An undoubted highlight of GDC every year is the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. Despite having that complete nonsense word in the title, it's a chance for some of the most innovative and esoteric gaming ideas to be shared with one of the week's biggest audiences, whether in development, released, or some impossible state in between. Some of the highlights are below.
As is always the case, the afternoon of gaming presentations features a mix of completed or near-completed games, fascinating concepts that have yet to find their home (I can't wait for Brenda Romero's Mexican Kitchen Workers to come together, for instance), and tiresome art installation presentations that had nothing to do with gaming anyone could play. Here's the best of what we saw in 2013.
Let's start with one of the best showings of the afternoon. Mushroom 11 is a game that began as a game jam idea, in which creator Keren attempted to devise a mechanic where your main character never actively moves. The solution in this side-scrolling puzzler was an amorphous collection of cells, any of which can be destroyed, only to be respawned on the other side of the shape. So destroy the right side and you'll grow the left side, and in essence, move left. This mechanic leads to a great deal more - for instance, at one point a large rotating wheel with pegs on it provided the means to traverse a gap. So by reforming the creature around the peg, it by nature held on, until cells were destroyed to release its grip.
Keren then realised that this movement also meant that the shape could be split any number of times, and continue existing. If just a small collection of cells can make it to a distant ledge, destroying those that remain on the other side will see them respawned where you need to be. Also, in a side-scroller, the shape itself can become the screen furniture needed to progress. In one section, reshaping the blob to fill a hole in the ground meant a needed round rock could reach the other side of the level.
The game has the well-deserved backing of the Indie Game Fund, and there's currently no date for a release. But here's a (slightly dated) trailer:
Plus Gun - Kevin Cancienne
"A gun that shoots points" was the opening line from Drop 7 developer Cancienne (who also brought us the Science & Industry mod for Half-Life). Designed to be an FPS that's played in five minutes, over and over again, the shooter attempts to challenge players to choose between gaining points and surviving. Every five seconds a new enemy spawns, and killing them will drop resources. These gathered can buy you new weapons, to be more effective against killing the tougher enemies that spawn as the game goes along. But none of this scores you points. Points are scored by using resources to fire the Points Gun, which of course is time spent not clearing the level of the ever-growing numbers of enemies. As indeed is buying new weapons, also allowing the situation to become more threatening. This pitting of survival against score is designed to keep the player in constant tension, as you can find out for yourself by playing the alpha.
The Castle Doctrine - Jason Rohrer
Obviously we already know this one very well. Here are Alec's impressions, for instance. The game was, unsurprisingly, enormously well received by the GDC audience. And the presentation offered a couple of highlight moments. Certainly Rohrer's description of its being a game about "being careful around dangerous things" summed it up rather nicely, as well as his explanation that the game was created as an exploration of "violation", both experiencing it and delivering it. There was also the moment where he found himself saying, "The great thing about suicide is..."
6180 The Moon - Jongmin Jerome Baek, Sun Park
Another familiar title, the extremely lovely 6180 The Moon was able to show off just how significant a difference linking the top and bottom of the screen can make in a jumping game. Certainly the idea may be as old as Bubble Bobble, but the mechanics here are deeply smart, letting the minimalist platformer really shine. As indeed did the surprise moment in their presentation when they showed what happens at the end of the 50 levels, when the game then lets you play back through them in reverse order, this time with gravity reversed.
Perspective - Pohung Chen, Jason Meisel
Digipen project turned released game Perspective takes an idea that we've certainly seen before in indie games, but to a new level. It's a 2D platformer, in a 3D world. Which is as confusing as it sounds. Your character operates as if he's in a 2D side-scrolling game, while the world he's in does not. This means moving the first-person camera around the rooms allows the 3D shapes to create 2D routes for the jumping chap.
This gets smarter and smarter the more you see, and increasingly so when you realise that zooming in and out of the world doesn't affect your character size. Pull out to make untraversably high walls into jumpable platforms, or zoom in to walk through tiny crawl spaces. All of which were your own creation from picking the angle at which you viewed the scene in the first place. Bemused? You can download the game for free to figure it out for yourself.
Miegakure - Marc ten Bosch
Okay, as if explaining the last one were complicated... Miegakure is, of course, a 3D puzzler set in a 4D world. The best way I can describe this is: as Fez is to 2D in a 3D world, so Miegakure is to 3D in a 4D world. Your character operates in a 3D platforming environment, but the world he's in is 4D, and by traversing the dimensions, you manipulate the scenes to reach the goals. A block that exists in one world may be impossible to push, because a part of it that's invisible in the current dimension exists in another plane, and there is obstructed. Right? So here's a video of a very dated version of the game (three years old) that explains the concept:
It looks pretty different now, more sophisticated graphically, and ever-increasingly more sophisticated in delivery. This is a game that literally uses 4D tiles in its development. As we watched the presentation for this, Jim turned to me and said, "This man is more clever than we shall ever be."
Starseed Pilgrim - Alexander Martin, Ryan Roth
I wrote about Starseed a few weeks back, in the context of not being able to figure out what on Earth I was supposed to do. Looking at the version played during this demonstration at GDC, I now worry that the version I had was bugged. What I saw on stage looked a lot more approachable than the utterly defiant version I played. The platform-planting game is designed to be full of secrets, and it sure kept them from me. But seeing it again has made me want to give it another go.
Versu - Richard Evans, Emily Short
A text-based storyteller, with AI NPCs making their own decisions within the story? Yup. This comes from Linden Lab, they most famous for Second Life, but nothing like it. Somewhat procedurally generated tales can just be observed, so fluid is the AI within, generating unique stories based on which characters are in them, the decisions they make, and the resulting events that unfold. However, join in and things get even more involved, as your behaviour affects the social responses of others, even their mood and ensuing behaviour.
The simplicity with which it all appears betrays just how complex a social AI project this really is. This isn't about a pre-written story following one of a selection of pre-defined paths. It appeared to be genuinely emergent story. Scenes can be replayed as any of the characters, with those you previously played as now taken over by their own unique AI. This then reaches another level when known characters from various points in history, programmed with apposite behaviour, can then be sat down to have a meal together. Left to their own devices, you can see various literary characters from hundreds of years apart, trying to find conversation which they have in common. Troublingly, the weather seems to always be in favour. The potential for this within text adventures an interactive fiction seems madly enormous. And as speech synthesisers improve, the opportunities stretch even further.
The demo shown was running on a web browser, but for some needless reason it's currently only available on iOS. Hopefully that's a thing that will soon change.
Soundodger - Michael Molinari
Music-created gaming is nothing new (which is a brilliant testament to how great the indie scene has been in recent years), so while Soundodger doesn't feel like a wholly original idea, it sure looks an enormous amount of fun to play. You play as a small shape inside a large circle, increasingly populated by enemies you must dodge. The enemies are spawned based on the music to which you're listening. And as is so often the case, it's best played with dubstep.
Memory Of A Broken Dimension - Ezra Hanson
Problems with the projector didn't get this one a fair shake during the afternoon. A game that deliberately only shows a fragmented, glitching version of a first-person world left the audience not sure if they were seeing what was intended, or in fact what turned out to be a broken screen. Indie games! The version on their site doesn't appear to do anything yet, which is a greater shame, as this exploration of the creepiness of early 90s computer systems, a fragmented, broken view of an explorable world, sounds fantastic. We shall have to wait.
Kachina - Ben Esposito
Previously a level designer on The Unfinished Swan, Esposito's Kachina has previously been a selection at Indiecade, and emerged from this year's Exp Gameplay as the game I most desperately want to play. You play as a hole. That's already enough, really. But here, with deliberate allusions toward Katamari Damacy, you play a hole that grows larger as it consumes.
Gorgeous Flash-like objects fall into the hole you move around the surface of each level, so long as the hole is large enough for them to fit in. The more that goes in, the larger it gets, eventually letting you swallow up trees, mountains, and so on. In that alone there's a little game idea. But clearly the in-development game has lots more ideas in mind. Little puzzles play out, with the hole able to spit objects back out as well, letting you move things around a scene, allow interplay between a level's inhabitants, and have enormous fun with its toy-like ways.
At one point Esposito had the hole swallow two bunny rabbits. It was soon filled with very many bunny rabbits. Another lovely moment saw a feature he'd just added, but not figured out what to do with, where sliding the hole under water caused it to become filled. Now objects were buoyant when they fell in. And even better, water could be fired out of the hole into an overhead cloud, causing it to become so heavy with rain that it fell to the ground. He can't finish this quickly enough.
Tenya Wanya Teens - Keita Takahashi, Asuka Sakai
Keita Takahashi has found fame for his experimental work, particularly the Katamari games, in which the player must "roll up" pretty much everything imaginable to make huge lumps of matter. Here he worked in conjunction with some folk to make a weird hardware-based game, in which there are sixteen unlabeled buttons on a large bespoke controller. The characters in the game race through different scenes, which represent their day, and the players have to try and press the right button: brushing their teeth at the right moment, urinating at the right moment, saying maths at the right moment, and so on. The game doesn't make this easy, of course, and hilarity abounds as the breakneck day flips from one scene to the next, and the players end up urinating in the maths class, or brushing their teeth when it's time to play football.
This sounds rather too deliberately wacky, of course, but the relentless pace and sudden changes that it evoked mean it could be the perfect party piece. And I suspect that is all it will be, since I can't see those controllers being mass produced.