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IndieCade: A look at some of the year's most exciting games

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Stroll end to end at IndieCade, a now-annual game festival and conference in Culver City, and there’s as much for the spectator as there is for the player.
 
Look right, and four people are walking around with robots on their heads, walk left and players are gazing off into digital worlds via virtual reality headsets. In between, players sampled a crowd-funded board game such as “The Perfect Heist,” or tried out new games for Nintendo’s Wii U and Sony’s upcoming PS4.
 
Well over 120 games were playable at the four-day IndieCade. Ten awards were handed out on Thursday night to a potential 36 nominees and an additional 19 games were on display as honorary mentions. One can spend four days playing games at IndieCade and barely scratch the surface of what’s available.
 
The 7-year-old event recognizes only independent games, a now thriving alternative to mainstream games due to the availability of download services on PCs and home consoles. For its 2013 ceremony, IndieCade received more than 800 submissions for one of its potential awards. Seven years ago, IndieCade received 98 submissions.
 
“We can change the kind of games that are in the world if we can change the context and community in which they are built,” said USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor Tracy Fullerton at IndieCade’s opening gala. Fullerton was honored as a “trailblazer,” the fest’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, and the spirit of risk-taking innovation of which she spoke was evident in many an IndieCade game.
 
Some of the award-winning games have the potential for mass appeal, such as the goofy Wii U party game “Bumpie’s Party: Spin the Bottle.” The latter, from Denmark’s KnapNok Games, requires the Wii U’s GamePad controller but not a TV, and it won IndieCade’s technology prize. Others, such as grand jury winner “Quadrilateral Cowboy,” a hacking game set in the ‘80s, are still in development.
 
Jake Elliott  one of the designers of “Kentucky Route Zero,” an abstract narrative game set in a desolate truck stop town, thanked William Faulkner for his inspiration when accepting the award for story/world design. Another narrative-focused game, “Gone Home,” took the prize for audio design, its story of one family’s past and failing told through melancholic ambience and riot grrl songs.
 
Some nominated games will be available soon for home consoles, such as “Super Time Force,”  a retro-styled platformer with time manipulation twists. Others, such as “Gunpoint,” a game that replaces conventional video game weapons (read: guns) with absurdly powerful pants have already become indie success stories.
 
But platform doesn’t matter at IndieCade. “Dog Eat Dog” is a politically focused card game that won the impact award, while the fast-paced and hectic “Spaceteam” is available only for mobile devices and was recognized with the interaction award. A special-recognition trophy went to indie designer Porpentine, whose many choose-your-own-adventure-type games showcase game storytelling at its most avant-garde.
 
Hero Complex spent three days at IndieCade talking to developers and playing as many games as possible. Below is a sampling of the titles that made a lasting impression. In the days and weeks ahead, however, Hero Complex will have more on the games and personalities of the independent community.

“Bumpie’s Party: Spin the Bottle”
 
The following three things happened within five minutes of playing “Bumpie’s Party: Spin the Bottle”: I did the waltz with a 10 year-old stranger, attempted to cut down a virtual tree with my eyes closed and then contorted my body around that of another stranger – this one a grown adult woman – in a “Twister”-like attempt to grab a video game controller that lay just beyond her. Hands were held, legs were grasped and everyone felt a little embarrassed.
 
This, says developer Dajana Dimovska, is the goal. The team at KnapNok Games wants players to get physical, get close and get awkward. Their Wii U title, “Bumpie’s Party: Spin the Bottle,” does so in the most cutesy way possible. There is no kissing required, but pastel-colored worm-like creatures will urge players to take part in odd little party games that will force everyone to get to know each other fast.
 
The game shifts attention away from the TV to focus on the Wii U’s GamePad and handheld controllers. Sometimes players will get close, being asked, for instance, to squeeze buttons on a controller using only their nose, with only the controller separating their faces from touching. Others are more rhythmic, asking players to hug and jump to a beat.
 
“If you don’t know the people, of if you’re an adult, you don’t really know if this OK,” says Dimovska. “Can I actually touch this person? Is it too much if I hold your hand? That’s a dynamic I really love. I love making people do stuff that’s out of the ordinary, but at the same time it’s innocent and family friendly. It’s the setting that makes it a different experience.”

“Extrasolar”
 
It’s been a little more than a year since NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity successfully began its mission on the red planet, while scientists at  Jet Propulsion Laboratory and science geeks worldwide watched with nail-biting suspense. Now, a group of space-lovers are working on “Extrasolar,” a game that aims to replicate the sense of wonder Curiosity inspired.
 
“We wanted to give people a realistic experience, similar to something they’d experience if they actually worked for NASA or JPL,” said Keith Turkowski, one of the game’s developers and a former JPL employee.
 
In the game, a fictional company called XRI (eXoplanetary Research Institute) recruits explorers to pilot their own rovers on an alien planet in the habitable zone. Each player’s world is completely unique, though the stars in the virtual sky are all mapped based on NASA’s star database.
 
The Web-based game features a 150-page storyline (think government conspiracy), but the real thrill might be its open-world exploration. Players take pictures of their discoveries — including plant-like and animal-like lifeforms — which are then cataloged by biologists, geologists and other scientists on their team. (“Extrasolar’s” developers count a biologist among them, so expect the game’s discoveries and their scientific descriptions to make full use of that expertise.)
 
If you’re a science-loving NASA geek who enjoys an occasional game of “Pokémon Snap,” “Extrasolar” might be for you.

“Gone Home”
 
Explore one house and discover untold secrets about a family. A father struggled with failed ambitions, a younger sister expressed nervousness at coming to terms with her homosexuality and generations of family members generally struggled with expectations of their relatives. Much of it was boxed up, put in drawers or hidden in the back pages of books or up in attics.
 
“Gone Home,” out now as a PC download, will likely feel more personal than any game you’ll play this year. It’s tone is that of a mystery. Players explore it from the first-person perspective of a college-aged daughter, Katie, who has been studying abroad and is visiting the family’s new home for the first time. She arrives to an empty house, but the sense isn’t necessarily one of panic, as Katie uses the time alone to get to know her new surroundings and family, mainly her younger sister Sam.
 
Set in the mid-’90s, Katie is unable to just go online and dig through emails. Instead, she listens to mix tapes, reads forgotten letters and peruses diaries. What Katie uncovers is an enthralling tale of teenage lust, love and heartbreak, all of it told with a riot grrl edge. “Gone Home” uses the punk rock songs of Bratmobile to better capture Sam’s sense of isolation from her peers, but newfound belonging to an underground music community.
 
“We were telling a story about a teen girl, so we wanted to have riot grrl music and zines and show fliers and all this ephemera from the era,” says one of the game’s primary architects, Steve Gaynor.
 
Katie’s sister Sam has been hiding her sexuality from many of her friends and family. She’s concerned about bullying, worried her friend doesn’t feel the same and generally just unsure how mom and dad will react. Katie discovers Sam’s journals and letters unsent to her big sister, as well as her music collection. All along, players simply wander the house and explore, letting “Gone Home’s” story reveal itself through the player’s inquisitiveness.
 
“We said up front that there will be no threats in this game,” Gaynor says. “Nothing will kill you. You will fight nothing. You won’t have to run from anything. We were very open. There is no one else in the house. You will not encounter anyone else. On the other hand, if we made the atmosphere very light and comfortable, you would lose the tension that makes you feel motivated to solving this mystery. You need to be naturally motivated by your curiosity.”

“Gravity Ghost”
 
It’s difficult to capture the essence of “Gravity Ghost” in words when the game is so much about feeling and sound.
 
Players become the ghost of a recently deceased 12-year-old girl who starts the game on a mission to find her fox friend but later ends up putting a shattered galaxy back together, encountering gorgeously hand-painted characters and creatures (including magical guardians) to Ben Prunty‘s (composer for “FTL: Faster Than Light“) hauntingly beautiful soundtrack.
 
“Later on in the game, she finds this planet that was smashed to pieces, and there’s people living on some of the pieces that she needs to rescue, who need her help,” said Erin Robinson, the game’s creator. “And even though she’s dead, and nobody rescued her, she gets to rescue them. It’s kind of like passing it forward.”
 
Playing is simple, though not necessarily easy. Use the gravity of small planets to move through space, and collect a star to open the door to the next level.
 
“It’s actually pretty tricky to learn about the gravity of how to move around,” Robinson said. “But there’s no way to fail, so people will keep trying for a long time.”
 
Robinson said she hoped the game would appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.
 
“I’m trying to split the difference between something that’ll appeal to the average gamer versus something they can share with family. It’s very peaceful. There’s no killing or dying. They can share it with somebody who maybe gave up on video games a long time ago as not for them. I’m trying to bring those people back.”
 
Let “Gravity Ghost” lure you in. You won’t regret it.

“Pico”
 
You know those annoying pop-up windows that get in the way when you’re browsing the Internet? “Pico” aims to alleviate some of that frustration with an adorable puzzle game.
 
“We wanted to try to take that experience and make it a positive one and try to make a game out of this,” said Romain Deciron, one of the game’s four developers, all from Carnegie Mellon University but now based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “System windows [create] an environment that people are not used to playing in.”
 
The game employs a series of mini-windows that can be overlayed to snap together, creating a path for your character (a boy named Pico) to complete each level. The windows contain one or more platforms, and there are multiple ways to solve each level as Pico tries to find his father in the fragmented world.
 
The game is being developed for PC, Mac and Linux.

“Rogue Legacy”
 
Imagine you’re a knight, battling your way through a tower or a garden or a dungeon, but you’re suffering from head-spinning vertigo. Or color-blindness. Or irritable bowel syndrome.
 
In “Rogue Legacy,” a retro-inspired dungeon crawler for PC, Mac and Linux, these are just a handful of the 27 genetic quirks your character might endure. Some of the genetic traits affect gameplay (a character with vertigo must traverse the realm while the screen is flipped upside down and backwards), and others are less relevant to your quest.
 
“With IBS, you just fart when you jump from time to time; it’s pretty moot,” said Gordon McGladdery, the game’s sound designer and composer. “The enemies don’t make fun of you for it or anything.”
 
But don’t get too comfortable with any one genetic cocktail. Characters die quickly, and upon death, players can select from three of the character’s progeny — each endowed with his or her own randomly generated genetic quirks, which may or may not affect your ability to collect treasure and kill baddies.

“Rollers of the Realm”
 
Pinball and role-playing games may seem like strange bedfellows, but spend five minutes playing “Rollers of the Realm,” and you’ll be addicted to this pinball puzzle RPG. This lushly illustrated game seamlessly incorporates the immersive storyline and character development of a fantasy adventure game and the simple (yet infinitely variable) gameplay of pinball.
 
Developed by Canadian indie gamemaker Phantom Compass along with a group of friends who lost their jobs at triple-A game companies, “Rollers of the Realm” takes a page from nearly-forgotten classics like NES’ “Pinball Quest” and Sega Genesis’ “Sonic Spinball.”
 
“People hadn’t done this idea in 20 years,” said Ericka Evans, the game’s producer. “It’s a weird mashup, but we’ve taken it about as far as we feel we can take it.”
 
The game features plenty of pinball combat, and the main paddles serve as health bars, which come under attack by enemies with long-range weapons.
 
Players start with one character ball, a rogue orphan girl who meets a knight (“He’s kind of like your tank character,” Evans says) who gets her into trouble. She loses her dog (the multi-ball) to some baddies, and her quest begins. Players can collect up to 10 characters — some through the story, some hired with gold won in gameplay — each a typical RPG class, like healer, magic user and alchemist. Characters have different agility levels, represented by classic pinball tilt mechanics; lighter characters can be nudged more than heavier ones.
 
The game, still in Beta, is currently PC-only, but Evans says the team hopes for eventual console release.

“Save the Date”
 
Ninjas attacked. Planes crashed. Balconies crumbled. And all you did was ask someone on a date. Chris Cornell’s “Save the Date” offers a number of definitive answers to the go-to conversational topic of how awful can a date actually get. It all starts normal enough, with chit-chat over fish tacos or amusing stories about a date’s peanut allergies, but it all soon takes a turn for the tragic – and the meta.
 
Using only conversation, “Save the Date” puts the player on a first date. Repeatedly. Scenarios can turn absurd in a matter of 30 seconds or a few minutes, but similar to “Groundhog Day,” the knowledge of the past events live with the protagonist and no one else. It soon has the player’s character ranting like a crazy person, promising the object of his affection that she will die if she leaves her house.
 
Using welcoming lounge music and bold, watercolor-like postcard art, “Save the Date” pokes fun at games as much as it does our Web-savvy world of online dating, where everyone is a search-engine away from potentially revealing details about a stranger. There’s no real action or challenge, as one only has to choose what to say, but the longer one plays and the more knowledge is gleamed, “Save the Date’s” main character becomes in danger of living inside his own head, unable to connect with anyone.
 
“The whole thing is an hour-, hour-and-a-half-long experience,” says Cornell, whose day job is as a Google developer. He adds, “I actually had to reassure my mom and tell her not to read too much into this. It’s structured this way because of the story I wanted to tell and not anything I wanted to say about my love life.”

“Spaceteam”
 
Talking to “Spaceteam” creator Henry Smith is not always easy, especially if people are playing his game nearby. Ask a question, and chances are it will be drowned out. “Soak Ferrous Holospectrum!” shouts one player one moment. “Turn T-booster,” shouts another moments later.
 
“Spaceteam” is high-stress nonsense, but high-stress nonsense at its most absurd, addictive and ridiculous. Available now for iOS and Android, think of “Spaceteam” as a board game for mobile devices. It requires at least two people to play, and they must be in the same room, as “Spaceteam” relies on face-to-face cooperation. Or at least attempts at cooperation.
 
The concept is simple, as players are crew members on a ship that’s in danger of exploding. A screen shows little more than a makeshift engineering panel, something that looks resurrected from an old episode of “Buck Rogers.” Players shout orders (“Spaceteam” gets loud quickly) at one another to prevent disaster. Each player’s screen displays a different aspect of the ship’s console, so one player’s Voltsock is another player’s Newtonian Photomist.
 
Here’s a tip Hero Complex found out the hard way: Don’t play it in the office. Or, actually, maybe you should, says Smith, who went indie after working at companies such as BioWare. Smith says “Spaceteam” can be used for team-building and lessons in multi-tasking.
 
“I’ve had lots of stories from people who hate games but like ‘Spaceteam,’” Smith says. “Some people have used it to train medical students in high-stress environments. An online dating coach uses it as an icebreaker at singles parties to keep people smiling and talking.”
 
So, perhaps “Spaceteam” is the cure to your next awkward first date?
 
“If you guys can make a good ‘Spaceteam’ together,” then I think that’s a good sign.

“Super Time Force”
 
The video games of the ‘80s are known for being relatively unforgiving. Anyone who has played “Super Mario Bros.” is likely pretty familiar with the early levels of the game, less familiar with the middle and later ones. So it’s fitting that players will die an awful lot in Capybara’s upcoming vintage-inspired “Super Time Force,” due on Xbox Live Arcade in late 2013 or early 2014.
 
Only dying doesn’t really matter, as “Super Time Force” allows you to manipulate and control the game’s space-time continuum. Lose a life? Then hit rewind and save yourself. Then pick another character and fight alongside your formerly dead avatar.
 
And that barely scratches the surface of how crazy “Super Time Force” can get. Little details populate every inch of the screen, which is outfitted in bright, action-packed pixel-styled artwork. Skateboard into enemies, duck lasers, dig below city streets, claw away at buses and watch robots fly off in the distance.
 
Play, for instance, as a dinosaur (Zackasaurus Dinosaur, to be exact) or a metal-loving bazooka wilder or the not-so-subtly named Aimy McKillin, a red-haired sniper ace. By the time the game is finished, says one of its developers, Kenneth Yeung, expect maybe 15 or 20. Early previews have shown the game isn’t afraid of toilet humor, as one character is a living feces.
 
“It’s a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Yeung says. “There’s going to be a whole bunch of crazy characters who aren’t super useful. “
 
– Todd Martens and Noelene Clark

Story originally published at latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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