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.
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