Rise of the Planet of the Indies

It’s crazy to think that with all the mega-hyped games and AAA titles on display at E3 2014, the games I walked out of the Los Angeles Convention Center buzzing about most were two indie games. It was a sentiment that felt especially strange considering that until recently, I never considered myself much of an “indie” guy. I was one of those naysayers who assumed that “indie” implied a lesser experience. After all, how can a small team with little-to-no budget create something to compete with my yearly installment of Assassin’s Creed? Well, turns out they’re not supposed to; that’s never been the goal. Indie titles are the experimentation in experiences that try new mechanics or tell narratives that large publishers dare not risk. In an ideal world, they compliment the big guys, telling a well rounded story of the gaming industry as a whole. Indies were a big focus of E3 this year, and based on the few that I played, I’d say it’s for good reason.

Maybe it sounds a tad too cliche, but E3 as a whole really is an extreme exercise in focus. Running between halls to tackle multiple interviews, waiting in lines and gazing dreamily at countless IGN personalities left very little time to squeeze in demos. None-the-less, I crammed in as many hands-on sessions as my schedule would allow, which happened to include two indie games: one in the Sony booth running on PS4 called Starwhal: Just the Tip and the other featured in the Indiecade called Project Heera: Diamond Heist.

Starwhal: Just the Tip is about as straightforward as games can get (though admittedly less suggestive than what the name may imply). You control a dolphin-esque creature called a Narwhal. Narwhals come equipt with a sharp, needle-like nose and a giant heart protruding from their chest. Your only goal is to propel the creature forward, twisting and turning in any direction necessary to impail your opponent’s hearts. Up to four players can jump into a single session which leads to some serious chaos and nail-biting gameplay. For my time with it, I went head-to-head with Nicole and had an absolute blast throwing friendship out the window in favor of some spirited competition. Things got intense towards the end, but that’s perhaps a story for another piece.

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On the opposite end of the convention, in the modestly populated Indiecade, Project Heera: Diamond Heist was a co-op game that pitted you against two other players in an asymmetric experience designed with eSports in mind. Each round of the game sees a team of thieves attempting to steal up to four diamonds scattered around a mid-scale map. The other team, playing the part of cops, must patrol the map in hopes of finding and destroying the robbers before they escape with any of the precious gems. The catch is that opponents only show up in a limited field of vision extending from the front of your ship, meaning that if they leave your cone or cruise around a corner, they become invisible once again. Kirk and I paired up against a mystery duo for our inaugural game, but I’ll save the juicy deets for my first impressions.

Big Experience, Smaller Scale

So, come 5:00 PM on the final day of E3, the lights dim and the doors close at the Los Angeles Convention Center. How is it that after having played mega titles like Evolve or Sunset Overdrive, I left the show reminiscing almost exclusively on Starwhal and and Project Heera? Don’t get me wrong, all the AAA titles that I tried out were great games offering some diverse experiences, but the very nature of E3 left it very hard to walk away from each game thoroughly satisfied.

These big titles have equally big ambitions and complexities that are impossible to master, much less grasp, in just 10-15 minutes. Looking at a reference card for 30 seconds to get an idea of the controls does nothing to ease the initial confusion when the game boots up. Plus, with the handful of on-lookers and developers monitoring your experience, the pressure to comprehend and “get it” gets turned up to almost uncomfortable levels. Sure, by the end, you know what’s going on for the most part, but it is by no means an ideal setting to enjoy a new game.

Which brings me back to my indie experiences; my moments of the show, if you will. These games, by their very nature are designed to be pick up and play experiences. With their low barrier to entry, a short explanation of goals and a run down of their simple mechanics were all I needed to enjoy the games straight out of the gate. Within seconds I was able to grasp what was going on, allowing me to focus on the game rather than the controls. This stood in stark contrast to Evolve where I almost felt embarrassed as others watched me fumble over which button does what. Sure, more time would have leveled the playing field, but time wasn’t a commodity I could abuse.

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Starwhal and Project Heera were experiences tooled towards the atmosphere of a tradeshow. They’re not necessarily better games, they just show better in a time restricted, lively environment. It’s a trait that plays well towards the indie devs because when visibility is your biggest obstacle towards adoption, every moment counts. Fortunately in the case of both of these titles, each game respectively nailed it.

E3 is an atmosphere built on hype. The bigger the developer, the larger the budget, the better it thrives amongst the industry moguls. Starwhal and Project Heera served as a reminder and as a breath of fresh air, proving that there is a lot of talent and unique ideas coming from people that don’t get to see enough of the spotlight. So I would encourage, between your Evolves and your Assassin’s Creeds, check out some indie titles currently available or coming soon. You’d be doing yourself, the industry and a lot of small developers a huge favor by doing so. And hey, if you don’t know where to start, the two mentioned here totally warrant a recommendation.

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