Online gaming expos: digitally drained

The annual gaming expos are some of my favourite events of the year, so I’m sad that many have been cancelled for 2020. The horrible threat of COVID-19 means it’s safer not to attend large public gatherings in indoor spaces right now and instead play video games at home.

Some organisers aren’t letting it beat them though. Instead of hosting physical events, they’re turning their expos digital and going online. The Summer Game Fest will keep us going through this month and all the way to the end of August; The Escapist Indie Showcase took place for four days last week; and both the PC Gaming Show and Guerilla Collective kicked off on 13 June 2020. No doubt we’ll hear news of even more events taking place throughout July as organisers follow the online trend.

LudoNarraCon, panel, stream, Peter Ewing, Cassandra Kwan, Strix

The first digital expo I ever attended myself was LudoNarraCon when it started in 2019, and I really enjoyed it. A talk about Night Call by its developer had me instantly intrigued about the game. I had the pleasure of trying several demos for upcoming titles I’d had my eye on for a while, including NeoCab and In Other Waters. And the online panels were interesting to watch, especially one where the discussion focused on how interactivity makes video games a special medium which can pass on emotions to another person like no other.

As I concluded in my round-up post: “It’s always going to be difficult to capture that ‘buzz’ experienced at real-world expos in an all-digital convention, because there’s something about being among a crowd of people with the same interests and who are just as excited as you. But LudoNarraCon did an awesome job; as well as allowing ‘quieter’ narrative games take centre stage, it’s the perfect way of making conventions accessible to everybody. Hopefully it will return next year and we’ll get to do it all over again.”

And it did return this year – along with a whole host of other online events thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown. I’m already aware of seven digital expos taking place this month alone and there are probably more I don’t even know about. Am I excited about attending them though? Not really. Perhaps it’s an indication of what my state of mind is like after spending almost 80 days at home (at the time of writing), but right now I just can’t face yet another thing that takes place online.

I get that it’s a necessity in the world we’re living in today. Here in the UK, mass gatherings have been banned since March and there’s no news yet on when they’re going to be allowed to start up again. Gaming expos therefore have no choice but to move to the digital land if they want to take place this summer. Let’s face it: heading to an event with thousands of other people is a sure way to catch coronavirus, whereas socialising from in front of your laptop screen is much less germy. At least for some of us anyway.

LudoNarraCon, In Other Waters

Online events are a positive thing for indie developers too. They enable them to exhibit their projects and reach a wide group of potential players without having to arrange and fund travel and accommodation, which can be expensive and make real-world expos inaccessible for some smaller teams. Organisers no longer have to find and book venues big enough for the number of attendees, make sure there suitable catering outlets and enough of them (I’m looking at you, EGX Rezzed) and do a mass clean-up afterwards.

And as for players, we get to attend a gaming event from the comfort of our own home. This is a real benefit for anyone who enjoys narrative games like I do. As I wrote after EGX Rezzed back in 2018, expos and conventions aren’t always the ideal place to showcase such titles as the constant noise and crowds can make it difficult to concentrate on the world the developer is trying to make. For example, I first tried In Other Waters there a few years ago; but it wasn’t until I played the demo at home during LudoNarraCon that I really understood it.

So why am I not looking forward to any of the events coming up over the next month? It’s all down to online fatigue. I’m tired of having to live all aspects of my life – work, family, socialising and entertainment – in front of a screen and I miss the real world. This is why I’m finding a lot of enjoyment in hobbies such as bread-making and cross-stitching right now, and why I’m highly likely to break down when my employer schedules yet another conference call with a ‘fun’ theme. (Note to my boss: they really aren’t fun.)

Although I understand that digital expos have a lot of benefits for organisers, developers and players, I’ve missed this year’s annual gaming events. Nothing can capture that feeling of being in a huge hall surrounded by so many video games you’re eager to try, along with thousands of other likeminded gamers who are all feeling the same excitement. I’ve missed catching up with the indie teams and finding out how their projects are going, sneaking other bloggers into developer sessions, and coming home with at least one title added to my wishlist.

It makes me wonder what’s going to happen next year. And I’m not talking about COVID-19 here; I’m referring to whether organisers will take the decision to move their events completely online going forward. Maybe I’m being far too cynical but being able to wrap up cost-savings in a reason of being more accessible and environmentally-friendly sounds like a great business opportunity. Many professional gaming websites have jumped on the bandwagon by hosting ‘digital showcases of the most exciting games’, too.

Although it makes sense, I’ll be sad if this is the case. The annual gaming expos are some of the highlights of my calendar and I’ve missed their buzz this summer. For me, nothing will be able to replace them – not even another themed conference call.

EGX Rezzed 2020: a virtual round-up

EGX Rezzed usually takes place in March or April each year. Thousands of gamers hit the Tobacco Dock in London to play games all weekend and talk to their creators on the show floor, as well as attend developer sessions, get advice and have their portfolios reviewed.

Sadly though, the organisers announced that the event scheduled for 26-28 March 2020 would be postponed. CORVID-19 is having a huge impact on the world and with just under 2,000 confirmed cases in the UK at the time of writing, everyone is understandably concerned. As stated on the website: “Maintaining social distancing is neither feasible at, nor in the spirit of, the interactive and community nature of Rezzed. It is the community that makes Rezzed so special and it is our duty to make sure that your safety comes first.”

I’m glad this is the outcome. My other-half and I had been in two minds about attending following our decision to not go to March’s London Gaming Market, and it’s good to hear that the organisers are looking out for their customers’ safety. Despite realising last year that over 45% of the titles on display had been at previous events or were already available to purchase, I’m still a little disappointed about not being able to go this month; so I’ve been thinking about the games I’d have checked out if everything was well and the show had gone ahead.

Dark Nights with Poe and Munro

I love full-motion video (FMV) games despite their quirks and have played all the releases by D’Avekki Studios in recent years. I loved the radio show featured throughout The Shapeshifting Detective – and now hosts Poe and Munroe are back with their own title! Players guide them through six supernatural mysteries including a talking painting that grants wishes, a nightmare stalker who won’t let go and a hilted ghost who’s looking for everlasting closure. Will you be able to keep the duo together, and alive?

Faraday Protocol

The first teaser trailer for Faraday Protocol reveals barely anything and so it’s hard to know what this one has in store for us. Now that information has been removed from the EGX Rezzed website in light of its postponement, I’ve been able to find very few details online at all. Here’s the best I can come up with: “A 3D first-person story-driven puzzle game with a vintage sci-fi flavour, which combines a futuristic set up with the most classic science fiction elements.” Alright, Red Koi Box: consider me intrigued.

Mørkredd

Given that mørkredd means ‘afraid of the dark’ in Norwegian, it’s obvious who the enemy is going to be in this atmospheric puzzle-platformer. Your goal is to ferry a large glowing orb of light through a pitch-black where stepping into the shadows will instantly kill you. You don’t have to go it alone however because there’s the option to bring a friend along for the ride, but this won’t make it any easier judging from the trailer: getting the ball to stay on the right path looks like it’s going to be pretty tricky.

No Longer Home

Before going to Rezzed I would have made a point of playing Friary Road, the short prequel to Humble Grove’s No Longer Home. This point-and-click tells the story of two university graduates who are preparing to move out of their shared apartment and are disillusioned by their time in the UK. One is getting ready to move back to Japan, leaving the other and their friends behind… but something strange is growing deep under their South London flat. There are some surreal elements to the trailer so I’m looking forward to finding out what they’re all about.

Shadows of Doubt

The Rezzed event in 2018 may have been overrun with detective games, but I love them so I’m not complaining that ColePowered Games are making another. Shadows of Doubt is set an in alternate 1980s where the government outsources police work to private corporations and contractors. You’re a private intelligence investigator who makes money by selling information, and you’ll need to break into apartments, rifle through secret documents and hack security systems in order to capture a serial killer.

Those Who Remain

I can’t remember how I initially came across Those Who Remain by Camel 101 but it’s one I’ve had my eye on for a while. A dark night and a few whiskeys see Edwards get into his car to drive to a destination and end his secret affair, but little does he know what’s in store for him. The town has been warped by the darkness and the deeds of the people who live there and he’ll need to travel between worlds to discover what happened. The trailer looks really creepy: I think this is going to be one I get my other-half to play while I watch from behind my hands.

Were you planning on going to EGX Rezzed this year? If so, which games were you looking forward to? Hopefully I’ll see you there at some point this summer once the new dates have been announced.

LudoNarraCon 2019: In Other Waters

As mentioned in a post earlier this week, artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic in the IT industry. I find the subject of its impact on society interesting and this helps explain why games featuring robots and their relationships with humans hold a certain appeal for me.

I’ve played many releases where the protagonist is assisted or hindered by an AI of some kind. Take the awesome J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars for example, where crew member Rachel Manners is assisted by a central computer and reconnaissance robot. There’s also my favourite game of 2018, The Red Strings Club, where a bartender and freelance hacker are aided by a rogue empathy android. Or how about the upcoming Neo Cab, where Lina is trying to earn a living as the last human cab-driver in the city of Los Ojos.

But there don’t seem to be as many where you’re the intelligence itself, so that’s what makes In Other Waters by Jump Over The Age so interesting. I first saw the project in the Leftfield Collection at last year’s EGX Rezzed event shortly after the successful Kickstarter campaign in February 2018. Having now had the chance to play a short demo during last weekend’s LudoNarraCon, what I’ve seen in that hour-long test is enough to have me very intrigued and I can’t wait to play the full title once released.

The story is set in a future where the Earth is undergoing massive environmental change. The acidification of the oceans, toxic pollutants, deep-sea mining and destruction of vital food chains have decimated our sea-life. The planet is now occupied only by the poor souls unable to join the exodus, while those rich enough head ‘starward’ to join the vast industrial colonies of nearby systems. Strangely though, humanity has been unable to find life on these new worlds.

When a routine exoplanet study goes wrong and her partner Minae Nomura disappears into an alien ocean, Xenobiologist Ellery Vas is left with little more than an antiquated diving suit. What she finds is a sea of extraterrestrial life; and it’s up to you, her AI, to help her trace Minae and dredge up secrets that were meant to be lost forever. As you dive deeper into the waters of Gliese 677Cc, the bond between you and Ellery will be tested by what you discover and the choices you make will change the course of the expedition.

The demo begins with very little explanation. At first I felt overwhelmed: a voice told me to ‘start with a local scan’ but I had no idea how to action the command and the control overlay, activated by holding ‘C’ on the keyboard, wasn’t much help. All I could see was a panel of various knobs and dials with a larger circle in the middle, which depicted a curious set of flowing lines – a top-down representation of the ocean showing the ridges and trenches of the underwater surface.

In Other Waters, video game, control panel, underwater, sea, diving, map

After several minutes though, I noticed that almost anything highlighted in yellow could be interacted with and I started to find my feet (flippers?). Afterwards I realised this sensation was actually quite fitting and as I wrote back in October, I like it when the opening scenes of a title cause the player to feel emotions that mimic their character. In Other Waters’ Steam page advises that you’re ‘an AI, waking from a dreamless sleep’ so it’s understandable you’d be a little confused while booting back up.

My first task was to scan the ocean floor to mark some points of interest. A simple button-click highlights these on the ‘map’ which can then be marked, and selecting them by positioning the compass before clicking on the Set Head button will cause Ellery to head over. Once she reaches the destination, the Xenobiologist will make notes of what she finds so rather than see the world of Gliese 677Cc with your own eyes, you see it through her words.

It might be an observation about the underwater landscape, a new alien life-form or perhaps something from which a sample can be taken. Simply locate the item to be sampled on the left-hand panel, lock it in place and click on the relevant button. It seems as though you’ll usually find a useful substance. In the demo I discovered something Ellery decided to call ‘Shrillsacks’ due to the high-pitched noise emitted; we could then use this to scare off stalk-like creatures which were blocking certain routes and progress further.

Although I didn’t see an example of this in the short section played, the Kickstarter page advises that how you respond to Ellery will change your relationship with her. I’m guessing this may become rather difficult in the later stages as the game as you only have ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ options available to you so nuanced answers are out of the question. Put your pilot at risk, chart paths into danger or make bad decisions in high-pressure situations, and you may find that the trust you’ve built up with her is shattered.

LudoNarraCon, stream, Heaven's Vault

Creator Gareth Damian Martin wrote: “Beyond this, In Other Waters also explores the idea of symbiosis in a deeper sense. Does this human / AI relationship point to a new kind of cross-species collaboration? When forced to choose between the natural life of the planet and the guiding hands of its human creators, where does the allegiance of an AI lie? How might artificial life be simply the next step of a universe-wide evolutionary chain?”

As the demo came to a close, I finally found the remote Waystation set up by Nomura – but something had clearly gone wrong as it was a shadow of its former self and Ellery’s partner was nowhere to be seen. However, some hidden data revealed mysterious ‘Xenocaches’ that blinked mysteriously on the screen after a scan. What has happened on Gliese 677Cc and what will we discover underneath the waves? Where has Nomura disappeared to? And how on earth are we going to get home?

In Other Waters is due to be released in early 2020 so hopefully we won’t have to wait long to find it out. Visit the Steam page for further details and follow Jump Over The Edge on Twitter for all the news.

EGX Rezzed 2019: Wardialler

Almost as strong as my love for adventure games is my adoration for everything 80s. Maybe it’s down to nostalgia as I grew up during the decade but there’s something about music with plenty of synth, crimped hair, Reebok high-tops which really appeals to me.

Give me a video game which makes me feel as though I’m playing a part in a film from that era then and I’m a very happy gamer. Perhaps this explains why Wardialler caught my eye when I stumbled across it while wandering around the Leftfield Collection at EGX Rezzed recently. Its simple visual style of glowing green text against a black background called to mind movies such as WarGames, and I half expected a young Matthew Broderick to walk into the room and start playing a nice game on chess with the computer.

As I wrote after the last Rezzed, playing narrative games at expos can be difficult. The constant noise and crowds detract from the hard work and passion which has gone into making them and it can be hard to truly see the world the developer is trying to create. Although I therefore only played Wardialler for a short period, it was long enough to get me intrigued; but this, combined with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much information about the project just yet, means this is going to be a preview short on detail.

The thing I really enjoy about hacking games like this is how they make you feel as though you’re falling down a rabbit hole. You start by trying to gain entry into one system, doing so in this title by connecting to a network and then entering commands to see what software a machine is running or the documents on a computer drive. You’ll then come across tidbits of information in documents which point to other systems you can access, along with an underlying mystery or conspiracy that drives the game forward.

Wardialler is a personal project by Paul Kilduff-Taylor from Mode 7 under the nervous_testpilot banner. According to a Facebook post from February, it’s going to be a ‘free accompaniment to an album of the same name’. The Eurogamer team picked it as ‘one of the best games from this year’s show’ and said: “All blinking green cursors and seemingly bottomless tangents jutting off from your investigation into your dad’s shady company, it had me hooked, jotting a few notes after five minutes and scribbling them here there and everywhere after ten.”

Speaking of those notes, the developer had left a notepad next to the keyboard on the stand along with a message asking attendees to scribble stuff down as they played the demo. They could also leave their email address if they were interested in receiving updates. What a brilliant idea: it’s a great way of seeing the path players took through your project without being too intrusive, and gives you an insight into whether the elements are coming together in the right order regardless of any branches.

Wardialler has certainly piqued my attention and I can’t wait to find out more about the project. In the meantime, I now really feel like playing a hacking game… perhaps there’ll be a Hacknet stream in the near future.

EGX Rezzed 2019: the future of adventure games

After coming across an article declaring that adventure games were dead in January and then having a brief conversation with Rendermonkee from Rendermonkee’s Gaming Blog, I wrote a post in February about what lies ahead for the genre. It was therefore a lovely coincidence that this was the subject of a Rezzed Session at this year’s EGX Rezzed last week.

Dan Marshall from Size Five Games, Dave Gilbert from Wadjet Eye Games and Jessica Saunders from Salix Games got together in a room at the Tobacco Dock in London for a talk entitled The future of adventure games. All agreed that stories are ‘one of the most important things we can do’, and narrative titles are perhaps the best vehicles for them because they allow us to explore branches and multiple paths. Saunders pointed out that this involvement in their outcome makes them much more emotionally engaging than films.

However, the panel also acknowledged that the genre has its weaknesses. When Marshall played Day of the Tentacle Remastered, it reminded him of just how awkward adventures can be; in the past they’ve had a tendency to rely on walls of text and can feel as though you’re reading a book rather than playing a game. They may have been great for their time and the genre has certainly delivered some classics we’ll never forget, but their gameplay style isn’t necessarily what we want from our releases today.

The group felt that developers can succeed by considering how they can use all the ‘incredible technology’ now available to us to bring a type of game from the past right up to date. On the flipside however, they also need to be careful not to simplify mechanics too far so their projects no longer retain that feeling we expect from adventures. For example, replacing verbs with a one-click-does-everything system may streamline a game – but it also runs the risk of the player feeling like a passenger rather than participant.

Another risk mentioned was using Kickstarter to support your business model because it’s ‘dead for video games’ and no longer a viable funding option. Many people don’t understand the cost of making a title and as said by Gilbert: “You see someone who’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a Kickstarter and we won $3,000′ and you’re like, ‘Dude, you’re devaluing everybody by doing that…’ The worst thing about doing a Kickstarter isn’t not meeting the goal. It’s meeting the goal but then not having enough, because then you’re screwed.”

Saunders was keen to highlight that the term ‘point-and-click’ means something different to ‘adventures’ nowadays. The former invokes thoughts of titles with huge inventories, conversation trees and challenging puzzles, but today’s adventures can be so much more than that. This was something I picked up on in my post back in February: in recent years the genre has evolved into new forms, incorporating elements from other types of releases and changing its appearance depending upon the light.

Unavowed, video game, basement, bedroom, Eli, conversation

Towards the end of the session an attendee asked for the panel’s opinions on the survivability of adventure games, and the fact that mainstream distribution platforms seem to be showing less interest in the genre. Gilbert responded: “I think it’s awesome. Because if mainstream companies were still making them, I wouldn’t stand a chance. It creates a great opportunity for indies to serve that niche, and do reasonably well if they do it reasonably well… so I think it’s awesome that main publishers don’t do these games any more. I think it’s great.”

So now over to you: I want to hear what you guys think. What does the future hold for adventure games, and are independent developers well placed to give us what we’re searching for? Based on what Marshall, Gilbert and Saunders shared at Rezzed in their talk, it seems we have bright things to look forward to.

EGX Rezzed 2019: Metamorphosis

How would you feel if one day you discovered you’d been turned into an insect? Maybe you’d realise it wasn’t a dream and that you needed to do something about it quickly. This is the basis for Metamorphosis, a first-person puzzle-platforming adventure by developer Ovid Works which I had the opportunity to check out while at EGX Rezzed last week.

If the premise sounds familiar, then you may be thinking of novella The Metamorphosis by writer Franz Kafka. This game reimagines salesman Gregor Samsa as he’s transformed into a tiny bug – which is rather inconvenient as his friend Joseph is being arrested for reasons unknown and he doesn’t recognise you in your new arthropodal body. To save him and find the answers you seek, you must embark on a dangerous journey through a world which has turned twisted and unfamiliar.

As anyone who saw me try to play Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy during our GameBlast19 marathon stream in February will realise, I’m terrible at platformers and so Pete took the controls while I helped out with the puzzles. The demo started in an area which looked something like a library or a study, with obstacles made from objects such as books, pencils, bottles and drawers, but the discovery of several notes reveal that it’s some kind of ‘processing’ area.

Of course, to protagonist Gregor the items mentioned above now look completely different in his diminished form. The hand-painted graphics are lovely and the use of close-up details and textures really make the player feel as though everything around them has suddenly become gigantic. When you come across documents such as letters and business cards, you’re able to pan the camera out to easily read them and the words provided give subtle clues as to where you are and what’s going on.

While in its first-person perspective, Metamorphosis turns mundane objects into an expansive obstacle course. Fortunately though this is where being an insect comes in handy and unique movement mechanics make full use of your small body and sticky limbs. Pens leaning on top of books transform into bridges which enable you to reach different levels within the environment, while items stacked closely to walls make for good nooks and crannies to scurry through.

For those who want to explore, sparkling symbols which seem to be collectibles can be found in the darkest corners and picking them up gives you what appears to be a Kafka quote. And for those like me whose platforming skills aren’t the greatest, there doesn’t seem to be any need to worry too much: when Gregor misses a jump and falls, a document flies through the air to scoop him up and deposit him back near his previous location (which nicely ties in with the surreal library location).

EGX Rezzed, video games, Pete, Metamorphosis

That doesn’t mean your character can’t die however. We eventually came to a scene where paper was moving through rollers and being stamped – plenty of obstacles for a bug. Pete managed to guide Gregor through successfully until he reached a set of turning gears, where it was necessary to move from one to another; and a mistimed leap unfortunately resulted in the protagonist getting squished. Death sees you respawning in a relatively close location so it doesn’t seem as though the title will cause players to become overly frustrated.

Can Gregor get the answers he needs? Can he save his friend Joseph? And can he return to the life he once knew? We won’t get to find out until Metamorphosis is released on both PC and consoles in the autumn. In the meantime, you can add the game to your Steam wishlist and give Ovid Works a follow on Twitter.