Between the fake buildings and flashing displays that dominate the Electronic Entertainment Expo, dozens of indie game representatives stood for hours in crowded rows to share their games with anyone who wandered by.
The indie aisles can be treacherous. In order to find the hits, you have to navigate through countless rodent puzzlers and side-scrolling shooters.
And that’s exactly what I did to create this list of the 10 best indie games of E3 2014. I picked my winners and cornered and interviewed some of the people who made them.
(Note: Some of these games are in early development stages. A few may change drastically in the next few months)
Developer: No Goblin Games
Release: 2014 Xbox One, PC
Roundabout is one part Crazy Taxi, one part Rampage, and three parts awesome. It is the first offering from Dan Teasdale’s (Rockband, Destroy All Humans) new indie studio, No Goblin Games.
Players must chaffeur customers around the city of Roundabout in a constantly rotating limousine.
The gameplay of the alpha version was pretty generic, but hilariously cheesy real-life cutscenes give Roundabout a unique edge (see trailer). Playing through the quests in Roundabout feels like watching the crappy first movie of a mid-’70s drive-in double feature — and I mean that in a good way.
I had to ask Teasdale why he chose to go in this direction.
“I used to work at Twisted Pixel, so I have the FMV [full-motion video] bug,” Teasdale said. “The game is set in 1977, and we felt that using FMV and dressing our actors up in costumes really evokes that era.”
Developer: Upper One Games
Release: Fall 2014 Xbox One, PC
Never Alone is an atmospheric puzzle game with a clear social agenda: breeding cultural awareness for the native Alaskan peoples, especially the Iñupiat. Upper One Games drew heavily from Iñupiat folklore to tell the story of a little girl and her pet fox’s journey to save her people from a blizzard. Part of the game’s development even took place in Alaska.
Andrew Stein, the marketing director for Never Alone publisher E-Line Media, was on-hand to gush about the melding of culture and games.
“Iñupiat tribal members are assisting with every part of the story, visuals, and audio of Never Alone.” Stein said. “This is the first of what we hope to be a number of games where we bring the traditional stories of indiginous cultures to life.”
Traditional puzzle formulas and Alaskan folklore seem to blend well in Never Alone. It has a beautiful art style, and the tag-team mechanic of the girl and her fox creates a smooth puzzle-solving experince. Nothing appears revolutionary about Never Alone, but I think it will do well in a popular indie genre.
Developer: Other Ocean Interactive
Release: 2014 Xbox One
When I reached #IDARB’s aisle at the end of the Xbox indie section, I saw nothing but good things: beers, six people huddled around a video game, and an 8-bit Rick Astley gliding majestically across the TV screen.
I had to get in on some of that.
#IDARB is a simple game: Two teams line up on opposite sides of a platformed map and attempt to throw a ball into one another’s goals. It has many possible team choices. My team consisted of three mimes, and we went up against a team consisting of three breakfast food items.
Frank Cifaldi, the head of business development for #IDARB’s developer Other Ocean Interactive, said all of these characteristics were the result of an accidental social experiment. “Our head of game development, Mike Mika, created a basic gray background with a few platforms and threw a picture of it up on Twitter,” Cifaldi said. “Every development decision we have made since then is a direct result of responses to that Tweet.”
Cifaldi said that Twitch Plays Pokémon played a role in this crowdsourcing model. Fans can use Twitter to create teams, mess with one another midgame, and contribute any idea they want for #IDARB’s gameplay. This was probably the simplest game at E3. But it also has the most potential.
Release: Out now on PlayStation 4. Coming soon to PS3, Vita
Entwined is one of those games that makes you “ooooooh” and “aaaaah” from the first moment you lay eyes on it. The game is visually striking, but it also features this weird twin thumbstick control scheme in which players move a blue bird and an orange fish through a series of obstacles at the same time. Occasionally, the animals combine into one entity that navigates the world with a more traditional control scheme.
So, which came first: the controls or the art?
“We originally had two balls on a screen that were controlled with the two thumbsticks,” said Eric Zhang, the engineer for Entwined developer Pixelopus. “One of our developers came up with the idea to use a fish and a bird, which is based on traditional Chinese mythology. We then had artists animate the game based on the mood and feel of our story.”
The colorful art, upbeat soundtrack, and unique gameplay combine for a pretty solid indie game experience. If you are into video games as an art form, I recommend checking out Entwined.
Release: 2014 PS4, PS3, Vita
CounterSpy is a triple-threat. It has great art, unique gameplay, and a fun story. Players assume the role of spy in an alternate version of the Cold Wars in the 1950s and 1960s. You must stop the world’s superpowers from blowing themselves up — or from destroying the moon.
It’s technically a third-person shooter, but it focuses more on stealth attacks more than anything else. Guns are a last resort in CounterSpy. There is also a really unique cover mechanic in which the camera angle shifts from traditional side-scrolling to an overhead third-person camera, which allows players to more accurately take out targets and security cameras.
When I was playing through the CounterSpy demo, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of familiarity. I hadn’t played a game like this, but I had definitely seen something like this before.
Creative Director David Nottingham of CounterSpy developer Dynamighty explained my nostalgia. “The way we look at this fictional world we related is like this: It is one part The Incredibles, mixed with some obvious Bond elements, and finished with a little bit of Dr. Strangelove,” he said.
Yup. That pretty much nails it. Nottingham went on to mention that the art director, Mark Holmes, was a 16-year veteran of Pixar. I didn’t automatically make the connection, but it definitely makes sense when I look at trailers for the game. CounterSpy is like an interactive Pixar movie with an adult theme. Looking for some warm animation in the Cold War era? Check out CounterSpy.
Developer: Valkyrie Entertainment
Release: TBA PS4, PS3, Vita
Guns Up! is a real-time strategy game from veteran game art studio Valkyrie Entertainment. The game’s name was whispered among journalists at the convention. GamesBeat lead writer Dean Takahashi told me that Sony Worldwide Studios America development head Scott Rohde highlighted the game during an interview.
I decided to check it out, and Jason Coker, an associate producer with publisher Sony Computer Entertainment, was there to greet me.
“Sony really fell in love with this game early,” Coker said. “Valkyrie is a well-known art house, and we trust them to make a great game.”
I can certainly see the potential in a game like Guns Up! The playable version was just a rough game concept, but free-to-play strategy games typically have a very high multiplayer ceiling. People like to compete against each other in simple strategy games, and Guns Up! has the mechanics and design to create a pretty solid multiplayer experience.
I am not quite sold on the single-player. I think just destroying an A.I. base over and over again would get very repetitive. However, the game still has months of development left, so that could change.
There isn’t anything inherently awesome about the early Guns Up! demo, but it has a chance to be a very solid title for Sony.
Developer: Arrowhead Studios
Release: TBA PS4, PS3, Vita
Helldivers is a top-down shooter from Arrowhead Game Studios that also had some hype behind it.
I decided to check it out, and Arrowhead programmer Mikael Bauer sold me on Helldivers with a few key words. “We created Magicka and some of Magicka’s key elements in the game,” he said. “But we were also heavily influenced by Starship Troopers.”
Wait, Magicka and Starship Troopers? So do I make this blank check out to Sony or Arrowhead? Should I put Helldivers in the note section?
The game reaches back to a forgotten era. The over-the-top camera angle and extreme difficulty definitely lend to a mid-’90s feel. Helldivers features a tricky d-pad command system in which players must input a series of direction buttons in order to do things like resurrect teammates or call for ammo.
Up to four players team up to battle swarms of alien bugs on various planets. Helldivers is definitely a game that you and your friends will want to buy and play together, as a lot of teamwork is required to conquer the difficult game.
Plus, it is the closest thing we will get to a decent Starship Troopers game. Remember: The only good bug is a dead bug.
Developer: Osome Studio
Release: 2014 Xbox One, PC, Mac
White Night is a survival-horror game from Osome Studio. I found it pretty late in my search, and the incredibly macabre art style drew me in.
Everything in White Night is either pitch black or a blindingly bright white. It follows simple survival-horror rules. Your character must evade or outsmart the evil ghosts that inhabit the rickety old house he is camped out in. If they find him, it’s game over.
Mathieu Fremont of Osome Studio explained some of the inspirations for White Night. “The game is a narrative survival-horror with some film noir and Hitchcock[ian] elements,” he said. “We really liked the idea of using electric light as your only weapon, and we combined it with a sort of 1930s-era horror theme.”
The game is difficult and plays like an interactive horror movie. The sudden changes in light and contrast really put you on edge. Darkness is a scary place in White Night, and well-lit areas feel safe.
I also really enjoyed the internal monologues of the game’s protagonist, a pseudo-1930s private-eye type. The writing and dialogue was quite well crafted.
I don’t know if White Night has the mainstream appeal of some of my other choices, but horror fans will definitely want to check it out.
Elegy for a Dead World
Developer: Dejobaan Games, Popcannibal Games
Release: 2014 PC, Mac, Linux
This is where things get weird. Elegy for a Dead World isn’t really a video game; it shared little with the games surrounding it in the IndieCade at E3. However, after three days of indie games, I was drawn to something completely off-the-wall.
Elegy for a Dead World is a joint effort of Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal Games. The best way to describe it is a hyper-intellectualized sci-fi Mad Libs simulator.
I will try to explain.
Players move across three dead planets and encounter markers along the way. Each marker displays a sort-of command prompt with sentences that have empty spaces for the player to write in. You fill in the blanks à la Mad Libs. There are no instructions or set rules for this. It is a creative writing simulator where you can create any kind of story or poem you want. Players’ finished diaries are then posted on a public steam forum where everyone can read and discuss each other’s works.
Popcannibal found Ziba Scott tried to clue me in on what was going on. “We started out by drawing some interested backgrounds inspired by Rendezvous with Rama, this great book by Arthur C. Clarke about wandering through space,” he said. “We showed it to a friend, and he told a completely different story than the one we had in mind. We thought, ‘Holy crap, our story isn’t the important thing here. It’s pulling people’s stories out of what they see that is the real interesting thing here.'”
As a writer, I think it is a great idea that has some real interesting possibilities, especially in terms of fostering a sense of community among young, creative people. But it isn’t much of a game. If you are easily bored or frightened by change, Elegy for a Dead World may not be your thing.