Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fantastic Arcade

"Don't be a fucking pussy."

This is something Johnathan Blow, maker of widely acclaimed indie title Braid, told everybody today at a panel about indie games. "Making indie games is only terrifying if you have nothing serious to worry about" he continued, responding to comments made by fellow panelists Jim Monroe and Derek Yu that getting into the indie development scene can be "terrifying."

This was one of many highlights of day 1 of the festival, which also included special movie screenings, showcases from local Texas developers, after parties that I didn't go to, and of course many, many awesome games. So below I'll briefly go over the coolest things I saw and did.

The first thing I saw was a 1:1 recreation of the room I was in in Left 4 Dead 2. Joshua Driggs (AKA Zapwizard) was commissioned by Fantastic Fest to recreate the Highball, Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and parking lot in the game. He did an extremely good job and literally recreated everything to an absurd degree. He told me that the map will be available for download in a little more than a week, so stay on the lookout for that. His website also goes into detail on how he made it, if you're interested.

The first indie game I played was Enviro-Bear 2000. This game, like the other "spotlight games," was given its own detailed arcade cabinet in addition to a spot on the computers they set up in the main room. I almost dismissed it, but once I figured out its insane controls I was hooked and played for seven levels straight. In the game you play as a bear driving around the woods looking for enough food to hibernate before time runs out and winter starts. The catch is, you can only drive the car with one hand. That means pressing the gas and break, holding the steering wheel and switching gears (from drive to reverse and vice versa) one at a time. Obviously the car is difficult to steer. The artwork relays how ridiculous the concept is, though if you eat a colorful mushroom in the game all the graphics turn photo-realistic. Somehow, it's more bizarre that way.

After that, I went to go see Richard Garriott deliver his "keynote speech to kick off the inaugural Fantastic Fest Arcade." It was merely okay. In it, he mentioned how important it is to focus on selling an authentic experience in a game, that he's an "indie" developer because he has a new company, that he likes to collect stories, that you need to work hard and play hard, that he went into space, and he summed it all up by saying "geeks and gamers will rule the world."

I asked the person next to me if they could summarize what the man's speech was about in a sentence. They couldn't. But I could do it in two words: Richard Garriott. The man basically talked about himself for a little under an hour. So that was weird.

Following that was the panel with Johnathan Blow, Jim Munroe and Derek Yu, hosted by Brandon Boyer. The panel was called "Declaration of Independents" and was about how each member of the panel got into making indie games. At one point Boyer asked the panel whether or not they would consider today to be a "Golden Age" for indie games. Johnathan Blow responded by saying that there are a lot more people making games today thanks to stuff like game jams, but that "game jam culture" is damaging because it doesn't focus enough on exploring game mechanics more fully, and that we would benefit greatly from artists deeply investigating their subject matter.

After that panel, I went and played Feist for a while. Another game with difficult-to-master controls, Feist surprised me with its puzzles and strange enemies. Eventually it won me over with its floaty physics engine and strange silhouette-style art. The idea that your main character was a fuzzball whose health was measured in how much hair it had amused me though. I won't be surprised if people compare it to Braid when it comes out, though this game is far less mechanic-oriented and more style/narrative based.

In Cactus's Norrland, you essentially play a redneck on a hunting trip, and not one grizzly detail of the process is left out. There are Warioware-style mini-games for eating, drinking, pissing, shitting, masturbating (yep!) and dreaming (those are the most interesting ones). There are also mini-games for fighting deer, bears and other woodland creatures that may attack you. The game's style is one of the most interesting I've seen, with an extreme retro look overlayed by what I can only call distortion. This was possibly the most engaging game I played during the festival, at least so far.

Then I was the first to lose during the Canabalt tournament, which is essentially the same thing as saying that I was the first person to play in the tournament. Oh Canabalt. If we were playing the iPhone version I would have won, just saying...

Nidhogg was an incredibly simple and incredibly fun multi-player game. The setup included two NES controllers, which was a plus. The way the guide book describes it is "fencing meets football," and that's essentially what it is. You fight with the other player to the death, except you have infinite lives and the point isn't to kill them, but to get as far on their side as possible. Once you get all the way to the end of their side of the map, you win. Simple mechanics done well make this a great multiplayer game.

The most depressing game I saw was Ulitsa Dimitrova. The website sums it up nicely: "This is a game about a seven year old homeless child who lives in St. Petersburg. He's a chainsmoker and has to get cigarettes all the time. And if you stop playing, things come even worse..." Spoiler alert: you die.

Every game I played today was really good. Unlike today's mass-market pleasure-center-stoking games like Call of Duty or Halo or World of Warcraft, these games attempted to get the player to stop focusing on victory and start focusing on what makes them special. The common thread among all the games, whether presented in art style, gameplay or sound, was that they made you wonder why the games were made they way they were. That, my friends, is one of the hallmarks of good art.

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