Sure, most of the E3 crowds could be found piling into the major booths, marveling at Nintendo’s New Donk City-themed wonderland, gaping at the line to play Sea of Thieves at Microsoft’s section, or staring wistfully at the imposing walls of Sony’s compound wondering what secrets lie inside, but those who took the time to wander just a little off the beaten path were often rewarded with smaller discoveries, the kind of quirky delights that show just how much variety and potential gaming can have outside the AAA blockbusters. The IndieCade booth was a prime example of that this year, showcasing everything from stylish takes on familiar genres to artistic statements, with even a few low-budget experiments that attempt to push the boundaries of the medium.
Here are some of the best of those:
Developer/Artist Gonzalo Alvarez was inspired by his own parents’ story of immigrating to the United States when creating this political commentary in the form of a video game. Put in the shoes of a Mexican looking to cross the border into the U.S., players are dropped into the middle of a desert maze, unsure about which direction will lead them to freedom, and which will turn them into a permanent fixture in the sandy graveyard. Finding jugs of water is a must to avoid the rapid dehydration that occurs with each step, and stealth tactics are required to avoid La Migra, whose patrols often necessitate a more perilous route.
Finding the right way on the first, or even fifth run is a near impossibility, and that’s the point. Alvarez and Macua Studios have made Borders to show just how hard this ordeal is, and to that end, the game is designed to keep track of every failure, each death represented by a skeleton lying at the precise location they perished. By the time I played the game had been active for months, and the desert was littered with too many bony corpses to count. I added five more, and I have no idea how close I even came. The sense of desperation as you see the water gauge drop, knowing that the end is near, is palpable. It’s a poignant statement that casts a somber cloud over the cheery 8-bit visuals, an artistic vision executed in pixelated elegance.
Born out of a desire to see their culture represented in the medium, developer Red Candle Games has crafted a creepy point-and-click experience steeped in Taiwanese culture. Set in the 1960s during the White Terror period of martial law (an era that lasted 38 years and saw thousands killed and imprisoned), Detention follows a teenage student who wakes up beneath a friend who has been hanged. She sets out into the darkness of her abandoned school in search of answers, unaware of what monstrous things may lurk in the shadows. Cryptic notes and various items start filling in the mystery, with some use for light puzzle solving as well. My time saw me finding a light, a hammer, and a strange flesh-eating ghost thing that ignored me if I held my breath (yes, there’s a button for that).
It’s a familiar setup and tone, playing in a very traditional way, but the rich visuals and attention to historical detail are never less than absorbing. Detention doesn’t hold back on the frights either, with twisted gore and well-timed jump scares (which can be embarrassing when you’re being watched by a crowd, let me tell you). The developers told me that much of the Taiwanese school-going generation is unaware that this dark chapter in their country’s history even occurred, so they have created Detention as a reminder of the horror. From what I played, it looks like they have succeeded.
The most straightforward of the games I played at 2017’s IndieCade, Desert Child is all about living young, taking risks, and racing the hell out of your rusted speeder bike so that you have enough cash to buy dinner that night. While weaving back and forth over the dusty desert terrain, players will dodge cacti, brick walls, and other obstacles that make the setting look like something out of Mad Max. Shooting rivals slow them down, and piles of money can be collected from power-up boxes sprinkled throughout. A successful run will see you swimming in dough and ready for upgrades so that you can move up the rankings, as my Goomba Stomp colleague Ryan Kapioski discovered. If you’re more like me though, and just can’t resist running into stuff, then your reward will be an empty wallet and a bike that is beat up so bad it needs repairs before it can race again.
Post race times in Desert Child are spent wandering the one-horse town the game is set in, where broke asses can pawn ammunition to raise funds (something I found myself doing a lot), pay a visit to the local mechanic (ditto), or check out the many eateries to settle that growling stomach (food is necessary to keep racing). Maybe you have coin enough for a juicy steak, or maybe you’ll revisit college days by slurping down a packet of ramen noodles – whatever it takes to maintain an independent life. If you run out of dinero the game is over, but Developer Oscar Brittain also told me that placing a humbling call to your parents might yield some results, Desert Child is about the experience of making it on your own, and sometimes learning the hard way is a part of that.
A Case of Distrust
Fans of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction will definitely want to check out the hard-boiled goings on of A Case of Distrust, a story-driven crime mystery set in a stylized 1920s San Francisco. As PC Malone, a female private investigator, players will get their fingers dirty mixing with local underworld hoods and (probably corrupt) coppers as they unravel a tangled web of criminal activity set during Prohibition. Though my time with the game was relegated to Malone’s apartment, where I searched for “evidence” to prove to my cat that there was nothing to eat in the place, then engaged in a verbal sparring match with a goon who presented me with a case, I got a good sense of the spot-on noir vibe, as well as the striking Saul Bass-inspired visuals. Outside, players will be able to pay visits to all the snooping classics, like Speakeasies and barber shops (where does your information come from?), and I was told that the era would be depicted faithfully, with all the sexism, racism, and anti-booze sentiment playing a part in the story.
Developer Ben Wander is clearly a fan of the detective genre and has tucked away little surprises for other enthusiasts. A small silhouette of a bird statue in the background of Malone’s apartment had me wishing Humphrey Bogart would casually stroll through the door. If you love the works of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, A Case of Distrust will be right up your poorly-lit alley.
O For Oppression
IndieCade is a good place to see smaller developers take risks that push the industry forward, and O For Oppression from WaveCave Studios is one of those experiments that offer a tiny glimpse of the vast amount of possibility the medium has in providing different experiences. Described as a 3D-spatialized audio game,” players are tasked simply with walking from one point to another. The trick is that the path is not displayed onscreen, and the proper direction can only be determined by deciphering which direction a series of radar-like “pings” are coming from, then pushing the control stick that way. In many ways, it’s like walking blind, as players must train their ears to focus amid a litany of noisy distractions in order to pick out the signal and the direction of its origin. On screen are a series of collapsing rings that, when lined up with a static circle, allow the player to move. It’s like a rhythm sonar game, which is incredibly hard to describe and unlike anything I’ve played before.
My first attempt ended in embarrassing disaster, a failed run that ended quickly, but soon after I got the hang of it, and became, for a few precious moments, detached from the entirety of the convention chaos around me, inside my head. O For Oppression is odd, intuitive, and an interesting look at how games can use the individual elements at their disposal in completely new ways.
There were plenty of games at this year’s IndieCade, but these were some of the standouts. For those interested in checking out the full lineup, check out the full list of IndieCade titles!