I’ve been told that the Game Developers Conference isn’t really about playing games. It’s more about the panels and lectures where you can hear people affirm your opinions or talk about how to make money off dumb kids. Last month’s GDC was my first, and despite what I was told I wound up playing a decent number of games. I was surprised at how many games I played. I played them because people kept asking me to and because I don’t like saying no. (I prefer not saying anything at all until people stop asking me altogether, although I did specifically say no to one person who is very good at his or her job and saying no to them legitimately bummed me out for like ten minutes.) I played them on the show floor and in private hotel suites and in a large empty room in a building somewhere and also in a restaurant that was otherwise closed. I played one in a tiny nook too small to stand in during a party that took over two floors of a decent-sized venue in the Mission. Some of them I played in the house I stayed in. What I’m saying is that I played some games at GDC and now I’m going to talk about them. So let’s do that.
Xaviant’s CEO told me their goal was to make the mage feel like a “badass”, which apparently means like the guy from Bioshock when he uses tonics. (Or were they called vigors?) In Lichdom you walk around shooting three different types of magic business out of your hands, cycling between fire, ice and pestilence. There’s a nice variety of combat options, with a powerful rush attack that erupts with great damage, and a complex loot and crafting system. The aesthetic is distressed fantasy—lurching skeletons, blasted ruins, everything crumbles or shambles—and if you squint it looks a bit like a first-person Dark Souls. It doesn’t seem as difficult as Dark Souls, although randomly generated buffs for the harder enemies make that challenge fluctuate unpredictably. Lichdom is a promising start from a first-time developer smart enough to pick a name for their product that could never be confused for anything other than a videogame.
The Fantasia game is weird. It’s a rhythm game where you use your arms but you don’t have to dance? Meaning that you score points by waving your arms in time with on-screen prompts. But it’s also about remixing songs as they’re happening to your living room, on a TV and everything, with graphics, because it is a videogame. And Harmonix has added new instruments to well-known pop tunes and classical numbers, letting you basically swap musical styles on the fly while still retaining most of the original music or vocals. (This example is almost definitely not in the game, as I’ve just made it up right now, but imagine if you could turn “Banned in the USA” into ragtime for a verse. That’s the idea.) At certain points during a song you can record new drum parts or melodies by moving your hands around (so I guess kind of like a theremin, but without the creepy sci-fi squeals?) and those will overlay onto the song you’re playing. Two people can play at once. You can make David Bowie sing like a robot. You can export your remixes to YouTube. It’s weird! Isn’t it?
When I was a kid I thought that if I was ever in an avalanche I could just surf a rock down and jump off right before it hit the ground without getting hurt. In Avalanche 2: Super Avalanche I actually jumped up an avalanche, leaping from rock to rock as they fell around me and as lava marched up from below. Various items helped me Doodle Jump a new distance record, and a few times I played with one of the game’s developers in multiplayer matches that could be as cooperative or competitive as we wanted them to be. Simple ain’t bad and neither’s Avalanche 2: Super Avalanche. It is simple, though. But not bad. Nope.
Artists iterate on their favorite themes. Munch painted like four versions of “The Scream.” Bresson could turn a guy making a sandwich into a meticulously detailed metaphor for salvation. Tim Rogers makes games with charge buttons. That’s that thing where you hold a button down to make whatever it does when you let go even stronger. In Videoball he adds the charge button to a local co-op sports thing that combines elements of soccer, football, hockey, maybe cricket, I don’t know, any team sport where the point is to knock a ball into a thing that the other side doesn’t want you to knock it into. You and your teammate do that by shooting the ball like you’re Mega Man fighting a robot in a hard hat. The longer you hold the button down the more powerful that shot will be. As in Ziggurat, Rogers’ mobile game from 2012, there’s a wave to the charge button, though—if you hold it down too long you will create a defensive block instead of a shot. Find the sweet spot and let go to rocket that ball across the screen. If you are the type to get angry and passionate about competition, Videoball will make you angry and passionate and thoroughly obsessed and satisfied and eventually depleted of high-fives.
The new co-op shooter from the Left 4 Dead people adds another friend for extra friend times. That fifth player is anything but a friend in the game, though. They’re a monster and you need to kill them. In Evolve a squad of four roams a sprawling map with hills and trees and such while hunting a large monster controlled by a fifth player. The goal is to kill the boss or kill the team, depending on who you are. The evolution of the title only benefits the monster—as it eats smaller monsters around the map, it can level up twice into a stronger creature. The squad has some familiar classes—quasi-magical doctor person, big gun man—but the Quatermain-ish hunter class is unusual for a shooter, with a harpoon gun that can hold the monster in place for a few seconds and let the team pile on damage. It’s not as busy as Left 4 Dead, as there are apparently few secondary enemies to worry about, but when you play in the squad the tension can resemble the end-game scrum of each Left 4 Dead level. It’s tense because it’s a game and you want to win it which means not dying or at least only dying as part of a heroic sacrifice. That kind of tension.
Gaslamp Games’ second release is a wry city-building strategy game with surprising twists. I probably wouldn’t describe it that way if I was talking to you because “wry” isn’t really a word you use in conversation. I’d probably call it “goofy” in that situation. You’re building a town for your people, who have names and personalities and probably drinking problems, and as they live their lives they’ll gradually uncover some kind of supernatural or extraterrestrial guff that might lead to an end-game that threatens the safety of your settlement. Imagine a colonial Sim City with a sense of humor that ends with a fantasy apocalypse. I like games where you build cities or civilizations so much that I don’t even mind this thing’s steampunk vibe.
Unless you are a granddad you will remember Gauntlet from your youth. Even if you’re too youthful for the 80s original, you probably know the late 90s remake Gauntlet Legends. And if you’re too youthful for that, you’re still young enough for the latest Gauntlet remake to become the Gauntlet you remember from your youth. Thus is the circle of life that the animals and Elton John sing of. No matter your age situation you will recognize these four warriors and their monster smashing and their monster battery smashing and their dietary needs, for they are the same four warriors as every Gauntlet and every other game based on a Dungeons & Dragons manual cover. There’s the Conan clone, the half-naked valkyrie, a jittery elf you’d hate in real life and a wizard so wizardy that his name is probably Wizardo. Or, worse, Merlin. The new game also feels like Gauntlet, because that’s what it is, despite detailed graphics that recall Diablo III and a dual-joystick shooting mechanism for the elf and wizard. That means it is a way to kill time with friends without having to face each other. Gauntlet is all Gauntlet will ever be, and once it stops being Gauntlet it is Gauntlet no more. This is Gauntlet.
I called it on Twitter or Facebook or maybe just in my head: Krautscape is the biggest musical disappointment in gaming history. It’s a swell little game, of course, a racer where the track is built based on what lane you ride in, and where your car sprouts wings and hovers when you go off-track. It’s a neat gimmick for a racer and the other-worldly backgrounds are vividly rendered in high-def and yet still minimalist in a nice way. What Krautscape lacks, based on my brief demo, is a single second of krautrock on the soundtrack. None of this electro jive sounds anything like Can or Amon Düül II or Faust. It’s the worst case of blown promises since Jazzpunk.
The former EVE VR was the most memorable thing I played at E3 last year, although when I think about it today all I can remember are scenes from Strange Days. Despite running on the new HD model of the Oculus Rift, the latest demo of EVE Valkyrie was underwhelming (and almost nauseating) at GDC. As I mentioned in an earlier essay, it might have been the setting—a loud, crowded convention hall floor is awesome for losing faith in humanity but probably not optimal for getting lost in a virtual reality. And perhaps the shortness of the demo was a factor. Or maybe the allure of virtual reality is not enough on its own to make Valkyrie’s take on traditional outer space dogfighting worth playing. Now maybe if my co-pilot was an actual dog…
That’s more like it.
I am apparently very good at Buffalo. I don’t remember too clearly. The extracurricular activities that make one good at Buffalo are not always compatible with remembering things the next day. This is a party card game with two decks, one with adjectives and one with nouns. Somebody flips one card from each deck at the same time and whoever yells out a real-life person that fits that description wins the hand. Here’s an example: You’ve made it this far into this piece, so obviously you’d know what name to use if “untalented writer” popped up. The person with the most cards at the end wins, and her prize is a pretty rough morning the next day. It is a fun party game for partiers desperate for fun, is what I am saying.
You don’t need to turn Edward Packard into a robot—the man’s already a machine. He wrote like a new Choose Your Own Adventure book every month until all kids gave up on reading in the late 90s. Perhaps it’s the end of that series that prompted Jerry Belich to create the Choosatron. This tiny box is like a receipt printer that prints short stories whose crucial twists and plot points are decided by the reader’s button presses. The story I played was an adaptation of No Brakes Valet, an awesomely silly parking simulator that was number one on my personal Ouya charts back when I remembered to play my Ouya. I’d read the text, make a decision, press the button and the story and slip of paper would both grow a little bit longer. It is interactive fiction in a very literal sense, and also as much of a weird art piece as a game.
Push Me Pull You is two on two competitive Noby Noby Boy. Two heads bookend long, round, sausage-like bodies that can stretch out and squeeze in like an accordion. Maybe taffy or bubblegum is a better food analogy than sausage. Like Noby Noby Boy you push and pull your character to make them bigger or smaller, but you only control one half of it as your partner does the same with the other end. You’re in a circle that’s divided into two zones, there’s a ball in the center, and the goal is to keep that ball in your zone until your meter fills and you win the match. So you and your partner will wrap yourself around the ball or circle around your opponents’ entire body while trying to drag them into your turf. It’s sumo fought by worms with grandparent faces, and just weird and cute enough to stand out amid the recent glut of local multiplayer games.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and writes about games for the Boston Herald.