The Eurogamer Expo may be better known for the bigger games on the show floor and the star-packed developer sessions, but one of my favourite aspects is always the Indie Games Arcade. It's where I first got to see and play stuff like Frozen Synapse and VVVVVV, and this year I helped regular curator David Hayward and the Rock, Paper, Shotgun guys decide what should go into the 2012 line-up.
We get tons of submissions and also approach the odd developer to see if they want to get involved, and in judging what to include I wanted to strike an enjoyable balance that would lure people in from the show floor and also give people who already pay attention to indie gaming a rich mixture of things to play. I also thought that, rather than giving you straight write-ups and hands-on impressions, it might be interesting to explain why I actually voted for these games in particular. What was it about those first impressions that sold them to me? What the hell was I thinking?
There are 16 games in total in the Indie Games Arcade, and they're all interesting and worth checking out, but this is my digest.
A Bastard (George Buckenham)
Currently in development for iOS, A Bastard is a split-screen first-person shooter where you try to shoot another human with a big purple ball. The object is to track down and kill your enemy, but in its current Unity-based PC incarnation your task is complicated by the controls remapping every time you press a button, so you constantly have to swap your attention between the main first-person display and a little button readout that lists the current cursor keys. N! Q! T! P! I thought this was pretty hilarious anyway, but there was one more detail that really sealed the deal: you're both using the same keyboard.
(You can play A Bastard in your browser on the internet.)
BaraBariBall (Noah Sasso)
BaraBariBall was an easy choice - it was one of the highlights of Rezzed a couple of months ago, and I just wanted more people to see it. It's a competitive 2D sports game for 2-4 players where you score by dunking the ball in the water on the opposing team's side. You can jump a lot - even in the air - but only have a finite number of jumps available, indicated by icons circling your little avatar guy, and there are all sorts of subtle tactics to learn and then bust out as you become more experienced. Another reason for wanting it at the show is that there's no other way to play it. It's not being released. It just tours shows like the Expo, building up a cult following of increasingly experienced BaraBariBallers. As it says on the site, "for no quarter 2012".
(You can see where else BaraBariBall is going to be playable next on its official site.)
Death Ray Manta aka DRM (Rob Fearon)
The Indie Games Arcade wouldn't be complete without a colourful shoot-'em-up where you pilot a little ship through angry fireworks. Death Ray Manta certainly fits the bill - it takes place over 32 levels so vibrant and colourful that they would shame the inside of a kaleidoscope - but the other big reason for choosing it was that creator Rob Fearon, who brought "War Twat" to a previous Expo, put it together in response to the closed systems and restrictive practices of mainstream PC publishers. Hence the jokey name. With this in mind, it's possible for willing players to customise basically anything in the game, rather than relying on Rob's preferences as the game's creator. Menu text, enemy speed, player movement... You name it. And then you, er, rename it.
(Death Ray Manta is out now at Bundle-in-a-Box.com.)
Don't Starve (Klei Entertainment)
If you've heard of Klei Entertainment it's probably because you've played one of its original creations - Eets, Shank, or maybe Mark of the Ninja, which came out earlier this year. Don't Starve has a similar style, but it didn't make it onto the list due to past glories - it's a survival sim set in the woods where you have to live off the land, working out how to build and use tools to feed and shelter yourself against the elements (and worse). I've played games like this before, but the unique style and Minecraft-esque alpha development model are taking it in interesting directions.
(Don't Starve is available as an early-access beta at the game's official site and there's a time-limited Chrome demo too.)
Gear Up (Doctor Entertainment)
My notes on our shared submissions spreadsheet mention Quake, Ratchet & Clank and Wild Metal Country in reference to Gear Up, and there are exclamation marks abounds, so it's obvious why this one works on me. (In fact, I feel a bit like Pavlov's dog recommending bells to other canines.) It's a colourful multiplayer game where you build tanks and fight and race them with other people, and the small development team is adopting an open approach, supplying a level editor and source content to help anyone who likes it bolt on their own desired changes. Woof.
"What if you could change your fate not by changing your actions but with the actions of others?" No idea, but it's a nice hook for a game. In this case the result is a two-player action-strategy affair based on time-layering. You command a unit to enter the battlefield and do something. Then the other guy rewinds time and has your unit intercepted. But then you rewind time and try to do something to anticipate his anticipation. And so on for four rounds worth of time layers. Ultimately, once everything has played out, the winner is the person whose king has the most health despite all the conflicting timelines. (Oh, and if that sounds boring and basic to you, try Primer instead.)
Proteus (Ed Key/David Kanaga)
Proteus, it turns out, is first-aid for existential angst. It's a game where you walk around an island exploring and soaking up the ambience. Occasionally things happen, which may be to do with what you're doing, but it doesn't really matter. It's beautiful in every sense.
(Learn more or buy alpha access at visitproteus.com.)
Sokobond (Alan Hazelden/Harry Lee)
Do you like the periodic table of elements? Then you should probably play Sokobond, which is a puzzle game about arranging atoms into molecules. Alternatively, does the phrase "periodic table of elements" make you volley your computer out of the window and dive under your desk in fear and hatred? Then you should probably play Sokobond anyway, because it's about moving blocks in the correct sequence to form logically constructed shapes. Whatever works for you. Both worked on me, obviously.
(Sokobond is due out for PC, Mac, iOS and Android at some point in the future. You can sign up for updates on the official site.)
Tower of the Gorillion (Circuiton World Design)
It's unusual, not to mention literally impossible, to feel pangs of nostalgia for things that you haven't played yet, but there's no better word for the sensation that overcame me as I started playing Tower of the Gorillion. It's probably the 8-bit visuals, or the multi-layer 2D co-op levels where your two characters (controlled simultaneously by two players or sequentially by one) work together to solve environmental puzzles and reach the next screen. Actually, it's probably just the chiptune soundtrack. But it's enough.
(You can play the Tower of the Gorillion demo in your browser right the hell now.)
Where is My Heart? (Die Gute Fabrik)
Originally I was thinking it would be fun to have Die Gute Fabrik's Joust, the PlayStation Move party game that doesn't exist on PlayStations, but perhaps it would be better to rebalance the natural order by having Where is My Heart?, since it is an actual PlayStation 3 game. It's already out, but I hope more people see it this way, and get to enjoy its ingenious central conceit - 2D platform levels spliced into comic panels, which are then jumbled up - and subtle ruminations on the complications of family. It's also, as Chris Donlan wrote in our review, "about the possibilities that still lurk within even the busiest of genres, and of great new ideas brought to life by ingenuity, focus, and flair". Perfect.
(Where is My Heart is out now as a PS3/PSP mini. Go to Die Gute Fabrik's website anyway, because it's lovely.)