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I love the Game Developer's Conference. If E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) is Las Vegas flash and hustle, GDC is the thinking gamer's conference. People talk more. Ideas get more airtime and more debate. And the games on display don't have $30 million budgets behind them, so they have to bring a little something different to the table.
It's also conveniently located in my backyard, so I get to sleep in my own bed, shower, and eat well every night. No, I'm not biased.
See? Intellectualism. Booyah!
I found my 2011 game of the year at the last GDC. I can't honestly say I found anything as compelling this time around, but I did play several titles that pushed past standard fare to dare new things. I'm always in favor of that. If you are too, then I highly recommend checking out these three efforts at your earliest convenience.
It lies to you. It quietly changes things behind your back. It tells you some choices are arbitrary, then forces you to make choices. It knows how you think and makes you break from your deep-rooted instincts. It presents an enlightened nightmare, a beautiful trap, a revelatory puzzle.
Alexander Bruce's deliciously devious rabbit hole (formerly known as Hazard: The Journey of Life) doesn't set out to trick you so much as it wants you to stop tricking yourself. You don't have to jump over everything…just walk instead. It can get frustrating if you stubbornly hold fast to everything video games ever taught you, but take a breath, step off the path, and do something that doesn't feel quite right just to see if it works. That's how you play Antichamber.
Portal got you to think with portals, Antichamber gets you thinking, period.
Welcome to the anti-Skyrim of game design. Instead of a 200+ hour magnum opus, here's a short story designed to start and finish in under 10 minutes. You play as a roving ball with dash attacks trapped inside a rather confused A.I. trying to figure out what its purpose is. Luckily, it has a guinea pig: you. Nous rapidly goes through several iterations (therapist, drill sergeant, homicidal maniac) trying to discover the meaning of its artificial life. This involves a lot of trial and error.
Every step (and misstep) only goes to show how smartly designed, well written, and thought-out Nous is. Not every iteration presents a challenge — nor are they supposed to — but it adds up to a tight, action-packed journey worth taking. And luckily, since creator Brett Cutler doesn't plan to launch Nous on any retail platform, you can download it for free whenever you like.
Go on. Try it. Honestly…it won't take long.
I'm generally not a fan of turn-based strategy, mainly because I don't like waiting for my turn while someone whomps on me. Frozen Synapse — released last May by developer Mode 7, but showing in competition at GDC — won me over. Took a while to figure out why, but then it hit me: It's not a turn-based game. It's chess. You formulate tactics and execute plans to destroy your (real or computer-based) opponent at the exact same time they're plotting your demise.
Set in a corporate cyberpunk dystopia that recalls Syndicate's more venomous impulses, you direct your soldier-like Shapeforms — machine gunners, rocketmen, etc. — through randomly generated mazes to seek and destroy enemy Shapeforms. In the prep stage, you tell them exactly where to go, where to aim, where to take cover, when to shoot. You can even watch the dry run in action to make sure they eliminate their assigned targets.
But then you commit to your plan. That's when the game plays out for real, with everyone's strategies running at once, and you find out who out-thought and out-maneuvered who. It's brilliant and mesmerizing to watch your moves unfold into brilliant success, ineffectual wandering, or complete disaster.
Later challenges introduce an RTS-like fog of war, but Frozen Synapse's masterful design ensures you're always operating in a fog of war, second-guessing the opposition even as they try to outwit you. And that's a core gameplay mechanic any chess player can get behind.