The 3 Stages Of Indiecade: Giggle; Cringe; Wow

If you should ever find yourself at E3, my advice would be to spend some time away from the main halls, and see how people who don’t have lavish budgets or the tight constraints such budgets come with manage to actually create surprisingly innovative, or at least interesting, little games. That would be the Indiecade Showcase, E3′s central nervous system for all things indie – and I mean, actual indie. Sure, you might feel some initial confusion at being exposed to games that aren’t sequels to Call of Halo: CreedShock Planetspace, but you’ll get over it, and you’ll thank yourself for it.

Indiecade, if you’re not aware, is an annual festival celebrating, duh, indie gaming; the main event happens every fall in Los Angeles with related festivals worldwide. It has been instrumental in calling attention to games that would otherwise have died in obscurity (well, even greater obscurity), and is naturally a major reason why the indie gaming world now receives so much attention. 2012 marks their 6th appearance at E3, and I managed to get over there myself for some quality time with several strange and wonderful little games they selected for the big show. They weren’t always perfect, but if the expression ‘A for effort’ counts for anything at all, it counts for situations just like this.

Here’s a breakdown of my favorites at Indiecade’s E3 2012 slate:

Tickleplane (Messhof Games)

When you find out there’s a game called Tickleplane, you play it, without hesitation. It’s like finding out there’s a device called a hug badger, or a weapon called the cuddle-spear. What the hell does it even mean? In Tickeplane’s case, it’s a weird little typing tutorial cleverly disguised as a atari-level graphics flight combat game. Kind of. Messhof calls it a ‘war learning game’, and that’s good enough for me.

Play is exceedingly simple. Players maneuver their aircraft by rapidly, and randomly, typing on either side of the keyboard – tickling, if you will – and bashing the space bar to shoot your enemies down. It’s not elegant by any means but it’s a f*cking blast, and best of all, if you’re shot down, as long as you rapidly type “repair”, you’ll be able to save yourself. Too bad you’re typing with two fingers because you never learned how to do it properly, sucker. Alas, it’s not out quite yet, so be on the lookout in the near future.

Prom Week (UCSC’s Expressive Intelligence Studio)

On first glance, I would have run screaming from Prom Week. Flash games are not Game Front’s thing even remotely, and double ditto that for Facebook nonsense. But the ridiculous premise and the surprising meanness grabbed my attention, and the fact that it was created by UC Santa Cruz students with partial funding from the National Science Foundation award convinced me to take a closer look. After spending 20 minutes, I’m not sure it’s a good game, but it’s a great idea. And if you ever wanted a pitch perfect parody – possibly pitch perfect recreation – of the casual cruelty of high school, this is definitely worth a half hour of your time.

Prom Week uses the AI system Comme il Faut that allows players to use what they call “social physics”. The idea is to give players a fairly deep (if very goofy) social simulation that allows for “emergent solutions to social challenges,” for example whether or not to bully someone and take their girlfriend, or make nice with the person you hate. The interface is a simple point and click experience. Essentially, to make social interactions actually playable, the entire point of the game.

Players choose between several different cartoonishly stylized characters based on several generic High School archetypes, like the smug rich kid, the cheerleader, the arrogant golden child, the emo kid, and more. Each character comes with an extensive background and complex relations with the other students. The player basically tries to socialize with the primary goal of getting a date for prom. How you get there is fairly wide open.

It’s kind of a cool idea, and it’s interesting to see just how mean the characters can be to one another. Just like high school! But it’s also really clunky and a bit confusing. It took me a few tries before I was able to figure out how to stop my character from being the world’s biggest dick. Still, as silly as it is, it’s a great thought experiment with some pretty cool implications for simulation games with a high degree of social functionality. Definitely worth checking out, and you can do so for free; see the official blog for more.

A Mother’s Inferno (Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment)

Of all the games I saw during my time with Indiecade – and possibly my entire E3 2012 experience – this is the one that left me with the certainty that I’d just seen something important. Created in just over one month (November to December 2011) as a group project by students at the Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment, A Mother’s Inferno is an astonishing accomplishment. It isn’t a big game – I beat the entire campaign inside of 20 minutes – but it manages in this tiny amount of time to demonstrate the amazing creativity available to the gaming industry. In a just world, it would already have been picked up by a major developer for expansion into a full AAA game.

A Mother’s Inferno is a deliberate reference to the Inferno from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but instead of the 9 circles of hell, the inferno in this case is the 5 stages of grief. The premise is simple: A mother and her son are traveling on a train when… something… happens. For whatever reason, the train stops, and her son disappears, at which point she (and the player) receives simple instructions: Find Your Son. What follows is nothing short of crazy or at least, the kind of crazy one suspects college kids in Europe get up to in between classes.

It’s all rather simple, just WASD + mouse controls. Players take the role of Mother in first person perspective, taking her from train car to train car, each one named after a different stage of grief. As you advance through the game, the graphics become obscure, impressionistic, psychedelic even, obviously meant to suggest a deepening sense of loss and pain. (It should also be noted that the extremely trippy graphics overcome the game’s graphical shortcomings handily.) In each stage you’ll encounter bizarre and progressively difficult enemies, which you must kill using only your ability to grapple, and a shard of broken glass. There are some wonderful absurdities I won’t spoil for you, and an ambiguous ending, both of which I was told were the result of the team not coming to a consensus on all aspects and having decided to just power through. Fortunately, the ambiguity of the ending fits perfectly with the theme of grief, and feels much more deliberate than they admitted.

Despite brevity and simplicity, A Mother’s Inferno will leave you feeling hollow and disturbed, and I mean this in the best possible way. Short, simple, and yet somehow morally and intellectually meaty, it’s a resume capper for everyone involved, and a must-play for gamers seeking something they’ll never see under deliberate circumstances. It is currently available for free download on Mac and PC on the official site.

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