One of the annual highlights of GDC is the Experimental Gameplay Workshop (EGW). Although not a workshop, and featuring the nonsense word "gameplay" in its title, it's an excellent afternoon of developers showing a big crowd some of their more esoteric ideas. I've never been in a room where excellent game mechanics receive a delighted round of applause before. Below is a summary of what was shown.
I think some of the EGW is a bit like a high-end fashion show. Few will actually going to wear those clothes shown on the catwalk, but eventually versions of them will be available in your local department store. So when a hundred people in the audience are co-operatively interacting with a large screen using laser pointers, we're certainly seeing something that can operate as an installation or cinematic treat, but it has interesting potential for scaling down to the individual. Then there are the games, like Scale, so instantly appealing you just want to grab the laptop demoing them and run from the room, squealing. And there are those that, well, bemuse. I've not mentioned the gorgeous PS3-only Journey here, nor the wonderful-looking Twirdie for iOS, since they're both commercially available and not on PC, but both are certainly worth your attention.
Mirror Moon - Team Focaccia
Described as "a game about getting lost", that was certainly the position the audience was left in by the end of the demonstration. Born out of the 2012 Global Game Jam, it's a game in which you traverse the surface of a very small planet, curved such that your horizon is almost immediately in front of you. The consequence of this is not being able to see where you're going. To counter that, up in the sky is a moon, an even smaller sphere, that will reflect any changes you make to it onto the planet you're on.
Which means, if you fire a beacon of light onto the moon, a beacon of light will appear in the equivalent spot on your own planet, giving you something to aim for. Doing this reveals structures to explore. Then there was something about constellations, where the same appear on the moon and in the sky, again intended to help you find your way, but completely lost me mine during the talk. You can, however, play the game for yourself to see if you can make more sense of it. That'll let you experience the first part, and, well, it works. It's a neat idea. Currently one that doesn't go anywhere, but that's partly the point of experiencing these ideas: they're often seeds.
Scale - Enemy Airship/Steve Swink
This was undoubtedly the star of the afternoon. Receiving gasps of delight, along with multiple bursts of spontaneous applause, it was a concept that just kept delighting.
It's a first-person game, with a "gun" that allows you to shrink and grow objects in the environment. With a conservation of mass in the world, you can take scale from one object, and give it to another. So, shrink down a tree and you can grow a rock. From that core idea, Swink (Shadow Physics) has already implemented so very many lovely puzzle ideas. For instance, say you need two objects from top top of a mountain, why not grow the rock that sits between them so that it pushes them over the sides and they roll down to you? Or perhaps you need to cross a ravine, and there are butterflies about - grow a butterfly big enough to jump on its back, and fly over there! This concept starts to get even more impressive when shown areas in which the entire gaming world can be grown or shrunk. Need to cross an impassable river? Shrink the world down small enough such that you can step over it. Which also proves as a great trick for speeding up movement, necessary to complete some of the timed challenges in there.
An especially interesting puzzle required getting a ball from one side of a gap to the other. First trick, growing the ball so it was large enough to roll between two tracks of wood without falling through, then shrinking it to fit through a stone gate, before growing the next stone gate large enough so the ball could roll through. That constant exchange of scale between objects, done on the fly, looked fantastic. And apparently not to easy to pull off, either.
"Physics engines really hate it when you scale dynamic objects, by the way," added Swink.
Storyteller - Daniel Benmergui
The IGF-winning Storyteller is a compellingly clever comic-strip creator, in which you creative a narrative by placing characters, phrases and backgrounds into a series of panels. And Benmergui demonstrated why this was worthy of award recognition. The game dynamically interprets the contents of the panels, and creates narratives based on the presence and absence of various features. Put a man and a women together and they will fall in love. Put just one of them and a tomb stone in the next, and the game will understand that one has died, and the other is heartbroken. This almost immediately gets splendidly complex, with stories involving murder, reincarnation and revenge forcing you to try various combinations and see how smartly the thing adapts to your changes.
The moment that received the big applause here came when Benmergui was explaining how you can't have murder in the first frame, as there have been no feels nor a motive. So normally you'd put a villain and a regular person in the first frame, then the villain and a tomb in the second, and you've had yourself a murder. However, the game's real smarts shone through when the developer put a character and a grave in the first panel, then a villain and a character in the second - then added a flashback overlay. The game instantly understood, and there'd been a murder.
GlitchHiker - Rami Ismail et al.
This was a fascinating tale. GlitchHiker is dead. It died during the 2011 Global Game Jam, at only six hours old. 52 people played it, and now it is gone.
It was a coin collecting platform game, built to die. The longer the game was played, the more glitches would appear, both visually and aurally, with terrible blocky streaks ripping horizontally and vertically through the screen, capable of killing any player caught within one. And if that weren't fatal enough, the game was limited to 100 lives. Each player death took away one of them, while each time someone scored 100 points another was added on. So people could fight to keep it alive, but with failure making the glitching worse, the more difficult this would become. And eventually, despite the pained efforts of some, on the same day it was born it ceased to be.
It's really, really gone, they say. The only thing that remains is some poorly shot video footage of its being played on a sort of arcade cabinet. The code from which it was formed was stored in a passworded file on a server, the password randomly generated, and known by no one. The game was coded to render itself unbootable once all 100 lives were lost. You can see for yourself if you download it now.
One player played desperately for the whole six hours to keep it alive. The developers report that another left in tears when they learned they had hurt rather than helped. And eventually it was killed by a drunk Canadian that evening.
(Except, well, you can still play the game I've discovered. Run the game's tutorial by pressing 'h' from the main screen and it'll run right after. It does error message saying the game is extinct, but if ignored will still yet you play bits of the game. Which is... odd.)
Oak-U-Tron 201X - RPM Collective
Made for the Occupy Oakland movement, the Oakutron was an arcade cabinet built to go into the occupied building taken over by protesters once they were finally forced from the streets.
A co-operative game, it was a simple platformer in which players could work together, not just at the same time, but also after, with previous player avatars left on switches to hold open doors for future players. The meaning, in the context of the Occupy movement, is pretty clear.
The use of a cabinet came from memories of the social nature of gaming in arcades, and that Occupy were parading through the streets with the furniture that would fill their warehouse. The cabinet became part of that, and only thanks to the help of strangers was the enormously heavy and awkward object able to negotiate the maze of stairs, elevators and awkward terrain it had to clear to reach its new home.
Sightlence - Serendipitous Studios
Trying to imagine a game playable by a deaf and blind person is a fairly hefty task. With neither visual nor audible cues, you're left with haptics - touch-based feedback. Using only a 360 controller, the developers were able to recreate Pong using only the vibration of a 360 controller.
How this works, or even plays, was unfortunately not conveyed by the talk, which instead showed us a game of pong on screen, then faded out the bat and ball until we were all redundantly staring at a black screen with a score at the top, while two people held controllers and didn't tell us what they were feeling.
But despite the ironically poor communication, the concept is utterly splendid, and hopefully demonstrates enormous potential not just for bringing gaming to the deaf/blind, but also for improving haptic feedback and its use in gaming for all.
Deep Sea - Robin Arnott
Similarly impossible to convey to a watching audience was Deep Sea. This time the game was sound only, but good heavens, what sound.
The player, and there was one on stage, wears a specially modified gasmask, with all possibility of sight removed, and sound sealed to just headphones. It looked like something that might be used to torture dissidents. Instead, it provides audio feedback for the underwater horror situation in which the player is trapped. Sounds that can't be heard when you breathe.
Indeed, the mask was also fitted to detect inward and outward breath, and in response play the sounds of the same back to the player, so loudly that it obscured everything else. Which means, effectively playing this completely dark terrifying game requires holding your breath if you want to know if the monsters are near.
Of course, what that's actually like isn't something I'm aware of. But just hearing the loud sound played back to us, the claustrophobic sound of water, player breathing, radio squelch and chatter, along with long, morbid tones and unsettling groans, made me pretty glad I'm not. Developer Arnott had set out to make the most immersive experience possible, and realised that a person's imagination is way more powerful than any graphics. It forces us to imagine the worst-case scenario, he explained, adding, "We're really good at worrying about shit."
GIRP/MegaGIRP - Bennett Foddy/Douglas Wilson
Foddy, who previously delighted people's confused fingers with running game QWOP, had an IGF finalist position with GIRP. A climbing game in which you ascend a rock face using letter and physics.
The keyboard, Foddy observed, has had its typing ability used in games before, like The Typing Of The Dead, or semantic text used in early adventures. But he wanted to make it an even more obscure experience. The result is a deeply peculiar thing in which you must correctly maintain your key presses lest you plunge from the cliff and land back in the sea.
The result has occasionally been described as "Twister for your fingers", which is something Johann Sebastian Joust developer Douglas Wilson heard, and decided to act on. The result, involving four taped-together dance mats, is called MegaGIRP. With letters taped over sections of the mats, the game is then literally played like Twister, a player sprawled inelegantly across the floor in an attempt to climb.
Wilson described this brilliantly, saying it was like a game of Telephone (still more inelegantly known in the UK as "Chinese Whispers") where mountain climbing has, through a series of interpretations, become something utterly different.
Renga - wallFour
The afternoon finished with Renga, a one hundred player game from British devs, Wall Four. Yes, one hundred.
Each player is equipped with a laser pointer, which by some sort of witchcraft I don't begin to understand allowed people to interact with one of the room's enormous projection screens.
At first we were shown a simple jigsaw puzzle, in which about twelve players worked together to rotate and move pieces into place, by pointing their lasers one them and rotating or sweeping them about. This was then ramped up considerably when the rest of the pointers were handed out, and those taking part engaged in a small section of what is apparently a 90 minute "experience".
The game involved using the lasers to defend and utilise a "harvester", in a space-based action RTS sort of thing. A good deal of the point of the game was finding out how to play it, before actually playing, but unfortunately a presumably tired crowd was struggling to, er, do anything they were told, instead just waving their pointers in stupid circles while the rest of the audience stared in frustration.
However, the concept seemed splendid, and participating in the full thing in a cinema-style location sounds a really interesting prospect.