Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Oct. 9th
IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games took over downtown Culver City this past weekend, giving gamers like myself the chance to get hands on with games we’d only read about. The festival also brought together indie designers and academics to talk about the intricacies of game design and the very nature of play.
Taken together these two aspects of the festival make for a heady gestalt of stimulation: video games pop with color, immersive audio games evoke unseen spaces, and the conference panels engage the intellect with koan like statements from evangelists of play. It is about as far from the pure marketing spectacle of E3 as you can get without losing that all important sense of fun.
What follows are some my notes from the weekend, a hodgepodge of capsule game impressions (reviews would be a stretch) and snippets of insight I gained while touring the grounds and attending the conference panels. A travelogue, if you will, of my time spent in the alternate, ludocentric reality of independent games.
GAME: Hidden In Plain Sight
For a brief moment I got revenge on John Romero for all those games of Doom that freaked me out as a kid. We both found ourselves at the display for Hidden In Plain Sight, an XBLA indie marketplace game that is a pure local multiplayer experience. HIPS is a throwback to the days when multiplayer meant packing all of your friends into a room, plugging in your controllers (trying not to trip on all the wires) and then doing your damnedest to earn bragging rights.
Many a controller has been lost over the years to these couch contests. Mostly due to the fact that I had a habit of throwing them at the wall when I lost. (I’m much better now that I just drink instead.)
HIPS is a mini-game collection, with each game being a variation on a central theme of uncovering the identity of the other players’ characters and eliminating them. ‘Ninja Party’ is the most straight-forward example, and the game that I bested Romero at for a turn, before he proceeded to kick my ass for the next few rounds.
The screen for ‘Ninja Party’ resembles the old Robotron 2084 game board, with dozens of sprite based characters roaming around. Only here they are all the same sprite: a grey and black clad ninja, most of which are controlled by the computer. Up to four of the ninjas are your opponents, and the goal is to either tag in to all five of the totems that are on-screen or eliminate your opponents.
First, though, you have to figure out which sprite is yours. With all of the characters looking identical it can take a moment to suss out which is the one you are controlling. I used the tried and true “spin the character around like a manic” method. Which works the fastest, but also gives away your position to the other players.
After that it’s a challenge to blend your ninja in with the others, all while trying to figure out which ones belong to the other players. When you think you have one, it’s time to attack. Success means knocking out another player, knock out one of the computer’s ninjas and all you’ve done is given away your position.
Alternatively you can go for a totem win, but each time you check in a tone sounds and a little “wave of energy” emits from the totem, also giving away your position.
Rounds are quick, around three minutes, and the game elicits hoots and hollers from both players and any bystanders. For all of 80 Microsoft Points (that’s .99 cents for you regular folk), on XBox’s Marketplace, HIPS is a steal.
IDEA: The Revenge of Couch Co-Op
HIPS is part of a renaissance in living room multiplayer and “couch co-op” games that are recapturing some of the fun that’s been lost to years of online multiplayer. The notion that people might actually enjoy playing together- in the flesh- is one that pervades Indiecade. Some people talk about it in terms of E-sports, of which the game Hokra is one popular example. Four players player a hockey-like game, that features simple graphics and pick-up-and-play controls.(I talked with Hokra’s designer Ramiro Corbetta at the IndieCade booth at E3 earlier this year.)
The trick to “couch” multiplayer is that the real action isn’t on screen: it’s in the room. HIPS developer Adam Spragg told me that the problem with making a video to promote his game is that showing the game screens in action isn’t enough to get the fun across. To do that you’d really have to show the players: laughing, bragging, shouting… all the things that make a local multiplayer game truly engaging: other people. The game itself becomes a medium for play, as opposed to the end in and of itself.
Theres a hunger here on the part of developers and players alike to forge these experiences. Groups of players gathered around HIPS, Hokra, the iPad game Bloop and arcade shooter Super Space _____. To play together is to create a real bond through a simple encounter. It is the eternal spring from which the power of games is reinvigorated.
I had a lot of questions about Vornheim: The Complete City Kit going into IndieCade, like how in the heck does a Dungeons & Dragons supplement win the award for technology in a nominee lineup dominated by video games? After a few minutes with developer Zak S. I understand the reason, well one of the reasons, that the jury gave this tiny tome of paper and ink the technology prize.
Zak S. has turned the book itself into a part of the mechanics of D&D.
For example: the back cover of the book is inscribed with a series of numbers and hit locations. If your character is attacked with, say, a fusillade of arrows, instead of resolving each attack separately (which can take minutes) all the GM has to do is toss the damage dice on the book. One column lets you know the to-hit number, the other the hit location, and the die itself is damage. Direct, elegant, “Apple obvious”, and a major transformation of the medium of the book.
Inside the cover are even more ideas that reshape the given tools of pen and paper RPGs into tools for on the fly world generation. Need a quick layout for a building? Take a sheet of paper and a six-sided die. Drop the die on the paper. The number is how many walls converge on the point where the die landed.
It’s the kind of thing that made this old gamemaster wonder why he hadn’t thought of it. Which are some of my favorite things to find out here in the world.
Adam Spragg • Bloom • casual games • Culver City • games • Hidden In Plain Sight • Hokra • independent games • indie games • IndieCade • play • role playing games • video games • Vornheim • XBLA • Zak S.