Author Archives: Devin Coldewey

Feast your eyes on these uniquely beautiful indie games from E3

The AAA games on display at E3 this year have, as usual, an amazing array of beautiful, nearly photorealistic graphics — and while they’re amazing in their own way, I always find it fun to highlight a few games that take a totally different approach to their art. Here are a few that caught my eye this time around.

Sable is a “coming-of-age tale of discovery” set in an open world that you can explore at your own pace. The overall look of the place is rather Journey-esque, but there’s also a shade of Hyper Light Drifter in the environments. Most interesting of all, however, is the visual effect that makes the whole thing look rather like a comic book by Moebius.

The effect is a bit hit or miss — some details can end up warping or looking odd — but overall it’s extremely arresting and definitely set the game apart instantly from its more realistic peers. Hopefully the writing and gameplay live up to its visual style.

Overwhelm is a chunkily pixelated hardcore shooter-platformer with a couple of interesting twists.

First of all, you die in one hit. That’s what makes it hardcore.

Second, you only get 99 bullets per level, and your gun needs to cool down after firing three times.

Third, whenever you beat a boss, it gives a special ability like wall climbing not to you, but to all the enemies.

It reminds me a bit of Abuse, a classic side-scrolling shooter with free mouse aiming and scary aliens. But its art style is far more reminiscent of the excellent Downwell, which itself was modeled on (I believe) the original Game Boy’s four-shade palette. Minit is another recent example of successfully using this ultra-pared-down look.

Noita (Swedish for “witch”) is one I’ve actually been following for a while now. At first glance this looks sort of like a dig-’em-up, à la Terraria, but the visual and gameplay twist is that every pixel is physically simulated. That means everything in the game can be burned, exploded, melted and so on — dirt will fall, fire will spread, water (and acid, and lava) will flow and escape its container.

You also create your own spells as you delve deeper into the procedurally generated caves looking for “unknown mysteries.” Well, that’s a bit redundant, but you get the idea. It looks like a real blast.

Signalis goes retro, but in a much different direction than most others. Instead of recreating the beloved pixel art of the SNES or Saturn, it goes to the less-beloved chunky polygons of the PlayStation era. Think Resident Evil. I’m also reminded of the cutscenes from Another World.

Although it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on from the trailer, I’m definitely digging the look and feel. The control panels, the mix of polygons and hand-drawn backgrounds, the scary, lonely air and threatening atmosphere… right up my alley.

Last is Ooblets, which as far as I can tell is about planting and farming strange little creatures that eventually have some kind of dance-off in the forest.

It can be hard to really express a visual style in 3D, but I love what Ooblets is doing. Everything is delightfully awkward and cute, with a deliberate stiffness to it as well as a clear design. The unshaded polygons, careful lighting and modeling, it all creates a strange but compelling whole. The closest thing that I can think of to it is the Katamari Damacy series.

I realize now, having written this, that I put “uniquely” beautiful in the headline and then cited similar looks or inspirations for all the games. But really, though, they do take inspiration from others, they’re definitely all doing their own thing. (Really, really, though, I just didn’t want to scroll up and change the headline.)

There were plenty more striking games at the show — check your local indie games site to see what others have dug up!

Valve sets sights on Discord with updates to Steam Chat

Discord has risen among the ranks of gamers as the most common choice for game-related communications. And it’s easy to see why: it works well and the competition is pretty dismal. But Valve is looking to keep users in-house with an overhaul of the chat options on its game platform Steam .

It’s a welcome change, one of many that Steam’s users have surely been asking for — the platform, while convenient in many ways, is also incredibly outdated in others. The friend and communications options may as well be ICQ, and let’s not get started on the browser.

Today’s news suggests that Valve has not failed to hear gamers’ cries. The revamped chat is very Discord-like, with text and voice channels listed separately, in-game details like map and game type listed next to friends and a useful quick list for your go-to gaming partners. There’s also a robust web client.

Voice and text chat is all encrypted and passed through Steam’s servers, which prevents the NSA competition from monitoring your squad’s tactics during PUBG games and griefers from tracing your IP and ordering a hundred pizzas to your door (or worse).

It’s long past due for a platform like Steam, but more importantly it lets them keep Discord in check. The latter, after all, could conceivably grow itself a game store or promotions page in order to subsidize its free services — and that would be stepping on Valve’s turf. Unforgivable.

That said, it’s far too late for Steam to steal away Discord’s users — it’s been adopted by far too many communities and the benefits of switching aren’t really substantial. But for people who have not yet installed Discord, the presence of a robust chat and voice client within Steam is a powerful deterrent.

It’s currently in beta, but you can request access here (web) and here (Steam). No word on whether they are developing a whole system of chat icons based on those wiggly little egg-people in the top image. (Please.)

Gaming leans into diversity at E3, but not hard

To say the gaming community is not known for its friendliness to women and minority groups is something of an understatement. But we’re starting to see developers abandon the usual excuses of tradition, demographics and, the most absurd of all, “realism,” in favor of making gaming more inclusive. Kind of.

This has been an ongoing theme for years, of course. But it feels like this year it was a little less self-congratulatory and a little more self-motivated.

The fun started early, well ahead of E3, with the apparently devastatingly diverse front lines in Battlefield V, which takes place during World War II. The predictable objections as to “historical accuracy” appeared — unironic, despite the utter lack of historical accuracy in pretty much any of these games. The way the war was fought, the locations and situations, the weapons and vehicles have all been liberally massaged to turn the worst thing in history into a fun multiplayer game.

But it was EA’s chief creative officer, Patrick Soderlund, who made the headlines with a searing riposte in an interview with Gamasutra. Citing the historical record of women and people of color in the war, he called out the peanut gallery as both incorrect and irrelevant.

What’s the most unrealistic part about Battlefield V? It ain’t her.

“These are people who are uneducated,” he said. “They don’t understand that this is a plausible scenario, and listen: this is a game.”

A game, he added, intended to surface stories that have been hitherto relatively seldom told, including the roles of those groups.

“This is something that the development team pushed. And we don’t take any flak. We stand up for the cause, because I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game. I’m fine with either or. It’s just not OK.”

Then E3 got started. As a pleasant early surprise, Gears of War 5 has you playing a female protagonist in what has long been a mainstay of grizzled space-marine mandom, and your companion is a black guy. Of course you have the new Tomb Raider, a solid franchise with an increasingly strong, well-written female lead.

In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft went so far as to twist the lore of the series to accommodate the player’s choice of character: Alexios or Kassandra, between whom there are no real differences — including romance options, a quietly provocative decision.

The Last of Us Part Two has a badass young woman as its protagonist, defending herself with shocking brutality in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. (Yet you can be sure it’s the kiss shared with a girl on the dance floor that will generate more controversy.)

Nintendo offered a variety of customization in the new Smash Bros. for Switch, with male and female options for all kinds of characters, including Pikachu. Even Cuphead has a playable lady in it now.

Elsewhere we saw diversity on display in something as simple as having men and women of all races represented as pirate captains, commanders of futuristic forces, medieval knights (a nice Joan of Arc feel from For Honor’s trailer) and futuristic jet pilots. (My favorite outfit was in Control, by the way.)

What it felt like to me, though, was not that these companies were fulfilling some kind of diversity quota — that bogeyman so often invoked by critics — but rather the simple acknowledgement that the world of games should resemble the world of gamers.

Of course, when you pull back a little bit, it becomes extremely clear that the majority of games are still very much dominated by the garden variety grizzled white male protagonist. But that’s fine. We have a similar problem in film, TV and other fiction as well, right? Moving on from outdated ideas of race and gender in the world of media is an ongoing concern and it won’t happen all at once.

But at least at this E3 we’re seeing indications that developers and publishers are moving in the right direction.

As for the people playing — well, that’s a different story. Whatever the flexibility of your choices in the latest crop of AAA games, female gamers and people of color will still be ruthlessly harassed, abused and otherwise targeted. Developers can’t change the bigoted minds of toxic players — but they can ban them. Here’s hoping that side of things is getting equal attention.