Adventures at E3 2014
Attending E3 for my first time, my expectations of the yearly videogame extravaganza were amply met as I was ambushed by screens of exploding color at every corner, strapped into sensory-overloading “reality” headsets at the hands of scantily-clad maidens, and scratched my head at the sight of costumed DJs dancing with Conan O’Brien underneath twenty-foot displays of digitalized Kevin Spaceys while cel-shaded zombie heads exploded in slow motion on the adjacent screen.
In such an overwhelming and fast-paced atmosphere, I found myself seriously doubting that my quest for adventure games at the expo would be equally satiated. To my surprise, however, I found more adventure games tucked away in hidden corners of the event than I imagined.
As one of the representatives of the Fract OSC display at the IndieCade showcase said to me, “Adventure games are a niche market, but a really hot niche market right now” – a statement that only gained more and more traction as I traveled further through the convention. The biggest surprise of E3 didn’t end up being the announcement of a HD remake of a particular Tim Schafer title, but simply the vast range of adventure games present at the event.
The Talos Principle
In Sony’s section of E3, I found The Talos Principle, an open-world, first-person adventure coming to the PS4 (and also PC). The playable demo began in an abandoned, crumbling ancient Roman society, contrasted with lots of cryptic, neon-sparkling, science-fiction technology. For the most part, the environment and the visual design were strikingly crisp and detailed as I walked across the lonely, uninhabited cobbled bridges and leafy, forest pathways that ultimately led to towering, locked castle doors.
The Talos Principle trailer
Each door required the use of fairly standard adventure game logic, such as a puzzle that combined Tetris and standard jigsawing, and a much more complex obstacle involving the movement of multi-colored laser projectors while avoiding the detection of security monitors through the abstract use of time-travel. To be honest, the whole laser and time-travel elements didn’t really register for me before I had to give the game up to the next player, but it certainly seemed like an intriguing mindbender. So far, The Talos Principle definitely looks to fulfill its developer's promise of being a gameplay mix of Portal and Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Night in the Woods
Stopping plenty of people in their tracks, Night in the Woods was one of the more popular titles in the Sony area, as I had to wait for an entire news crew to dispatch to finally get my hands on it. You may be familiar with the game’s hugely successful Kickstarter, but if not, while it looks like a children’s storybook come to life, the children’s part is ultimately inaccurate. Playing as a charmingly-designed 2D cat named Mae through largely exploration-based gameplay, you side-scroll your way through the vibrant and colorful paper cut-out neighborhoods of your old hometown, bouncing across telephone wires and running into cute, anthropomorphic former acquaintances.
In my playthrough, Mae awakened in her bedroom and quickly stated that if she didn’t leave it soon she was “going to burn it down with me in it”. This immediately instilled the sense of Mae as a relentlessly cynical, bored-with-everything youth, further reinforced by the following dismissive conversation with her concerned mother, who insists to Mae that “it’s time to grow up.” Mae’s deadpan assertion over and over is “I’m 20” to her mother’s every qualm. Once I actually began to walk about town, I ran into an old friend, with whom the dialogue unexpectedly spiraled into a succession of indie/hipster non-sequiturs, random quips about bands they can’t help but hate, where they found their thrifty t-shirts (“Oh, this? I made this one.”), and more of Mae’s cynical take on the world around her.
Night in the Woods trailer
Night in the Woods looks like one of the most unique games created in recent memory, primarily driven by its rich character and enormous personality. The humor seems offbeat and certainly centered around contemporary indie culture, which will likely appeal to the same crowd, even though it seems to be implying a larger commentary above it all. It will definitely be interesting to see how the game ends up when it releases later this year.
XING: The Land Beyond
One of the most immersive adventures I experienced at E3 was XING: The Land Beyond, strapping myself up in the Oculus Rift to really sink myself into the game. A game about the afterlife, XING resembles a more interactive, involved version of Myst, as you primarily navigate immensely beautiful scenery and tropical settings while solving supernatural, environmental-based puzzles aplenty. The most striking appeal of XING was definitely its thoroughly detailed environment. This is the kind of the game that wants to take you away for a hugely atmospheric voyage – a virtual vacation of sorts.
XING developers White Lotus Interactive at E3 2014: Koriel Kruer (second from left), James Steininger (center) and John Torkington (right), with Joe Chen and Palmer Luckey of Oculus
With the Oculus and a set of headphones on, the camera moving with every tiny motion of my head, the immersion of being inside another world was immensely convincing. I found myself spinning around to the sound of streaming waterfalls and whirling bird sounds over my head as I climbed into the jungle, and it felt impossible at times to discern what was coming from inside or outside the game. I think the Oculus may have begun to trick my senses, as several times I thought I felt the wind actually blowing on my face.
Many of the puzzles were so intuitively integrated into the organic nature of the environment that I often felt like I was really experimenting and interacting with the world around me rather than just playing a game. Early on, for example, I picked up a coconut-like fruit from the soil, sizzled it over a decorative torch under a vine-covered canopy, and tossed the flame-engulfed fruit into a wall of vines as I watched the whole obstruction burn to the ground in a crisp.
XING: The Land Beyond trailer
My favorite aspect of XING was definitely its freedom to explore. At one point I noticed a fallen tree over a river in the distance. I half expected an invisible wall to prevent me from investigating the sight, but I was able to jump right onto the tree and climb across from one side of the river to the other. It didn’t really have anything to do with the story, but the fact that the game allowed the opportunity definitely made for an enthralling experience. From everything I saw, XING has the potential to be not just another game, but an interactive portal to a truly believable other realm.
Port of Call
One of the nicer surprises of E3 was running into the small college development team Underdog Games, who had made a narrative-based, first-person adventure called Port of Call, citing their recent favorites like Gone Home as inspiration. Selected as finalists for the E3 College Game Competition, it was clear the recognition was based on their fresh vision for a highly creative premise.
The development team of Port of Call at E3 2014
Port of Call is primarily a narrative experience with character-driven challenges, relying heavily on its depth of story and immersive atmosphere above everything else. It begins on an empty boat dock, certainly not unlike the iconic opening shot of Myst. A ghostly figure appears on one end of the dock, but upon approaching him using the WASD keys, he quickly fizzles into thin air. Turn around, however, and at the once-empty dock an enormous, eerie, vacant-looking vessel is now miraculously stationed – a mystifying reveal that worked to great effect.
The vessel is where the rest of the game transpires. It’s a haunted ship, where the souls of past inhabitants are awaiting, each with a rich history. Every character I ran into provided a task for me to pursue, while slyly dropping cunning hints to the larger mystery of who and where I was, and why I was here.
Port of Call trailer
The playable demo wasn’t particularly long, as merely finding a teddy bear and delivering it to a ghostly little girl a room over brought the preview to a close. However, the premise and setting alone were enough to make the experience a memorable one. The simple idea of being isolated on a tightly confined ghost ship for the duration of an adventure, chatting away with ghosts (who display some pretty crafty dialogue) and solving pieces of a much larger mystery definitely made for an enchanting, bone-tingling time.
Matt Gilgenbach at E3 2014
Another successfully Kickstarted adventure, the black-and-white, pen-and-ink-style Neverending Nightmares is one of the most visually striking games I saw at the entire convention. I asked creator Matt Gilgenbach if he had a background in animation but his answer was no, which surprised me because the game moves and feels like an incredibly disturbed children’s cartoon. It’s an intriguing contrast, dripping with disconcerting imagery that should be a punishable offense if actually shown to children.
As Matt explained to onlookers while I played the game at his booth, the game is largely autobiographical, an allegory for his personal battle with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The slightly-balding protagonist most certainly resembled Gilgenbach himself, which the designer confessed may not have been coincidental, especially considering the character was originally named Matt (but since renamed Thomas).
Identifying itself as a psychological horror, Neverending Nightmares is essentially an adventure game promoting exploration-based gameplay, with Gilgenbach citing titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an influence. Although there were some minor stealth elements in my playthrough, there was no way to fail the game – screwing up these segments simply caused the protagonist to reawaken in the nearest available bedroom, which was very reminiscent of the occasionally perilous situations in Sanitarium.
After awakening in a manor roamed by twisted and demented creatures, my task was to navigate the environment safely to the distant cries of a terrified female. Through certain decisions and actions (both intentional and not), you will likely reawaken several more times and then have to re-navigate an altered living space, changed by your previous actions. This means for the most part you will be learning through trial-and-error, but it doesn’t get redundant because not only does the visual design of the environment change with every attempt, occasionally the household layout itself is rearranged.
Neverending Nightmares trailer
The puzzles themselves are a fairly logical affair. Progress through the house far enough to find an axe to break down a previously seen boarded-up door, or locate a lantern to finally crawl through the dark, scribbly-drawn basement you weren’t able to traverse before. Of course, before you can do any of this, you’ll have to hide in closets to avoid the mutant, baby-faced, bone-crushing hugging Goliaths or figure out how to react upon approaching knife-bearing, blood-splattered little girls. With such haunting imagery and a unnerving sense of gameplay, Neverending Nightmares is an adventure that surely promises to deliver exactly what its title suggests.
Although far from a conventional adventure at first glance, designer Brian McRae insisted that at its core, Source (available next year on Steam and PS4) is very much an adventure game. As Brian maneuvered his evolving, firework-painted, angel-winged vessel of light through rotating dimensions of space, across beautiful, fractured, broken cube-shaped landscapes with a crystal Tron-like aesthetic, he revealed how the whole thing worked as an enormous puzzle. Turning lifeless contraptions into living, breathing organisms by merely gliding over them (similar to flower), McRae explained that the revitalization of the surroundings alters the entire environment and unveils new pathways and extends areas of further exploration.
Although in that sense there is definitely a strong connection with the adventure genre, I also observed a fair bit of action in some scenes as Brian dissolved creatures of gleaming light with glowing projectiles. Nevertheless, even if Source ends up being a little action-heavy down the line, the title still looks to be a remarkable experience that many adventurers will likely find enjoyable.
Unfortunately, all I got to see of the highly anticipated The Witness was a recurring video segment in the Sony showcase. Small snippets of gorgeous scenery, including a couple of previously unseen locations, flashed by, but otherwise the title still remains highly mysterious. Designer Jonathan Blow (Braid) claims the game will be a new take on ‘90s adventure games like Myst and Riven, but with “modern game design” and a sense of flow that most adventures lack.
The Witness trailer
All of this sounds like an intriguing formula, although the blatantly puzzle-centric design in the video segments suggested that the game could lean more toward pure puzzler than a straightforward adventure. However, certain elements of the game were confirmed at E3, such as a strong player relationship with the environment and a narrative that is only revealed through the player’s interactions. The Witness certainly appears to be a mesmerizing concoction of traditional first-person adventuring combined with its creator’s outside-the-box vision. As an indie game poster child, a visionary like Blow amongst more traditional adventuring fare might be exactly what the genre is looking for right now.
Last but certainly not least was my meeting with Daedalic. Along with the chance to see Silence: The Whispered World 2 in action (which we previewed just a few weeks ago), a delightful surprise from my conference with the popular German developer was being introduced to their simplistic but hugely fun adventure Fire, based in the “the cutest Stone Age setting you’ve ever seen.” Playing as Ungh, a cartoon 2D Neanderthal living in a vibrant dino-filled world, players will meet a large number of adorable characters and creatures with hundreds of little animations that will constantly make you chuckle. Fire offers an addictive, one-click experience, lacking any dialogue and mechanically working like Samorost on speed.
While clicking Ungh can move him about the environment, you can also independently interact with countless items on each standalone screen. Doing so causes plenty of comedic events and funny environmental altercations that can help Ungh advance his way through the impeding challenges. Watching Fire in action certainly made for some big laughs, as our demonstrator revealed how clicking objects in a particular succession could overcome the multi-layered obstacles through many creatively hilarious circumstances.
For instance, clicking the sun transformed it into the moon, which of course changed the setting from day into night. Scraping moss off a nearby pillar (by simply sliding your cursor up and down it), you reveal a carved pattern in stone, meant to be recreated in the stars by clicking them together, connect-the-dot style. Unfortunately, some of the stars are obstructed by rain clouds, so you’ll need to perform another sequence of steps in order to awaken an old tribesman to teach Ungh how to rain dance. Hysterically, in teaching Ungh how to rain dance, a thundercloud strikes the tribesman with lightning and obliterates him to dust.
All of this was achieved in a matter of seconds, solely on an individual screen that made up for its limited scope with an abundance of interactive depth. As such, Fire sets out to be a fun, fast-paced, and extremely whimsical take on the genre. It provided some remarkably refreshing and much-needed levity amongst the more serious and sometimes humorless offerings throughout the rest of the event. Fire definitely looks to be a promising tribute to comedic adventures from an earlier, even prehistoric time.
The Devil’s Men
One of the definite highlights of E3 2014 was getting a glimpse of Daedalic’s newly-announced The Devil’s Men. It’s a (partly) hand drawn, Victorian-era steampunk adventure featuring two young, adventurous female leads. Adelaide and Emily are two girls of vastly different personalities, motives, and personal styles who find themselves utilizing their complementary qualities for mutual benefit.
Adelaide is the more innocent of the two. Her father disappeared when she was a child and she devotes her life to solving the mystery of his disappearance when she’s not hiding reclusively from the evils of her world. Emily is more of the “badass murdering-type”, a known mischief-maker in the community who partners with Adelaide after learning information about her father’s whereabouts. But the disappearance of one lone man is not the only haunting mystery in this eyebrow-raising society, which is beset by a series of murders involving men rumored to be associated with a coterie known as the “Devil’s Men”. Although the existence of this group hasn’t ever been proven, they are said to be men of immense power and cryptic experimentation that extends beyond time and space.
The Devil’s Men utilizes the same new 3D projection technology that Silence is promoting, giving the beautiful scenery a real sense of depth. Moving from room to room, it was clear the environments had actually been modeled in 3D and that 2D paintings had been projected across them, creating an enormously striking visual style in the way everything moved and flowed.
The gameplay matches the creative premise, setting, characters, and visual design. For the preview, designer Kevin Mentz picked a scene that demonstrated the game’s power of choice, showing off how the scene unfolded differently depending on the player’s actions and choices, allowing for multiple storylines, outcomes, and endings for each player.
In the scene I witnessed (taking place midway through the game), Emily snuck into a household, trailing a lead. Walking into the study, she found Adelaide peacefully sleeping on a (now) antique couch, surrounded by steampunk-styled adornments on the back walls. Mentz explained he could either awaken Adelaide, alert her of what was going on and then switch between the two characters on the fly, or he could continue as Emily and look around and examine the house without Adelaide’s awareness. Mentz chose the latter. While still in the study, he had Emily observe a portrait of a family which had a birthdate inscribed into it, suggesting it might play a significant role later in the game.
Walking back into the hallway, Mentz said Emily could go upstairs where she would run into the residents of the household, or she could go into the basement. Choosing the basement, a safe was discovered, requiring a code to crack. After unearthing the valuable contents of the safe, Mentz restarted the demo and decided not to be so cautious this time around. Immediately heading for the upstairs bedroom wakes Adelaide up, with Emily explaining there is something of value in the house that has to be found. The same information from the safe is discovered, only this time it’s unveiled by conversing with different characters around the house.
This was as much as Mentz had to show, which is understandable. Given the ambitious number of possibilities and branching storyline options with numerous routes of execution to any given situation, The Devil’s Men has a lot of content left to be designed and is still a long way from being finished. Daedalic is projecting the title to be released sometime in 2015. Although the wait will be a suspenseful one for this gripping mystery, The Devil’s Men’s strong stylistic design and significant player agency make it definitely a title to look forward to.