There are a few regular, unmissable sessions at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, sessions that have achieved Legendary status, a catalogue of extreme and memorable moments. Game Developers Rant! is one; Richard Lemarchand's curated Microtalks is another, and the third is this, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, led by Journey producer Robin Hunicke.
Every year, developers submit for selection their works in progress: either a game mechanic, or a style, or a theme, one that may or may not work yet - but that is guaranteed to be Of Interest to the (always-full) giant ballroom of GDC attendees. Here's what was on show this year.
The Cosmos And The Cave presented by Tale of Tales.
Sex & Spirituality.
An elegant, and sometimes (unintentionally?) giggle-inducing tunnel-runner with a strong sexual/sensual look. Can sensuality, a trance-like state, and a sense of the Universe be conveyed through a game? Will it work? Maybe? It's now a full game called Luxuria Superbia, so you can try it out. I get a bit bored with tunnel fliers/trancelikes. But I can see the potential appeal, especially to those with a frisk on...)
Elegy for A Dead World presented by Dejobaan.
Poetry, and the end of the human species.
It's very beautiful, and the game's "ask" is that you become a writer, that you actually create a written work, with other members of the game and community. "We haven't quite yet made a safe space so you can dig deep into your imagination, but I think we can get there...", says the presenter. It's poetic storytelling. I'm not a writer, but for a writer, this is probably great.
Gorogoa, presented by Jason Roberts.
Dreamy, mystery puzzler with no distinct theme but a very distinct art style.
I loved this one. It's a tile-based puzzle, with gorgeous, book-like graphics: each tile is hand-drawn on paper with watercolour, scanned, then animated. Says Jason: "This has been 2 years in the making, but it's still experimental due to challenges not yet overcome... I wanted the game to be a found object that unfolds its secrets, and so it has no tutorial: I think it keeps the sense of mystery, but maybe, am I losing players...?" The experimental part is the tile mechanic, the challenge-level of the mystery. I think it's a success. I love the quality and author's love for the work on show here.
Hack n Slash, presented by Brandon Dillon/Doublefine.
A hackable dungeon/Zelda-like.
Instead of a sword, your character has a USB stick - and objects in the game (and the game itself, as it turns out) is all hackable: by using your USB stick on objects, you can control or change the behaviour of said objects. This is amazing: read this review at Polygon for more. It totally works, and it's educational, too! I love Zelda, love the idea of hacking a game, love the educational element. Oh and DoubleFine are top notch.)
Glitchspace, presented by Space Budgie
A hackable 3D platformer/First Person Programming.
A similar take as Hack n' Slash, but with a different approach and game type. The experimentation here is in the hacking theme, plus the visual programming layer over game puzzles. Will it work? Possibly; it lacks the charm of Hack n' Slash, but has very different challenges (in 3D space!) and a different hacking interface, more drag-and-drop visual. The graphics are unappealing at this stage, but I appreciate the educational element again.
Metrico, presented by Digital Dreams.
An infographics-inspired platformer.
This game uses infographics as an art style, playing with player expectations, e.g. in some cases where you are presented with a series of platforms to (ordinarily) jump on, the winning path is actually, unexpectedly, to avoid them. I'm not sure it works. Playing with expectations could get annoying or upsetting as it breaks the win-expectation, but the graphic style is drop-dead gorgeous and the game's polish is high. I'm only "fond" of platformers, and have low tolerance for unexplainably hard jumps; the art style is nice, though.
Engare presented by Mehdi Bahrami Mathematical art
Recent ex-student Mehdi, a native Iranian, wants to explore the mathematical beauty of the art presented in the Mosque and on local art works in his home town of Esfehan in Iran. "I started with a prototype of a carpet-rolling game. We love carpets in my home town, and rolling and unrolling a carpet is very satisfying. But Engare goes further: where mathematics and art intesect, there is beauty and interestingness...". This looks to be a delightful game, and Mehdi had a rapt audience. Engare isn't finished, but is showing great promise. This presents a non-Western art style, complex puzzles. I'm rooting for this. I like puzzles, and the theming is beautiful.
Speed Chess by Bennett Foddy
Battle... chess... with not-immediately-visible rules.
"I took out all the forward planning and logic, all the strategy, and allow the pieces to move alike. And I made it 16 person multiplayer. If you love chess, you'll probably hate this game", says @bfod. It was developed for live play in events; "I'm not sure that works, either, 16 people is a lot, and they don't like to crowd together." He's right, it probably won't work. Points for trying, though, and it was funny to watch 16 people buttonmash at once. Both winners air-punched. The MVP and "Must Try Harder" player gongs made people laugh.
Anchorage (no direct link found) by Gabe Smedresman
The eventual loss of everything.
Anchorage scans your email, plots the relationships that you've had with people, and turns it into a game mechanic. "You're thrown into a river, a metaphorical river of your own recollection: the goal is to work your way to the present day. You float along and relive personal stories as you play the game; you group, according to personal connections in your past; but eventually you let go of everyone..." It's a game that works by mapping your email. But is it any fun? The theme is pretty bleak! Will it work? Unsure. Too bleak for me. Nice art though.
Chroma, presented by Harmonix
"There are lots of ideas in this game, from a vision by our founder; in practice some work, some don't yet. It's a music shooter. Think Team Fortress 2, based on music! Songs are the maps, and you do everything to a beat..." Can verses and choruses and bridges affect the map and gameplay? Can you even have a shooter based on music? Will it work? Unsure. I love shooters but I'm not sure that having to follow a beat AND shoot is going to feel good to any FPS muscle-memory. It'd be amazing if they could make it work though: having a soundtrack to action feels pretty epic.
Bounden, presented by Game Oven.
It's partner dancing. Can you dance with someone, linked by both holding (and not dropping) a smartphone? Will it work? I don't think so, except perhaps for pro dancers, or lovers. It's very intimate, so the likelihood of finding players will be low, too. It looks hard to master, and you'd only want to master it with someone who smells really, really good, because yes you're that close.
Museum of Simulation Technology presented by Albert Shih/Pillow Castle
It's forced Perspective in museum-like spaces. It's work, for educational purposes. The graphics are basic, but it's clever, a little reminiscent of Portal. Someone could do well with a commercial version of this idea.
Fru, by the Fru Game Team
No theme obvious in this layered, puzzle platformer.
Fru uses the Kinect to turn the player's shadow into the controller: the character in the platformer explores two maps at once: one visible outside the player's shadow and another inside the shadow: the blend of the two are the key to solving each map. It works very well. This looks like a lot of fun to both play and spectate! Coming soon to Xbox, too. I'd buy it.
Again, a hat-tip to all those who took part: it takes bravery to show experimental works-in-progress (one of the developers had to take a stress pause, and apologised as his fear took over for a bit; he was extra-applauded for that).
A marvel of GDC in recent years is the rapid growth in breadth of independent game making: thanks to the combination of new forms of funding, new self-publishing platforms, better social networks, and the ever-growing IGF, it feels like there's never been so much variety and choice in the indie scene - and so much very personal self-expression.