Seattle, the town that brought us diverse cultural artifacts ranging from Kurt Cobain to Frasier has another movement to add to its repertoire: independent games development. To celebrate this phenomenon, Jake Kazdal, founder of Haunted Temple Studios (creators of Eurogamer Expo favourite Skulls of the Shogun) invited a bunch of local game developers to strut their stuff in the first Seattle Indies Expo.
The rationale for why Seattle has such a thriving indie scene is disappointingly devoid of mystery. "Seattle's got so many ex-Bungie, ex-Valve, ex-Nintendo, ex-Microsoft, ex-whatever," Kazdal notes. When asked why so many of them leave their cushy jobs to go indie, the answer's just as simple. "A lot of them are getting laid off," Kazdal bluntly replies.
Rather than dwell on this, Kazdal remains optimistic. "There's finally valid distribution for this stuff," he adds. "With iPhone you don't need a publisher. People can just take a chance. Steam has been great for that stuff and that's in Seattle too. With Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox Live Indie Games, and PlayStation Network this is a mainstream thing now. It's not mainstream in the sense that it's going to topple Modern Warfare 3, but its big enough that people can say, 'f*** big games. I want to go do my own thing.'"
Evidently it's not just the coffee that fuels the thriving Northwest indie scene, though a little caffeine doesn't hurt. "I'm literally doing like four jobs," Kazdal explains. "I'm doing all the PR, the business stuff, talking to people online, setting things up, getting interviews, etc... Then, from 7pm to midnight, I'll turn off my phone, drink some beer, and do a whole day's work on the game stuff that's been waiting all day because I couldn't get to it earlier."
"It's exhausting," he admits, looking beat.
His passion clearly outweighs the exhaustion and he's not alone. At the expo was Skulls of the Shogun, Spacechem (which EG awarded a 9 back in February), and the the soon to be released Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (look for a review shortly). All looked fantastic, but hidden amongst these well documented indies were some hidden gems, many of which were shown to the public for the first time. Here's what I discovered.
Developer: Strange Loop Games
Clearly Vessel's protagonist, Arkwright, hasn't seen the Sorcerer's Apprentice. If he did, he might've learned that messing with powers beyond one's control to transform inanimate objects into automatons to do your chores isn't the brightest of ideas.
But alas, Arkwright's hubris gets the best of him when he discovers a way to bring liquids to life for cheap labour. Of course messing with nature backfires when his creations become overly sentient and run amok, leaving him to visit various work sites to clean up his mess in this 2D puzzle/platformer.
Early puzzles teach players how to create fluid drones called "fluros" through marvelous contraptions, but you later gain the ability to plant seeds and bring them to life with various liquids. Creatures can be constructed out of water, lava, glowing green goo, or red and blue gels that explode upon colliding.
Different fluros exhibit certain behaviors like following light sources, chasing you, or being attracted to the same liquid they're comprised of. Puzzles grow in complexity when all these elements are combined. One brain-teaser requires you to create a creature out of lava, then spray it with water at the opportune time to create steam to power a device. Another has players lure fluros around with glowing gel, and in some cases create glowing fluros to bait others into following them.
The possibilities are dizzying and managing your aqueous workforce is incredibly taxing, and overall it's a promising puzzler. Strange Loop is aiming to release Vessel later this year on PC with hopes of a console version to follow.
Developer: Shadegrown Games
Planck is a rhythm game with no rules. At first glance it resembles a psychedelic shooter with your glowing avatar scrolling down an endless digital river in an empty black environment of sparse neon lights. You shoot glowing shapes called "motes" that unleash different sounds, so by playing you're taking an active role in conducting the soundtrack.
So far so Rez, but designer Matthew Burns (an ex-producer of Halo who Simon documented recently) has a different agenda. He wants people to interact with music on their own terms.
Burns felt like there was a lot of untapped potential for music games, citing Guitar Hero as a missed opportunity because it dictated when players could play certain notes. "You're just playing someone else's song," he explains. The idea with Planck is that you create your own.
As a result, there's no fail state. Initially there were no points either, but Burns found this lack of goals was too alien for most gamers, so he introduced scores to encourage players to learn the ropes before going off on their own and implementing their own audio flourishes. "The points are just there for those who want it" Burns assures me. The game's original state is still available in free play mode with no points whatsoever.
Eventually players unlock the ability to switch up what kinds of motes they'll encounter, and you can carry up to four weapons at a time - each of which fires constantly unless deactivated - granting more aural variance than most rhythm games that force players to adhere to a rigid structure.
Some might consider this more of a toy than a game, but after Rock Band showed me why I should never ever sing and my Guitar Hero rendition of Paint it Black made it sound like Keith Richards was choking a canary, simply being able to lean back and jam and still create a pretty groovy tune without even trying proved a rewarding musical experiences. The full version is expected to be released in 2012 for PC.
Developer: Bootsnake Games
Zombies are a formidable foe. By infecting those they bite, they increase their numbers at an alarming rate. Focusing solely on the videogame space they were once relegated to horror, then they popped up in military shooters, followed by Westerns. Now they're breaching our last defense; casual puzzle games. Is no one safe?
Bootsnake Game's (ex-Gas Powered Games staff) premiere title Containment aims to put an exciting spin on a well worn genre. Rather than rely on the tired "connect three" staple, the idea behind Containment is to surround zombies with the same type of color coded citizen to eradicate the undead. You can swap any living character with any other on the grid, but take too long and zombies will infect those next to them instantly turning them. This threat is largely turn-based, but there's some real-time elements mixed in too, such as when a zombie attacks and you're given a split second to react and make a character swap.
Units are based on various professions such as nurses in pink scrubs, soldiers in green camo, cops in blue uniforms, and thugs in orange hoodies. The type of unit used and the size of the combo determines what kind of power-ups you'll receive. These range from a sniper shot that'll take one zombie off the board or an airplane that whose bombs deplete an entire row.
These power-ups really come into play during the games various puzzle challenges. One level will task players with clearing a board of seven zombies with only three sniper shots. Others will contain bosses and mutated zombies with unique properties (like exploding and infecting those nearby), and environments are often interactive. One tutorial stage had me shoot an electric box to topple a hotel sign over nearby zombies.
Between battles the camera pans from one block to the next, telling the story through the environment and brief text interludes. This gave a real feeling of progression as you could witness the mayhem spreading throughout the city without pulling you out of the game.
With zombies and puzzle games being at the height of their popularity, Containment could be mistaken as a soulless byproduct of market research, but that would be a misnomer as this zombie plagued puzzler is infectious.
Developer: Carbon Games
Comprised entirely of Fat Princess alumni, Carbon Games unveiled their upcoming action-RTS hybrid for the first time at the Seattle Indie Expo. Codenamed "Rook," it resembles a modern update of the Genesis classic Herzoq Zwei. You control an aircraft that can taxi units around, as well as transform into a mech for ground-based combat.
You gain resources by taking over enemy bases, and each base comes with its own perks. Taking one will allow you to generate income quicker, another reduces your respawn time, and another allows you to build new units faster. You can take a base by deploying foot soldiers nearby, but be ready to defended it with tanks and turrets.
Much like Trenched, there will be plenty of customization to your craft, and the game can be played with a focus on action or on deploying units, depending on your playstyle. The crisp, cartoony graphics give it a nice, clean look, not unlike Fat Princess before it, and it's typical dual analogue shooter controls are much smoother than its 20 year old inspiration.
The final game will be available for up to four players (either two vs two, every man for himself, or in an endless survival mode), and there's even talk of it going free-to-play. Amazingly, its only been in development for a month or two, but I can't wait to see what they do with it by the time it's released later this year.