If you’re like me and don’t like crowded spaces, the 100,000-plus square feet of PAX West’s expo hall can feel like a bit of a nightmare. Between the thousands of excited fans and several-story-tall structures, I was ready to leave almost as soon as I arrived.
So after a few rounds on the floor at the big Seattle game convention, I convinced some friends to check out a more mellow space: the sixth annual Seattle Indies Expo, held in a small building just a few blocks away.
The Indies Expo is a free annual event, put on at the same time as PAX to showcase indie game makers that might not make it into PAX’s Indie Megabooth.
While the Indies Expo was no less crowded than the PAX floor, it was much more laid back: a single brick room strung with soft bulbs, filled with friendly game developers ready to talk your ear off about their projects.
The games here were all developed by independent teams, some from small indie gaming studios like the family focused Sunbreak Games, some developed as a side project like the team behind Elsinore. And there was not a 25-foot-tall T-Rex in sight.
The change in ambiance was stunning, but it wasn’t the only thing that set the two venues apart. The Indie Expo also highlighted some of the biggest divides in today’s gaming world, and particularly how different elements of modern gaming are being accepted and adapted by indie outlets versus big studios.
VR was everywhere at PAX, but at the Indies Expo it was all but absent. Only one VR game was exhibited: The Nest by Invrse Studios on the HTC Vive, where players find themselves holed up in a tower with a sniper rifle, taking out robots that roam the land below. The gameplay looked fun, but the long line deterred me from trying it myself.
The lack of VR is likely because these games are expensive to create and distribute, making them risky for small developers. But looking around, it was clear to me that many of the games at the Expo were just not well suited to VR gameplay.
Many of the games were designed as couch co-ops, which are difficult to replicate in VR, and others actually relied on the borders of the screen.
Forced perspective game Museum of Simulation Technology is a great example: players solve puzzles by using perspective within the game to change the size and shapes of objects. Side-scroller Four-sided Fantasy relies on a similar game mechanic, with players freezing the screen on certain parts of the dungeon to solve puzzles.
Check out Museum of Simulation Technology’s gameplay below for a better feel of how the game incorporates a traditional limited perspective.
You tend to see a lot of the same plots and concepts in big-name games: combat situations, revenge plots, and post-apocalyptic survival stories to name just a few. Indie games, on the other hand, have much more leeway to tackle out-of-the-box concepts.
Point-and-click puzzle game Elsinore is a great example. The game is basically “a groundhog day version of Hamlet,” said one of the project’s engineers, Eric Butler.
The player controls Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover, reliving the play’s tragic plot again and again. But because she knows what will happen, she is able to alter the plot by telling other characters information that she collects. The goal is simply to stop everyone from dying.
Butler says that, because the game is a side project, the team has more time and freedom to take on a niche game concept that may not fly well at a large studio.
“We can do something wacky and different, and still eat,” he said. Butler, a graduate student in the University of Washington’s Computer Science program, works with ten other designers, engineers, and artists on the project, including project lead Katie Chironis of Oculus.
As games become more and more realistic, engineers and developers are left with a plethora of options on how to depict violence, a controversial subject at best.
While many big-name games place violence and the accompanying carnage front and center, games at the Indie Expo tended to avoid this approach.
The Nest was the only first-person shooter at the event, and most of the games were puzzle- or narrative-based. These included very few depictions of violence, and focused on challenging players’ logic and problem solving skills instead of their trigger finger.
The games also tended towards more artistic than realistic graphics, so the usual hyper-realistic depictions of violence would have been a strange fit.
Not that violence was completely absent from the games, of course, but when it did crop up, it tended to come in the form of cute animated lasers instead of bullets and blood, and the things being blown up were animated avatars or spaceships.
It was a refreshing change after the blood-spattered Resident Evil replica house that loomed over the PAX floor.