GDC 2009: Mind = Blown: Experimental Gameplay


For two hours – which turned into two and a half hours – last Thursday afternoon those of us with horizon-widening in mind stopped off at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions hosted by Jonathan Blow. There we witnessed some pretty exciting (and pretty mind-blowing) things.

Take The Unfinished Swan, for instance. Players begin in a white-out, and only discover the geometry of the surrounding world by hurling balls of paint into the expanse of blinding brightness. Creator Ian Dallas wants to make a game that players can relate to in the same “gentle and easy” way children relate to picture books, and to that end he has implemented some very light narrative and direction in the exploration by providing swan footprints for the player to follow.

Steve Swink and Scott Anderson presented their game Shadow Physics, which sprung from the idea of subordinating other concerns to a piece of tech that is usually subordinated to story and characters: the shadow system. In this game your character is a shadow who exists in the shadow world, but by interacting with the shadows, he can interact with the objects that cast them. Grabbing the star (yes, it bears a bit of resemblance in goals to Crayon Physics Deluxe) in each level is easier said than done: You may have to manipulate multiple light sources to cast the shadows that create the path to it.

Miegakure is a puzzling platformer where the fourth dimension is not time, but sort of a parallel dimension. Marc ten Bosh said he could’ve just as easily made it five, but four seemed like enough. Unfortunately his presentation seemed to suffer from an error in projection, making the spatial flipping even harder to grasp. The player becomes an adorable little red cube who can run, jump, and change dimensions. By following the way biomes are mapped across spaces, and looking for objects in the fourth dimension that are casting three dimensional shadows, you navigate your way towards the exit of each puzzle. Definitely a trip.

Spy Party creator Chris Hecker is looking for more martinis and less explosions in his spy fare, so he turns to a cocktail party as the setting of his game where one player is an agent and one a sniper outside. Spies take on missions to fulfill, such as transferring a book from one shelf to another (who knows what secrets are contained within?) or bugging the ambassador, all while chatting it up like a pro at a hoppin’ social gathering. The animations have very subtle differences that the sniper will have to learn to pick up on. Right now he admits that it mostly relies on looking for these tells, but he hopes that he’ll be able to ramp up the complexity as he continues development.

The next presenter was Daniel Benmergui, who brought us the excellent I Wish I Were the Moon, where by grabbing different characters and scenery and shifting them around, you can influence how a simple story plays out. What many of us hadn’t realized was that this was only the first game in a trilogy culminating in an even more interesting game – Storyteller – in which there is a beginning, middle, and end of a tale you create in a similar way. You can decide who the hero is, who the villain is, or whether there is even a hero or villain at all. Daniel’s latest game, Today I Die, is about a girl committing suicide, but you can save her by discovering new words to the initially depressing poem at the top of the screen.

It was at this point that we had an intermission. It was tempting to head out and see what else GDC had to offer that afternoon, but I’m really glad I stuck around.

Upon our return, That Game Company showed off early prototypes of Flower, which, as you may know, is a beautiful downloadable PS3 game where the player controls the wind to blow petals around. Creating “a safe, free space full of love” was their initial goal, but Jenova Chen quipped, “What the heck is love, anyways?” The visual of a field of flowers did it for them, but they weren’t quite sure where to go with it at first. They prototyped just flying through a field, blowing flowers in the breeze, growing flowers, and one where you blow a seed around, which “turned into a golf game…” since you rolled the seed into a hole in the ground once you landed in the right area. Eventually they settled on the “swarm of petals” idea — “We really like this prototype (because it’s like FlOw),” he joked. They considered adding combos and power-ups, but in the end the simplicity of the emotional curve won out.

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Next up was probably one of the most exciting, head exploding games of the whole 2.5 hours, especially if you’re an RTS fan. Chris Hazard unveiled the fruit of his team’s past decade, Achron, a strategy game where time is just as navigable as any other terrain. Using chrono-energy (which recharges in the present) players can jump forward or backward to, for instance, build units with resources that are still being collected and then fight with them at a major battle long past.

An example: in one match, Player 1 had a mining camp that was attacked by Player 2, but Player 1 went back in time to stop him. Player 2 zoomed ahead to the future to discover nuclear bombs and was able to drop a nuke, but then Player 1 went back again to quickly erase the fact that his troops were at the mine, and even that the mine was there at all, so Player 2 ended up nuking his own troops, a mishap from which he never recovered. Who doesn’t want to play a crazy game like that? Favorite quote of the presentation: “This unit needs to go back in time to maintain causality.” Sold!

Tyler Glail followed with his environmental puzzle game, Closure. “Dark levels” appear in many games. The darkness conceals information from the player, and is generally just used as a gimmick to add some frustration to an otherwise normal area. Tyler’s game takes the gimmick and turns it into a mechanic: the only part of the levels that exist are the parts where the light shines — or at least the only part your avatar will collide with. It’s lots of running around with keys and orbs of light, but the art style is sort of sketchy and engaging, and the soundtrack scales up and gets more interesting as you add more light to the scene. Plus, it seems very satisfying to jump through what would be a wall, if you could see it.

Where Is My Heart? Hopefully packed comfortably behind your sternum, but in Bernhard Schulenburg’s game, you take a posse of three stackable monsters through a fractured world where hearts unlock boxes that eventually clear the way to a happy tree. It’s a little hard to explain, to be honest, as space is discontinued in what Bernhard describes as a “comic panel effect;” sometimes just a normal little hop will land you all the way across the screen. The demo level would be fairly straightforward if it were just laid out end to end, but the splitting and rearranging causes it to be quite puzzling.

ROM Check Fail is puzzling in it’s own right, but creator Farbs is experimenting with variation, not space. In his game instead of simply fighting a lot of stuff, you fight a lot of stuff as seven different characters randomly selected for mini-levels that come hurtling at you in a blast of retro mash-up graphics and sound. Shmups that take place in a top-down racing game, the first level of Super Mario Bros. as a Space Invaders turret, and other equally jarring oppositions abound. He recommends that designers think about how anticipating change can play a big role in setting the pace of your game.

Derek Yu finished off the massive presentation with a cruise through a handful of Roguelikes, a genre of games based on the hardcoreness of the randomly-generated dungeon exploration title, Rogue (1980), where death had “extreme consequences,” i.e. no 1-Ups, no continues. The experimental part of all this came in with his game Spelunky, which combines an Indiana Jones-ish platformer (grabbing treasure, saving ladies) with the severity and emotional engagement of a Roguelike. The cute graphics make it more accessible than the traditional ASCII art of most in the genre, and the fast, familiar play style means things really move along, compared to the turn-based adventures. “We usually think death is a bad thing because for most living human beings, it is,” but death can be fun, too, and the random generation reduces the annoyance you get in repeating the same level over and over.

The session ended and we were off to find some dinner to digest with all the amazing concepts explored that afternoon. If you were looking for a way to get excited about the future of videogames, this was definitely the panel to attend.

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