A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
It feels kinda hard to believe that Rezzed Expo was the better part of a month ago now. I’ve been meaning to write something about it in some shape or form for what seems like forever, but for some reason inspiration for exactly what to write about just hasn’t come easily.
Unlike last year, where I had a clear list going in of all the stuff I wanted to try- the Oculus Rift, Sir You Are Being Hunted, Wildstar, Space Hulk all spring to mind- this year there wasn’t anywhere near as much on the billing that particularly interested me. I’d be tempted to blame that on the show’s acquisition by Eurogamer (which totally transformed the small, PC-dev-focused, and almost entirely “gamer culture”-free atmosphere of 2013 into something more resembling Eurogamer’s loud, commercial, mass-market celebration of the whole medium), but going in to Eurogamer in the Summer I’d had a hit-list of games as long of my arm. Must just have been me, then. Or the games, I suppose. I mean, I can count nearly half a dozen with single-word titles on this page, all with logos of sans-serif black text-on white background, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what a single one of them was about. Art, I expect.
But yeah, I digress.
Going in without much of a list of things to see was fantastic, particularly given how few of the titles I’d really heard of before. I wanted to try out OlliOlli and Broforce, and had just been reading about 10 Second Ninja and Cloudbuilt the day before, but unlike my first ever chance at playing with a Rift at Rezzed last year, or the opportunity to finally see Titanfall in the Summer, they didn’t evoke much excitement. Rather than making a beeline for them straight away, I was content to just wander, stopping at anything and everything that caught my eye. I was far from methodical, and was somewhat put off by large queues and crowds, but it made for a fantastic experience. I can only imagine what it must be like for the folks who don’t follow the gaming press and would be encountering everything for the first time. Even outside of the Leftfield Collection’s alleyway (the traditional home to all the bedroom coders and self-funded nearly-theres), and despite the show’s change in tone with the inclusion of consoles, the indie heart of Rezzed was still beating strongly, with all kinds of interesting and unusual stuff on display. I think pretty much all the games that I enjoyed most were ones which I discovered there on the day.
The advantage of having left it so long to write, I guess, is that rather than writing about what was there, I can instead write about what stuck with me. This will lead to something that’s more of a reflection of myself than of the show, but that fits far better with the nature of this blog anyway. My favourite things of the show, in no particular order based on what I can remember of them four weeks later are:
Mighty Tactical Shooter
One Spear Arena
There Shall Be Lancing
The game which none of us could stop talking about, and springs almost instantly to mind when I think back to the show is Sock Thuggery’s Mighty Tactical Shooter. Some of this is probably because I couldn’t remember the name of it at first and needed to be repeatedly reminded across the weekend of what “that freaking awesome turn-based shmup with the gravity things” was, but even if it had been named something more immediately memorable to me I expect I wouldn’t have stopped talking about it. It’s tempting to say something about how it’s “just a classic side-scrolling shooter, except turn-based”, but this doesn’t really do justice to what a good classic side-scrolling shooter it is, or just how well-executed the turn-based mechanics are. Before you hit the turn button you’re free to drag your ship around the screen, watching time play out frame by frame like Youtube videos used to when you pulled along their sliders. You can watch how the enemies move and see the trajectories of their dozens of bullet-hell style projectiles.
Providing you resist the temptation to fly by the seat of your pants on the blind, far-right edge of the screen, this makes every wave of enemies a puzzle to be picked apart. Wind forward, watch where the enemies are moving to, wind back, send a hail of shots in that direction. Wind forward, see which part of the screen’s about to be flooded with death, wind back, avoid going there. Even without the power-management system, which lets you balance priority between replenishing your weapons and recharging your shields, or the gravity-based weapons which let you bend shots towards or away from a fixed point, it is incredibly smart. I spent a ludicrous amount of time trying to beat the demo’s final boss under the increasingly-exasperated guidance of the lead developer himself, and absolutely loved every second of it. He and his wife were great people, and I really hope this game takes them far.
OlliOlli has been out on other platforms for a while, so it was one of the few things I already had a solid impression of going in, but this did little to stop me from hanging around both its PS4 and PC booths until my companions got bored and wandered off. I’ve always really liked skateboarding games, so its been a shame for me that there’ve been so few since Activision drove the Hawk franchise into the ground. OlliOlli’s no Skate 4, but the breezy 2D adaptation of the Hawk-style play of building and maintaining long lines of tricks still scratched that same itch. I found the core mechanic of having to hit a button on landing to avoid losing your points difficult to grasp, though, and even after an hour or so’s play I didn’t feel like I really had it down properly. It’s cool on one hand because it gives OlliOlli it’s own unique feel, demanding a high degree of control over your skater from start to finish of a line, but more often than not I found myself pissed off at it because there were so few cues as to what the timing window was. Maybe that’s intentional and you’re supposed to learn the feel of getting it right through endless trial and error and falling over. Just like real skateboarding! I’d probably have the patience to go through it if I were were playing on the Vita through a long bus ride, but sat in front of my PC with other things grabbing at my attention I am not so sure. Nice art and aesthetics, though.
Cloudbuilt was another one that I went in with preconceptions of, having read Eurogamer’s impressions just days before. I’m glad I did, though, otherwise I don’t think I’d have picked up any of the broader story regarding the player character’s struggles with debilitation and prosthetics. Each wall hurdled, each gap crossed and each robot death-turret disabled by the player mirrors her progress towards recovery, as do all of the stumbles, slips and falls. Taken in isolation, the acrobatic mix of jetpack-boosted wall runs, jumps and dashes required to traverse the spacy, floating landscapes, would have been fun and addictive on its own, but I think it was as much my understanding of the narrative which inspired me to keep picking myself up and plugging away at the harder stages. Movement is something common in all games, and while the likes of Prince of Persia, Mirrors Edge and Titanfall have placed a focus on free movement as a core element of gameplay, it is rarer for games to explore the idea of what it is to move. Though the frustration of failing to surpass obstacles in the game is only a shadow of what those frustrations must be in our real world, to have the narrative tie them together in such a way made quite a difference to how I approached it.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that outside of these three games, everything else I enjoyed I enjoyed in the company of the friends I was with. Local multiplayer games are in something of a resurgence at the moment and I wish I had more chances to enjoy them. Particularly the sub-genre of duelling a la Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn.
One Spear Arena put the four of us in control of different coloured cubes, each armed with a single spear, in a big square arena full of rocks. One button dashes sharply in the direction you’re moving, the other throws the spear. Once your spear is gone, you have to go and pick it up again from wherever it has landed. Pop your opponents for points. Pop multiple opponents without getting popped for a multiplier to those points. Pop multiple opponents in a single throw for lots of points. Pop opponents who have just respawned and are pointing the other way still if you’re a dick. Pop opponents right on the other side of the map who aren’t paying attention if you’ve got mad luck skillz. It’s all so simple, and yet you just know that everything from the flight speed of the spears to the distance you can dash has been finely tuned to perfection. I think some of the highlights of the entirety of Rezzed for me where the moments when both my opponents and I threw our spears at one another, simultaneously missed, and then had to try to dance our way past each other to pick them up again. Or when some bastard caught me at point-blank range on the respawn, somehow missing in his glee, and leaving me a wide-open chance for retaliation. Every throw of every spear is met with wild howls of laughter and despair. If I had a big four-seater sofa and a regular group of friends to play with I’d invest in four wired 360 pads just for games like this.
There Shall Be Lancing was in the Leftfield Collection and followed a similar competitive vein, but with more in common with the likes of Divekick. You face your opponent in a duel with three options. Dash towards them in one of the eight cardinal directions, attempting to lance them through, block in one of the eight directions with your shield in anticipation of their charge, or, if you’ve saved enough energy, shoot directly at them with your gun. The more energy you have, the faster you dash and the quicker your opponent will have to respond to block. If you both dash in the same direction, whoever is going fastest wins. If you dash in different directions, you circle around, sizing one another up. Energy fills rapidly, but is drained by dashing. Blocking completely negates an attack, but does nothing against gunshots and will eventually cause you shield to shatter.
It sounds like there’s a lot to process for a simple duelling game, but in practice it’s so intuitive that you only need a couple of rounds to start appreciating the depth of strategy and mindgames involved. Do you play passive, trusting your ability to block, and wait for your gun to come online? Do you use your character’s blocking movements to feint in one direction and then make a dash in another? Do you dance endlessly in circles with them, waiting for the mistake? I liked to play cautious until I had a shot ready, then fire and dash at the same time, forcing my opponent to think fast. If they tried to sit still and block whilst the bullet was still in flight, they were done for. It was surprisingly intense, and playing the same opponent repeatedly led to this wonderful, constantly shifting metagame of strategies, each starting out effective- novel and unpredictable, before growing too familiar to work- obvious and easily-countered.
Given how much we enjoyed these I wish we’d taken the time to queue up for Gang Beasts too, but at least there’s a pre-alpha of that to play next time there are enough of us in one place.
I was gonna write about the table games we played here as well- Rampage, King of Tokyo, Zombicide and Coup, but this post has gotten long enough without adding another four more games to it. Suffice to say that social, multiplayer games dominated for me, with our without a computer screen between us all. I’ve been pretty tempted to look at getting a cheap laptop to take along to gaming nights so that I can play more single-screen stuff with friends. Between One Spear Arena, There Shall Be Lancing, Gang Beasts, Nidhogg, Showdown Effect, Samurai Gunn, Monaco, Magicka and Dungeonland there’s definitely an argument to be made for it.
I guess above all else, that’s what I took away from Rezzed this year- yet more evidence of my growing preference for local games in place of epic singleplayer or online experiences. Actually getting together with people to play stuff rather than settling for Skype or Mumble. Perhaps not much of a surprise, given how I’ve always loved LAN parties, but still. Whatever happened to those?