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Recently, we attended a PlayStation event designed to show off Sony’s roster of indie developers. The publisher demonstrated that it’s celebrating gaming’s past while also taking a predictive look ahead. Several of the upcoming PlayStation games we tried featured nostalgia-inducing retro graphics while others had an advanced vision of the future. The best suggested a fusion of the two.
We spoke with Adam Boyes, the VP of publisher and developer relations at PlayStation, who guided us through the games on display and explained their unique place in gaming’s history.
Celebrating the past
A pixelated fencing game currently available on Steam and heading to PlayStation 4 this summer, Nidhogg looks like a surprisingly fluid relic from the Atari 2600 catalog. Two fighters face off on opposite sides of the screen with their swords raised. You can set the height of the sword to low, medium, or high, or you can throw your sword in an act of desperation.
When you stab your opponent, it explodes in a burst of low-resolution gore, and you can try to run to the end of the screen before they return to life. When you make it through several screens, you’re eaten by a giant, one-horned flying worm. It’s an absurd end to the battle.
“With a lot of these games that have that minimalistic look, it’s the really quick, low-latency interaction,” Boyes told GamesBeat. “The thing that I think works about [Nidhogg] is that it feels like a dance every time you come up against somebody.
“You go high, low, make a move, taunt them, and then know that if I do lose my sword, it’s not over, that I could do something that potentially gets my sword back. I think a lot of it has to do with the mechanics and the intensity around that interaction.”
Nuclear Throne is the latest game from Vlambeer, the makers of Ridiculous Fishing. It’s available now on Steam, but the upcoming PS4 and Vita versions work very well due to the controllers’ twin sticks, with one stick for moving and one for shooting.
In addition to being a shooter, Nuclear Throne draws on the central premise of roguelike games: You have to fight enemies across randomly generated wastelands, and if you die, you can’t continue.
Nuclear Throne’s visual style appears more evolved than Nidhogg’s, but only by a gaming generation or two. The 16-bit characters include a giant chicken and a mutant covered with eyeballs, and each have a special ability to go with a unique look.
I asked Boyes how PlayStation supports indie developers who have a unique vision for their games, even if that vision looks old school instead of cutting-edge. “Our job is to make sure that we help provide a platform for [developers] to be able to bring their creation to the forefront, and no matter what visual style they choose, as long as those mechanics resonate with the gamers and the PlayStation fans,” Boyes said. “I think that’s the most important part for us. [These games] come in all shapes and sizes.”
Predicting the Future
Several other games on display were much more forward-thinking in their visual design. The upcoming PS4 game Source is a sleek-looking 3D platformer from Fenix Fire in which you control a bio-mechanical dragonfly. You can’t fly freely through the geometric levels, but you can hover over the ground and target electrically charged foes.
Source is still early in development, but we could tell that visually complex sci-fi flicks like Tron and Speed Racer inspired it. It’s the kind of look that makes people stop and take notice.
“It’s that freshness, that newness, this is something curious,” Boyes said. “It catches your eye. I think that gives game designers and developers a challenge — to build something that people haven’t seen before. Source is something new.“
Brian McRae, Fenix Fire’s CEO, told us his company is looking ahead to virtual-reality headsets like Oculus Rift and Sony’s own Project Morpheus as possible peripherals for Source.
Adam Boyes agrees that there’s potential. “I think for a game like Source, one of the most exciting things about where we are today with mobile, PC, VR, and consoles, [is that] the future is literally infinite,” he said. “We have no idea where this world’s going to take us.”
Supergiant’s last game, Bastion, was a critical and commercial success on the Xbox 360 and iPad. Its next game, Transistor, keeps the same isometric viewpoint and action-RPG elements, but it takes place in a futuristic world with Matrix-like code overlays and bits of flying data. It launches May 20 for PS4.
Besides the sleek-looking visual style, which combines expressive human characters with alien-looking robot foes, Transistor also has a unique gameplay hook. At any time, you can pause time to plot out a strategy attack and then let it run in front of you.
Greg Kasavin, Supergiant’s creative director, told us that this strategy leads to “moments of anticipation, and you’re not sure if [that strategy] will blow up in your face.” We discovered this for ourselves when a forward assault on a giant robot ended with us taking unnecessary damage.
Boyes said he appreciates the choices inherent in Transistor’s gameplay. “You’re melding two things that aren’t usually melded,” he said. “Tactical gameplay and live action are not melded in very many games, and they’ve done it in such an amazing way where it feels natural.”
Fusing past and future
Starwhal: Just the Tip
Some games demonstrate that the developers were simultaneously embracing concepts from the past and imagining the future. One of these was Starwhal, an outlandish PS3 and PS4 multiplayer game out this fall in which you control a narwhal trying to impale the other players.
With its fantasy background and grid-based levels, the clashing visual styles in Starwhal reminded us of an ’80s arcade or early attempts at movie CG. However, Boyes told us there’s more to this game than just the retro-future visuals.
“To me, it’s more about the multiplayer aspect of it, the dance of the whales,” he said. “It sounds so cheesy, and when you say it, it almost sounds poetic, but literally, all you’re trying to do is hide your heart from getting pierced. Sounds cheesy, but the manic side of that is so powerful. Don’t get near my heart! Stay over there so I can take you out first!”
Indie-developer darling Jonathan Blow’s previous game, Braid, had a main character and environments that looked like they came from an illustration in a 19th-century storybook. The Witness has a more modern style. It comes out in September for PS4, and this early look impressed.
The Witness takes place on an uninhabited island, which is rendered beautifully in a style Blow called “idealish” and “reality-like.” The world is not heavily cel-shaded but subtly accentuated with colors that highlight its foliage and abandoned buildings.
As you roam the island, you’ll find control panels containing basic line-drawing puzzles. These challenges will unlock doors and operate machinery once you complete them.
The Witness is reminiscent of first-person adventure games like Myst, but Blow told us that sequential puzzles in his game are designed to “avoid the adventure games’ fumbling.” The island in The Witness looks ornate, with vast and densely rendered environments, and the simple puzzle panels can also be strangely archaic.
It’s this balance of styles that Boyes thinks will make The Witness a successful adventure game. “I think Jon Blow and his team have done such an amazing job of that dichotomy of feeling like I’m in a lush world, getting challenged by these new mechanics and trying to explore,” he said. “It really does a great homage to the Mysts back in the day, figuring out ‘how do I get out of this beautiful scenario’ but having more of that 3D world around me.”
Best of both worlds
Some players will appreciate the retro-style games that remind them of the past while others will gravitate toward the titles that show off their new PlayStation hardware and resemble a vision of the future, but it’s not always such a clear division.
Even the ancient-looking titles contain evolved gameplay and are hybrids of different genres. The modern-looking ones are based on classic motifs with historic inspiration. Other games alternate back and forth between the past and the future, fusing the two together. With this PlayStation lineup, you won’t have to choose sides, because they’ll coexist in the present.
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