This would not be RPS if I didn't return from Gamescom and write minimally about the triple A-xtravaganzas and maximumly about smaller, weirder things wot I saw. So here, have at it: my favourite of the independently made games I saw at this year's show. I flatter myself that the selection is broad enough that it covers genres to suit every taste. Strategy games! Card games! Building games! I haven't picked all story driven adventure games or RPGs! That's personal growth on my part, that's what that is.
Highlights include the one about loneliness, the one about loneliness, and the one about death.
Release date: Early 2020
What is it?: Puzzle game set on an abandoned spaceship where the puzzle is to open locks, the inner workings of which are represented by tiny lightbulb robots.
There are two bits to Filament. In one of them you are exploring an empty spaceship, and listening to explanatory voice over from the AI. You can wander around empty living quarters and science labs and notice that people definitely did used to live here.
The other bit is solving the door puzzles. To unlock a door you basically play as the locking mechanism, and control a li'l robot pal who are attached to a wire. They are very cute. They have flappy little feet and wee little arms and a big lightbulb head. The goal is to connect all the right nodes in the right ways by running around the room and draping the wire across things. But it gets more and more complicated. Different colours are introduced. You may contend with several robots at once. There are gates and pressure pads to light up. Argh. You are not cute anymore, robot, you are a tiny bastard. Open this door.
Liberated is half reading animated panels in a comic book, and half playing through some of those panels. Those playable sections are viewed from a side-on perspective, and are a mixture of stealth (which I didn't have the patience for on a busy show floor, but worked pretty well when I was doing it properly), frantic platforming (which worked better) and shooting (which did not work).
The story itself is one of those noir thriller stories that would be a bit played out if not for the terrifying times we live in; the government uses technology to track everyone, and you get patriotic citizen points for being a good little state member and going to national events, that sort of thing. Liberated is the name people give themselves when the live off that grid. The story is also separated into chapters, though, so you get different perspectives, at least one of which is going to be 'hard bitten cop'. I was told developers Atomic Wolf hope it'll be seen as the ultimate way to read a comic book. I dunno about that quite yet, but it was pretty great seeing frames come to life.
I say text adventure because it's mostly text, and you're mostly reading, but the backdrop is a little map of where you are in a city or place, or a relevant flavour image. Wanderlust is from the same publisher as Liberated, but has an entirely different tone. The point is to experience travel, sort of. Wanderlust is made up of a few different travellers going to a few different places, and you read through a very detailed account of their trip whilst shaping it, making key decisions - should I go down this road, should I stay in a hostel or a fancy hotel. That sort of thing. I should emphasise again that these stories are very detailed. The game bills itself as containing four novels and five short stories worth of writing. It's basically a visual novel for people who like to think of themselves as grownups.
I played a bit of a trip to Bangkok, as a young woman who kept saying she wanted to see the real Thailand and find herself and that sort of thing. I found her a bit annoying, which is a good sign because it means she was a real enough person to have an impact on me, right? I found the writing detailed rather than dense, but didn't play a second story so I can't say for sure that all the travellers aren't extremely sincere Trustafarians. On the other hand, Wanderlust emphasises that one goes on two journeys when one travels, so the characters will undergo change. In any case, it's one to keep an eye on for fans of slow burn interactive stories.
Release date: 2019
What is it?: Experimental idle game where you are a small lonely goblin thing living underground. It takes 400 whole days to play.
Plug it, as the kids say, into my veins. This is mostly the work of Anselm Pyta, although others worked on some code and production, a man who seemed far too fresh faced to come up with something so terrifying and yet so visionary. The Longing is basically a "sad Tamagotchi", where you control a small goblin who looks like the result of a selective cross breeding programme between Dobby the House Elf and Mr. Burns. They are, nevertheless, quite sweet. And this goblin lives in a vast network of underground caves, and has been tasked with watching a king sleep, for 400 days. Real time days.
Pyta says The Longing is fundamentally about loneliness, and what you do with it. He came up with the concept in 2012, when idle clicker games exploded in popularity. The goblin creature walks very slowly. Sometimes they just stare out of the screen at you. They can explore, and find pigments to do paintings with, which also take it a lot of time. These paintings decorate a little home room, and the nicer it is the faster time passes when the goblin is in there. They can also read real books which are out of license, like The Iliad. You can literally sit and read all of The Iliad. A minute of time passes for every page turned, so you can also cheat and click through really fast without reading. Some 'puzzles' require you to plant a mushroom and then wait for it to grow. Or wait for a tiny drip to fill up a trench in a tunnel, so you can swim over.
There are multiple endings. It's 400 days long and there are multiple endings. Fuck me, I love it.
Release date: Out now (early access)
From: Epic Games Store
What is it?: Roguelite farming game; Stardew Valley with guns and mutants.
I'm not sure what I could say about Atomicrops that I didn't already say in my preview write up, except that it is very good and I like it a lot. I think I already said that as well, though.
Release date: 2019 (early access)
What is it?: Impressively programmable design and construction sim.
Understand I am flagging this game up for your interest in the full knowledge that I will never be able to master it myself. Main Assembly comes from Bad Yolk, one of those indie studios founded by a bunch of lads burned out by treble ay development. What it is, is a game where you build stuff. So you start off small and make a car, and drive it around the track, and the game goes "Well done, you done it!" Up it ramps from there. Because you can build the bits in any shape you like. And it has all physics in it, like bits off your car can get crushed and fall off, and then it gets lighter. It has aerodynamics, so maybe you build a plane (you can build a plane!) and if it has one small gap in the right hand wing, it's going to dip right while it flies. Then you look under the virtual hood and realise that you can do programming in it, so you can make a functioning altimeter for your plane, or make a little robot in the shape of a snake, and then programme it so that when it moves forward it does so with an undulation. If Main Assembly suffers, it is from having too many possible applications.
Release date: 2019
What is it?: Walter Mitty if all he fantasised was his awful commute being worse than it already was.
This strange adventure game is monotonous and grey, until it isn't. Stepping into the shoes of a lonely man doing the same commute every day (which may be very familiar shoes), working at a megacorp and getting notifications about bills on his phone. If that sounds a bit like that wall that a lot of us hit whilst playing the Sims, when we realised we were spending our spare time making a tiny person go to work, I understand. But Mosaic gently encourages you to go against the crowd to find moments of beauty. It also transforms the commute into what the protagonist imagines: a conveyor belt sending everyone into a dreadful crushing engine. That kind of thing. Look, it sounds bleak, and it is, but… look I dunno what to tell ya, I liked it.
Release date: Early 2020
What is it?: Roguelite-ish card game-ish randomised weird thing.
I do not usually like a) card games or b) roguelites, so Ring Of Pain is probably quite good because I did like it and it is sort of both of those things. You make your way through a sort of horrible dungeon -- it seems like you're in a cave, but you can't see the edges of the darkness, just the cards in front of you. Enemy encounters need you to juggle speed, damage, health and all the usuals, but you can also try to sneak around. You also have to choose whether to go left or right, which draws you on to the next card, the next encounter, the next choice.
It's not deck building, but you do have a deliberately limited inventory that you can maybe slip a health potion into, that sort of thing. I loved it for the terrifying art, which looks like the sort of thing the first suspect in a police procedural episode would paint, except it turns out he's not the murderer, he's just a big bloody weirdo. I also loved it for the brevity of explanation, and the fact that I figured out what to do anyway, which I suspect is an indicator of very good design.
Release date: 2020
From: ?? (Won't be shocked if they reveal it's going to the Epic Store)
What is it?: The movie Waterwold, but instead of Kevin Costner you are a mercenary who flies around on a giant bird and you can shoot lightning.
Birds of prey are well cool, and in my opinion we should have just carried on weaponising them past the limits of falconry. Finally, then, I have a video game to back up this opinion. The Falconeer is set in an open world that is mostly ocean, with settlements perched on different rocks. You're a gun for hire -- or, well, bird for hire -- who soars through the world on the back of a bloody great eagle. Earn money to soup up your steed and weapons, align with different factions, and engage in desperate dogfights -- or, well, bird fights. Except also not, because your enemies could be flying giant beetles, or manta rays, or wyverny dragony things. The Falconeer has a very clear creative vision, and while it's still not finished, it's looking… majestic. Flying is by far my favourite way to travel in a video game, so I'm well up for taking to the skies in this'un.
Release date: 17th October 2019
From: Epic Games Store, Stadia (when that launches)
What is it?: Lovely 3D puzzle game "about music, machines, and dreams".
I first played Kine at EGX last year, and I was like 'wow, this is great', and since then the game has become longer, and has dialogue, and a release date! The three main characters in Kine are musical instruments (an accordian, a trombone and a drum kit) who are trying to make it big, baby, so you help them on the journey to stardom. This involves navigating a series of puzzles through 3D space, rolling and pushing the instruments until the end up in the right square. This is, conceptually, harder than it sounds, and it gets harder, as you encounter levels involving two or more of the group to move around or on top of one another to find the solution.
The music is wonderful, of course, as almost all of developer Gwen Frey's projects have been closely linked to music in one way or another, but I am most in love with how the puzzles are part of the characters' lives. When two of them are forced to get a boring day job, for example, the puzzles become variations of the same one, over and over again. Two might end up falling in love, so the levels become dates. If they break up, they become awkward situations where they're in each other's way the whole time. I don't think I've encountered a game that does that in such a neat way before.
Release date: 2019
What is it?: Series of weird vignettes on weird roads, as you hitchhike through weird metaphors with weird drivers.
Hitchhiker has already released its first ride, a trip through golden fields with a raisin farmer who said a lot of sinister philosophical things, and also plied you with some species of narcotic raisin. Since then, Hitchhiker has had a visual update, and some of the weird puzzles have been tweaked to make more sense. But I've also seen some of the work in progress on the new rides. One is a teacher driving you around a suburb, looking for his dog, talking a lot about memory and nostalgia. Leah is a waitress, so you start your journey with her in a roadside diner. They're all beautiful, bright, sunny, bold. Eventually, I am told, you arrive in reality, which is a bit bleaker. Hitchhiker has its hooks in me, and I am desperate to see more, because right now it's like someone has handed me the first quarter of a mystery novel and then buggered off with the rest of it.
Release date: 2020
From: Epic Games Store
What is it?: Strategy game about a dog lover.
Mike "Mike Bithell of Bithell Games" Bithell sat with me as I played his new gun fu strategy thing and explained the finer points. For example, it seems very cool to throw your gun at an enemy, and it is, but then you do not have a gun, so it should be a last resort tactic. Hex is set a few years before the titular hitman got married and left the murder business, so he's in full kill swing here. Rather than a standard action game, this aims to capture the feel of the beautiful fight choreography that made people love the John Wick films. You stalk the levels, pistol in hand. Like Super Hot, time only advances when you take an action, and you can choose what to do based on the millisecond-long movements of your enemies.
Bithell Games have been working closely with the movie team, including director Chad Stahelski, and the game also features voice acting from the likes of Ian McShane. It's less a John Wick game for strategy fans and more a strategy game for John Wick fans, but that's okay, because it's still pretty sleek and you can make Keanu Reeves do a sweet forward roll and shoot some guy in the face.
Right, so you control a little team of tiny snouty creatures called Trebhums, and they can mutate in weird ways to better survive and traverse the alien planet you live on where, somehow, everything looks a bit like an angry vagina. If you get your Trebhum to eat the right fluffy plant, for example, it will grow fur, and can go to cold places.
Also, a giant cylinder is rolling across the surface of the planet, crushing everything before it. Incredible scenes.
Release date: 2020
What is it?: The free flowing traversal of Journey crossed with a relationship simulator.
Haven is by The Game Bakers, wot did Furi. Furi is an extremely difficult boss rush game, and Haven is basically the opposite of that. You play as a young couple (and there will be co-op, so if you're one of those people who write in asking for games you can play with your other half who doesn't like games, this will be one of them) who have run away from wherever it was they lived before. Things start in media res, as they're living on their ship/one bed apartment which I love, on a planet made of floating islelets. You explore by swooping around just above the ground, sort of skating on air, with the two characters holding hands as they go. The planet, though, is infected with some kind of rust growth, which is corrupting the local wildlife. You can clear the rust, and free the animals of its control with careful, co-ordinated combat. In between, you can go home to cook food with whatever new ingredients you've found in the world, and observe the warm domesticity of an already established relationship. So, once again, this is very not like Furi. But I'm okay with that.
Release date: 2019
What is it?: Sequel to 2016's award-winning 19th century-themed explore 'em up.
Riad Djemili, co-founder of developers Maschinen-Mensch, took me through the new build of Curious Expedition 2. He pointed out that while almost all of it was in the ligne claire art style you'd recognise from Herge's Tintin comics, there was still some placeholder pixelart standing in from the first game. This really only served to make the new style look even lovelier, to be honest.
As in Curious Expedition, you take a team of explorers, travel to an uncharted island, often make contact with the native peoples, and then loot an irreplaceable treasure from an area of outstanding importance to the local culture. This often has dire consequences. In the demo I saw, after stealing an idol from a temple, the team were followed by spontaneous floods. Also the local warrior we'd picked up fell in love with the expedition leader, despite speaking entirely different languages. Jolly hockey sticks. CE2 has not only new art, but different Explorer Clubs, and more elements to throw into the procedural generation mixing pot, meaning you should encounter a wider variety of adventures.
Release date: 2020
What is it?: A lovely Charon simulator where you build homes for the dead on you boat, and help them pass on.
Graham has already written about this one, and I was going to do a whole separate feature -- and maybe I will -- but I'm in two minds about whether I can say anything more productive than he did. I did see the co-op, though, wherein the second player is a lovely floofy cat who doesn't like getting wet. We bounced happily around together, and built a house for a snake who liked plants.
I have a lot of time for Spiritfarer, because it's very pretty and calming and friendly, but also sad at the same time, because the characters in it will leave you. As they must. But it's a different way of thinking about death than we usually see in media. A happy sadness, or a sad happiness, grateful for what you shared with these friends while you were together.