minmax Group) is described as an experiential virtual reality game of vignettes about the objects of perception and being present in our bodies, a piece of experimental aleatoric music, or a performance art piece where the performer and audience are the same person.
It's possibly the most existential video game I've played. This "sitting down simulator" only requires that the player wear a VR visor (in this case an Oculus Rift), sit and observe. In geometric or natural landscapes and sometimes interiors, players can look around and sometimes interact in casually passive or active ways.
Nontraditional gameplay involves rolling a ball in the center of your vision toward wherever you turn your head. For instance, looking up or down along the ground moves it farther or nearer, respectively. The ball will passively cast shadows or actively move geometric objects up or down, near or far; change their color; break them apart; or make them emit a sound or musical notes.
The geometric objects are of various shapes and sizes, stationary or moving, sometimes changing color, and at times pulsating with the music, which provides atmospheric accompaniment in the form of an electronic score that at times is moody or reflective and at other times upbeat and energetic. When I mentioned some sequences remind me of the film "Koyaanisqatsi," I was told that was one of the inspirations.
In the natural landscapes or interiors a speaker will sometimes appear to address what the viewer is experiencing and on occasion challenge our perception. Taken together, the overall impact is one of thoughtful reflection and sometimes bliss. I found the experience entertaining though it is in a form that is both unexpected and welcome. An absorbing change of pace from gamers' normal expectations.
A Memoir Blue (Cloisters - Kevin Zeng and Shelley Chen) is promoted as "a single player magical realist narrative told through transformative movements of water." The game begins with a young swimmer named Miriam whom players assist through a story told unconventionally via dreamlike sequences that challenge preconceived notions of what constitutes a video game.
As Miriam reflects on a childhood trip she begins to question her mother's motivations for it. Players help her navigate this personal journey of discovery, utilizing point and click/drag gameplay in frames that appear seamlessly between cut scenes. Gamers interact with objects on screen in a creative, intuitive way that rewards exploration and experimentation.
Actions can range from turning a radio dial to reveal different images; moving objects like the radio to break through a barrier, paper to unveil an image or a train to progress down the tracks; printing, stamping and depositing tickets; and clicking on the screen to mimic flashbulbs that trigger a scene or drops of water to expose images/memories.
The narrative thread that runs through the demo and links everything together is both poignant and surreal, creating an evocative exercise that is touching and fascinating. The beautiful art style mixes fluid animation and a kind of storyboard element in a colorful and lyrical presentation that consistently entertains and enthralls. The game in general is a pleasant surprise that holds a great deal of promise.
Pixel Ripped 1989 (Pixel Ripped Inc.), to judge by the demo, is a retro style platformer that lovingly honors the genre's considerable heritage while crafting a virtual reality game that takes advantage of the medium in inspired ways. The game is designed to take players from 2D 8-bit platformers to '90s 3D gaming experiences.
Players begin by controlling an 8-bit cube as it jumps, sprints and passes through doorways. Some screens even mimic classrooms with a teacher attempting to instruct her students, which foreshadows a key gaming experience of playing as second-grader Nicola who is being used by the hero Dot to defeat the Cyblin Lord.
Gamers will see the world through Nicola's eyes as she plays her GameBoy style handheld game in class. Besides combating enemies and upgraded obstacles, the challenge of avoiding detection by the teacher is added. These twin objectives shine in virtual reality as they require constant attention.
A welcome tool in either scenario is a spitball, which can target certain items to create a distraction in the classroom or remove obstacles like bubbles in the game. In fact, platforming in VR proves a welcome feature that enhances scale and immersion with its 3D presentation and elements that reflect the classroom setting.
To begin, colorful graphics effectively break through older visuals to confront the player, before everyday objects like notebooks, pencils, scissors, cassette tapes, gaming cartridges and even a Rubik's Cube emerge as part of the platforming challenge. Common gameplay mechanics such as jumping off springboards or avoiding props like scissors become more involving.
VR controls actually work well to facilitate old school gaming and integrate newer elements like the versatile spitball. All are intuitive and responsive (despite the spitball sometimes being a challenge to aim with the visor). The presentation also does a wonderful job capturing the nostalgia both for old school gaming and the 1980s time period.
All in all, the demo is a fun retro gaming experience that also succeeds in integrating VR and more modern elements in a relatively seamless and entertaining way. It bodes well for the game, which should appeal to old school gamers and fans of modern VR titles.
What the Golf? (Triband) is marketed as the golf game for people who hate golf. And in fact the game uses golfing as a basis for absurd puzzles that are funny and entertaining to judge by the demo, which shows an impressive variety of scenarios that promises to keep players happy if extended to the full game.
Gameplay is deceptively simple. Aim with the left stick and hold down the right trigger until the meter fills to the desired strength then let go to swing away. The game's ingenuity is in how each map is designed whether ball substitute, obstacles, course or tools at hand for overcoming impediments.
Golf balls can be people, cars, houses, goals, soccer balls and more, with related physics. And their path can be obstructed by fans, cats, rocks, cars, trees, etc. Worse, people might intentionally block or shoot at you. But maps make certain tools available to the player either at the start or during play.
Depending on the hole, gamers can launch the "ball" as often and whenever they want including mid-stroke. Grappling hooks and portals can allow alternative navigation on more complex holes. And guns can be picked up, equipped and fired at enemies, even while selecting a different trajectory for the "ball."
The overall result is a game that promises to be part sport, part puzzle and thoroughly fun. The whimsical design, colorful palette, comical names for each hole, and overall sense of humor complement the playful spirit to create a game that should be all heart and funny bone.
In conclusion to my festival coverage, the games I sampled were all clever, well-crafted and in many cases very pleasant surprises. As one attendee said to me, independent studios and their games have come far. They have a quality that is consistently high and fully competitive in their own right with more established developers.
I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to attend and spend time with these wonderful creators. Festival organizers should be lauded for providing this platform and their support year in and year out. That said, the actual show would have benefited from a developer map and more detailed signage. Hopefully future festivals will incorporate these.
IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games, has commenced in Santa Monica, California, and I'm grateful to attend this year for the first time. I've visited the IndieCade section at E3 in years past and reported on some of the impressive games on display, but to attend the festival and experience the energy, camaraderie and bustle of so many passionate indie developers at once is exciting. Below are the titles I tried out my first day.
Nishan Shaman (NEXT Studio) is a portable rhythm game available for download. Traditional Chinese music is combined with a paper cutting art style to tell the ancient Northern Chinese legend of Nishan, a female shaman who journeys to the underworld to rescue a young boy's soul.
Players hold their portable device horizontally to play the 2D side-scroller. Pressing with their thumbs on either side of the screen will make the shaman bang her drum. The key is to time each bang with an airborne enemy hitting a circle that envelops the shaman, pressing quickly for smaller foes and holding down for snake-like creatures. If mistimed, the shaman's HP meter will decrease. Enemies become faster and more frequent as the character progresses.
The gameplay is simple but intuitive and controls are responsive. This solid rhythm mechanic is complemented by beautiful music, powerful drums and an effective beat. The narrative is interesting and told in the same stunning, colorful 2D aesthetic. Levels are creative, diverse (with different settings include land or water), and appear well designed in terms of action, spacing of foes, and pacing. The demo was fun to play and a treat for the senses.
Balam (Bad Tomato Games) is described as a 2D metroidvania action video game inspired by Mayan culture. The title character, whose name means jaguar, is a young mute girl on a journey to becoming a great jaguar warrior.
Core game mechanics are made to reflect jaguar movements as well as elements of Mayan culture. Those featured in the demo include a claw melee attack, cosmic light, double jump and sprint. The attack can be made in the direction pointing to injure foes or break barriers such as vines, and can be carried out while in midair. Jumps can be used to traverse hazards or climb and leap from platform to platform. And sprints allow players to pass through an area they briefly open.
The gameplay is fairly standard for an action platformer but is well implemented and responsive. Solid level design allows vertical traversal in the air, on the ground and below ground, with loot scattered throughout awaiting discovery. Ground and air enemies use melee and projectile attacks and vary in speed and tactics to keep players on their toes. The detailed and colorful environments, quality sound effects and fluid animation combine with the enjoyable gameplay for an entertaining demo and a promising action game.
Bloodroots (Paper Cult) is what you get if you crossed a Quentin Tarantino movie with a Saturday morning cartoon. The cartoon version of colonial America is the setting for a bloody tale of revenge as your character hunts down the partners that betrayed him and left him for dead.
The fast-paced action tasks players with making use of a variety of items to smash, slice and crush foes on the way to clearing each level and exacting revenge. Everything is a potential weapon whether an axe, stick, ladder, barrel, cart, wheel or even carrot. If especially proficient, combos create an opportunity for even more damage.
Scenarios can see players ride a cart into enemies and take its wheels to finish off other foes, swing a ladder at enemies before using it to scale a ridge, or start a fire that consumes a house, foes and maybe the player. One button picks up items, another attacks and one other jumps. The action is quick and demands near constant movement.
Levels are littered with all kinds of items, plenty of enemies, varied layouts and a pleasant colorful cartoon aesthetic that helps balance the wanton destruction. Controls are fairly intuitive and responsive so the action flows nicely, and the fluid animation and effects keep pace to ensure the excitement never lets up in this gritty brawler.
WaveBreak (Funktronic Labs) is what would happen if someone brought a speedboat to a skate park. Taking its cue from Tony Hawk Pro Skater and WaveRace 64, the game encourages players to grab, grind, and kick-flip their boats in exotic locales.
There are plans for a campaign and narrative, though the levels are designed from the ground up to provide a fun environment for pulling off insane tricks and chaining together impressive stunts. Whether grinding on a rail or virtually any edge, leaping off jumps or nailing midair stunts, WaveBreak promotes a thrilling joyride whether on water or platforms.
Accentuating the playful spirit of the game is an art style that is lifted from the '80s. Colorful pastels, a catchy score and neon accolades, not to mention appealing animal avatars, combine for an entertaining context to the enjoyable gameplay. Playing alone or with a friend, the game should appeal to fans of skating games or anyone who just wants to have fun exploring the possibilities of a giant aquatic skate park.
(SEE "ABOUT" PAGE FOR LINKS TO SPECIFIC BLOGS.)