The megabooths have been disassembled, the lanyards have been discarded and the crowds have dissipated - Gamescom has run its course for another year. RPS sent its two best Smiths to Cologne last week. Their brief was to see the games, talk to the creators and meet as many terrifying mechanical puppets as possible. They succeeded on all fronts and returned with tales of Elite: Dangerous, Pathologic, Warhammer and Dead Island, among many other delights and disappointments. Here are their thoughts on the show as a whole, along with a few highlights.
Graham: When I say "GAMES", you say "COM!" GAMES
Graham: *throws tshirts*
Adam: *turns tables*
Adam: We had a blast, didn't we? At that there Gamescom?
Graham: The 2014 games conference in Cologne, Germany which ended on Sunday but which we attended Wednesday through Friday? Why yes. I think it was a good year.
Adam: Did you detect any trends? I should probably have been trying to detect trends instead of looking in all of the darkest corners for developers with tales to tell.
There were two Kojima things actually - is two things a trend? - one is that Metal Gear Solid V is coming to PC and the other is that he is working on a new Silent Hill with Guillermo Del Toro. I'm not supposed to be excited about that because it's a PS4 thing but, blimey, am I excited about that. Even though I think Del Toro is better as a monster maker than a storyteller.
Graham: Maybe Kojima will be responsible for the story. That makes it a sure fire hit.
Adam: Ah, but in Silent Hill the story should be entirely responsible for the monsters. Profound stuff in those spookfests, I tell you.
Graham: I detected the continuation of longstanding trends. There were a lot of zombie games - I played both Dead Island 2 and Dying Light - and a lot of spaceship games - like Elite, which I played on DK2, plus Star Citizen, Star Conflict, indie things like Galak-Z...
Adam: I barely encountered any zombies or spaceships, which made it an unusual and confusing trip. Lots of fantasy bits and bobs in my bag o' previews though. Did you intentionally make sure I spent time with the elves and the orcs?
Graham: In fact, that was maybe the best trend: there were more indie games at Gamescom this year, it seemed to me. "Indie games" is obviously a trend from, like, six years ago, but it's maybe interesting that the conference is becoming more relevant to them.
Graham: You insisted on seeing the orcs. It would have been folly to stand in your way.
Adam: So many indie thingies. There wasn't a budget, large or otherwise, in sight on most of the stands I visited. I suspect the growth at Gamescom may well be linked to Sony's warmth toward the smaller developer.
But it really does make visiting stands so much more interesting. I had a meeting with one of the team behind Reus and Renowned Explorers, and the latter, which they had at the show, looks brilliant. It's a game about gathering artifacts to show at the great exhibition that looks more like TinTin than Uncharted. That makes me happy. Variety, not just in mechanics and genre, but in style and inspiration.
Graham: What was the finest indie thing you saw?
Adam: I think it was a Mansun gig...but seriously? I can't remember - let me check my schedule.
Graham: I WILL GO FIRST.
Adam: Well, according to the schedule it probaly was Renowned Explorers but I almost certainly chattered away to other people between official meetings. And I met Ice-Pick Lodge, which definitely counts as 'seeing an indie thing'. Even though that was for conversation rather than play.
Graham: YOU CAN GO FIRST.
Adam: NO YOU. Even though I have.
Graham: For me, it was Galak-Z. It's got an easy hook - a procedurally generated top-down space shooter, which makes it to arcade shmups as Spelunky is to platformers. As in, it takes the satisfying movement mechanics and grafts them to something altogether smarter, with a Halo-like ecosystem among its alien factions and proper stealth-in-space mechanics for hiding your attacks.
Graham: Also it's inspired by early-'80s imported Japanese cartoons, so presentationally it's extremely slick. It feels fully-formed in ways that make its existence seem obvious, inevitable.
Adam: That is a pleasing combination of words.
Graham: I played it for an hour and would have gladly stayed in that hotel room all day.
Adam: There's a real joy to that - having a game described to you, or seeing it for the first time, and feeling like it's very silly that it doesn't already exist. I haven't played it yet - only seen it being played - but Mordheim has that feel. Developed by a team in Montreal with delicious accents, it's based on a Warhammer tabletop game and its sort of like Skaven meet XCOM.
Squad-level turn-based fantasy scraps on procedural maps. It immediately made sense to me and I wanted to play it for hours and hours. They wouldn't let me though, the meanies.
Graham: "X meets XCOM" is a thing I want more of.
Adam: It's terribly obvious and terribly Terror From The Deep, but make X 'Lovecraft' and I'd be quite happy. Although now I'm imagining Poe and Lovecraft as squad members, fighting against their own demons. It's a dark comedy, directed by....ugh...Tim Burton.
Graham: This is the problem with videogames. They're not derivative enough.
Adam: If only we were in charge. Did you see anything startlingly original? I did. But you go first so I can be all smug about it.
Graham: I did not. All I saw was people mining niche territory for winning novelty (i.e. The Next Penelope, a Micro Machines meets F-Zero racing game inspired by Ulysses 31), but nothing that I can't describe by saying that it's Thing 2 or Thing meets Other Thing. What have you seen, Adam?
Adam: In terms of how the thing will actually play, I suppose I'm in the same boat actually - but I met a student by the name of Flurin Jenal who is working on extraordinary animation projects. This was during a meeting in which I was talking to Mike Huber, the lead designer of The Perils of Man, which is a lovely adventure game that I'll write more about at a later date. We started to discuss animation styles - as that is the background of Huber himself and his company - and he introduced me to Flurin.
Adam: So, here are two videos - the one above is a game using some of the animation techniques. It's a third-person beat 'em up meets X, I guess, but damned if I know exactly what X is. It looks a bit like many a gamejam experiment lurching into delirious life.
And this, using handpainted 3d environments. Also for a game, although I know very little about it. I think, sometimes, a change of feel is as important as a change in form. And the two influence and feed into one another.
Graham: Holy wow. That second video tickles at some fear response, like I've ingested something poisonous and now the pictures are coming to life. Heffalumps and woozles.
Adam: They're great, aren't they? And Flurin didn't even have a stand. Mike called him into our meeting because we were talking animation, which led to my conversation with Warren Spector, which led to ideas floating around like balloons at a parade. Happy times.
Graham: Was this the prettiest thing you saw at the show? Because it is. Surely.
Adam: Yes, without a doubt. Not to rag on The Witcher anymore than I already have (I'M SURE IT WILL PLEASE THE PEOPLE THAT IT PLEASES), but those videos are far more attractive than the wild hunt for perfect fidelity. Same with Ethan Carter, which I also saw - absolutely astonishing. Jaw-dropping. But it's impressive because it looks like what it isn't - reality. It's a beautiful trick and there's all kinds of ways to play with it, but it's a road rather than a destination.
Graham: I don't think I saw anything which bowled me over visually. Even Elite: Dangerous on the DK2. It's a lovely-looking game and the DK2 makes it look better than the DK1 - less of a visible pixel grid, mainly - but it was still blurry. I still couldn't read the on-screen text. The benefits in better headtracking are enormous, but I guess I've simply moved past the initial "holy crap I'm inside a game" stage and into the more reasonable "this is incrementally improved, good work" stage.
This says more about me than anything, but there was an initial wave of DK2 "they've done it!" press, and I think it's more a case of "they are continuing the process of doing it". Which is, of course, why the consumer version has not yet been released.
Adam: A thumb calmly raised to acknowledge the existence of virtual reality in an infinite universe. I think you're right. My only Rift experience this year was World of Diving, which is a lovely thing. Multiplayer exploration, with historical wrecks and procedural oceans. Great sense of movement and seeing 'your body' gives a strong sense of belonging.
But I'm terrified of the water, Graham. I was very frightened. It's a bright and colourful game, and here's me, practically cacking myself because I have to swim inside a crashed plane. Surely there are ghosts?
Graham: Were you eaten by a shark?
Adam: I'm more scared of the ghosts. I did see dolphins but they left me well alone. Closest I got to an actual encounter was a clownfish. I didn't know what else to do so I took a picture of it.
Graham: Maybe this is how you learn to overcome your fear. Slow exposure therapy in a virtual waterworld.
Adam: Sod that. It'd be tanks of water full of drowning, flailing spiders wearing dungarees (don't know why, but I just don't trust dungarees). Or Judge Doom's melting face, over and over, forever.
Graham: His flattened form curling around, eyes re-inflating.
Adam: STOP IT
Adam: Do you have a best of show ribbon? It must be awarded to anything other than an actual game. Perhaps you encountered a particularly fragrant handwash.
Graham: Papa Joe's Biersalon in the center of Cologne, a bar inside which two animatronic pup-pets wielding an accordion and a tuba would play a cover of Sex Bomb every 12 minutes. That gets my RPS Award For Best Animatronic Puppet Bar - Gamescom 2014.
Adam: That is the bar where I interviewed Ice-Pick Lodge, which means it wins my award as well. There's something about a recording of Pathologic and postmodern theatre discussion that has a cackling puppet interrupt every fifteen minutes.
Graham: This video is full of real humans (or more impressive puppets) playing instruments, but also the duo we're talking about.
Adam: I'll be writing about this at great length, but the Pathologic remake was already high on my most anticipated list. It might be at the top now. Everything about the original that might have been an accident of translation or of a poorly communicated style is not only smart, it's smarter than I thought. It might be the cleverest game in the world and that's partly because it's derivative as the rest, but it derives from theatre and literature rather than other games.
Anyway, enough of that. For now.
Graham: Question: if it wasn't your job, could you imagine attending Gamescom as a punter?
Adam: Absolutely not. I genuinely love going every year but only because I get to speak to the people who make the games. That's what I enjoy and that's where the interest is. Going to *play* games, or see them, doesn't appeal to me because the queues are long and the atmosphere is noisy and crowded.
But I can see why people who are part of some gaming culture go - the cosplayers and the multiplayers, and all the rest. That's just never really been me. My people live in the bars and the nightclubs rather than the gaming conventions. They gather often but in smaller numbers.
Graham: I can understand the desire to be closer to the games you love - to feel like you saw something special, saw something first, had an experience amplified by the din and the crowds - but I agree. It feels mostly like you'd be getting closer to videogame company's marketing arms; corporate attempts at engaging with people they don't understand, all shouting and swag and crowd-work.
But maybe the truth is I just don't understand the people who go and enjoy it. I'm trying, though. I felt more positive about this year than any previous Gamescom. It seemed a little more laid-back, and the crowd seemed more diverse.
Adam: It's because you spent this one with me, sweetie.
Adam: Is it possible that diversity in games draws out more diverse crowds? Give 'em military shooters and they shall be militant gunbros? Give 'em a buffet of assorted delicacies and they shall be assorted and a little more delicate?
Graham: I think so, but it's small steps. Word will travel far and wide now of the booth's that had lady's tshirt sizes, and next year will be a little better still.
Adam: I actually had a good time at a press conference, would you believe?
Graham: No I wouldn't.
Adam: Paradox combined their press conference with a fan gathering, which fixes two things at the same time. It gives people who've travelled to Gamescom a chance to meet the people who make the games they love, and it means that the press conference isn't directed entirely at jaded journos or anxious shareholders.
Somebody asked Henrik, the lead designer of Crusader Kings II, for an autograph, but had nothing to sign. I gave them a squeezy stressball thing in the shape of a cow, that someone had passed me from a Farming Simulator booth. He wrote a message on it, signed it, dedicated it and handed it over. That seems like a good thing to have happened.
Graham: That's lovely. Little moments of excitement like that are often hard to find down Gamescom's business lane, behind the professional curtain, where the suits and expensive breads are. Not to draw stereotypical battlelines or anything. The suits are nice people too. Never seen them asked for a signed cow though.
Adam: Would somebody from one company sign rival company giveaways if the suits were present? A Focus-branded cow with a Paradox signature! It's the end times. Lions, lambs etc etc
Graham: Were there any big disappointments for you this year?
Adam: It's hard to say I was particularly disappointed by The Witcher 3 because I don't really get along with the series, but that was the big thing I'd hoped would look interesting. And it didn't, to me at least. Disappointing that Silent Hills (is it really pluralised?) isn't coming to PC at launch, or possibly at all. And that Papa Joe's puppets didn't jump from behind the bar and take us to a magical new world. You?
Graham: Dying Light was a slight disappointment. I didn't have huge expectations, but I liked the idea of open-world-ish zombie parkour, but in execution it felt generic in presentation and clumsy in its movement mechanics. This wasn't helped by playing Dead Island 2 the day before, which was colourful and lively and fun and I'll write more about that later. Conversely, the worst thing I saw at the show was Escape Dead Island. I have no idea who that game is for.
Graham: It's notionally more story-focused than the main series, I think, but is still 90% gory combat. Only the combat is shallow and feels empty compared to its parent series. I dunno.
Adam: I play Dead Island for about 10% story and 90% gory shallow combat. It's for me!
Graham: Shall we wrap this up?
Adam: With a bow on top.
Graham: I'm feeling good, feeling positive. I have ten days of features to write now. I like the beer, I liked the puppets, and more than ever before, I liked the videogames. Well done everyone let's do it again next year yeah.
Graham: You're supposed to shout "COM". I'm not giving you this free lanyard.
The Smiths will be sealed in the word-mines over the coming days so that they can produce features about everything they saw. Perhaps even the automatons.