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GDC 2016 round-up

GDC 2016 round-up
GDC 2016 round-up

This year’s Game Developers Conference felt like a whirlwind European tour as four developers took me from Victorian England to ancient Norway, through Scandinavia and finally up into the Austrian Alps. Whether you prefer complex mysteries, artsy interactive stories, or something in between, here are four possible additions to your itinerary.

Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter

When I sat down at publisher Big Ben Interactive’s booth, Frogwares’ 3D artist / level designer Yevheniia Sydorenko started by thanking me for coming to see Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, their new action-adventure game.

Hold up… how much action are we talking about?

Based on our 30-minute speed run through The Devil’s Daughter’s first case, “Infamy,” it seems “action-adventure” doesn’t always mean what I think it means. I haven’t played the other Sherlock Holmes games, but from the sidelines this one seems like more of the same. And considering how well received The Testament of Sherlock Holmes and Crimes & Punishments were, that’s a good thing.

The Devil’s Daughter is broken up into five cases with separate storylines but a common thread. Holmes’ adopted daughter Katelyn, introduced in the previous game, returns and will be a source of conflict for the detective. Watson’s in the game too, of course, and 221B Baker Street serves as home base with investigations taking place around Victorian London.

The feature that stood out best during a quick demo on a noisy expo floor was how exceptionally good the game looks, especially the characters’ detailed and expressive faces. Adventure games usually aren’t known for slick character models, but Frogwares has been stepping up the graphics with each Sherlock Holmes installment and The Devil’s Daughter continues the trend. For a game with a real world setting and dramatic undertones, believable characters really help with the immersion and I’m frankly wowed by how good this cast looks, both the headliners and the NPCs.

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One feature Sydorenko showed me is how Holmes observes other characters. When he meets someone, the action freezes so he can take in details such as a flag pin on the lapel, personalized boots, or a pocket mirror. Is the confident American who has come to visit Holmes a patriotic, hard-working actor or a self-aggrandizing attention whore? Sherlock’s attention to detail and your assessment of what those details mean influence interactions with other characters, and could impact whether you solve the case.

As for the so-called “action,” I saw some Quick Time Events that require dexterity, but nothing more taxing than in games like The Walking Dead. To cross between two buildings on a plank lying between them, I helped Holmes keep his balance by coordinating movement of the gamepad’s left and right sticks. Later, an exorcism is performed by quickly tapping whatever button is displayed on-screen. (Thanks to the noisy show floor I didn’t quite get the context of this exorcism, but knowing Holmes, I’m sure it’s highly logical!)

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A longer “action” sequence is more like a multi-step puzzle: Sherlock must create a diversion among a group of card players by paying attention to details to deduce that one is cheating, then laying out a sequence of five steps that will tip off the other players and start a brawl. You decide what each step should be and get a chance to see Sherlock’s interpretation of how the sequence will unfold before committing to it and seeing the action play out.

At the end of the case, Holmes must delve into everything he’s uncovered to connect pieces of evidence and rationalize “who did it.” (In “Infamy,” he’s trying to figure out who lobbed a ticking time bomb through his window, and why.) Once you’ve linked the pieces of evidence you think go together, you can choose to accuse one of multiple suspects, or let them go—and you can get it wrong. Because all five of The Devil’s Daughter’s cases have a common thread, your success or failure may come back to haunt you later.

I wish I’d been able to spend more quality time with The Devil’s Daughter, but from what I saw it seems like more of what series fans have come to expect from Frogwares. For the rest of us, it’s a slick, action-lite mystery game with beautiful character models. Seriously, those are some beautiful faces. Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter will be out for Windows, PS4, and Xbox One on June 10.


The Frostrune

There was a time, not too long ago, that new seeped-in-history adventure games were coming out once or twice a year. I didn’t realize how much I missed those carefully researched, beautifully depicted games from Kheops until Grimnir’s designer Nils Anderssen showed me The Frostrune, a super-authentic point-and-click mystery set in the Viking age.

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Even the premise sounds like one of those Kheops games: shipwrecked on an island near Norway, you must explore an abandoned Viking village and figure out what happened to the people there. The game takes a supernatural turn when, upon gaining access to a locked building, you encounter a dead woman’s body lying on the floor. Her ghost rises out of it and speaks in whispered old Norse (handily subtitled in English!), giving cryptic clues that will lead you to her house. This is the first of many visions revealed by a magical power you’ll hone so you can figure out what happened to this place and what hidden secrets the dead villagers left behind.

While The Frostrune isn’t an educational game, it’s heavily based on Norse myth and legends, and the team has gone to great lengths to make it as accurate as possible. Anderssen and others on the development team have a special interest in this historical period and have been involved in Viking reenactments, making their own swords and clothing, so they’re well versed in this world. They also have a historical consultant involved to keep facts in check. Real Viking tools, contraptions, and customs form the basis of The Frostrune’s puzzles. The story, related to magical rune stones and mysterious ice formations that appear throughout the area even though it’s summer, has links to one of Norway’s oldest folk poems.

Though Anderssen has been working in games for ten years, this is his first adventure. He played Myst growing up and always wanted to make a game like it, but while The Frostrune definitely has a Myst-like quality, it appears much more accessible and less taxing on the brain cells. Navigation is a first-person slideshow format, where the screen transitions from one scene to the next when you click/tap the area you want to move to. The hand-drawn artwork is realistic but stylized, and very pretty to look at.

Of course length is hard to gauge midway through development, but The Frostrune is expected to be a 4-6 hour experience. The game should be out this year or next for Windows, iOS, and Android.

Burly Men at Sea

Brain&Brain is a husband and wife team, David and Brooke Condolora, whose decision to make adventure games grew out of their enjoyment of playing them together. It’s a love that shows in Burly Men at Sea, a charming take on Scandinavian folklore and bearded sailors with a puzzle-lite, storybook-like format.

The titular burly men—nearly identical brothers Brave Beard, Steady Beard, and Hasty Beard—set sail from their narrow-minded fishing village in search of adventure. My GDC demo began in this village, where the people are all very caught up in their own lives and no one has the desire to see what else the world has to offer. Popping into the village’s various buildings nails this point home, but eventually you’ll end up in a coffee shop with an old man. The brothers have a map that shows only their island—the rest is blank. That, the man explains, is because the map “has tales yet to tell.” Encouraged, the brothers set sail in search of adventure, only to immediately end up in the belly of a whale. (I hate it when that happens!)

Similar to the developers' previous game Doggins, Burly Men at Sea has a minimalistic aesthetic reminiscent of a browser-based Flash game and influenced by the simplicity of Scandinavian art. You interact with the three brothers in an indirect way, clicking and dragging on a circular focus area to move the camera, and the characters react to the area that’s illuminated. This indirect control puts some distance between the player and the on-screen happenings, so it feels like a folk tale being told to you as opposed to a quest you’re driving.

Though it’s a short game (the Condoloras estimate around an hour for one playthrough), replay opportunity awaits thanks to an early decision in the whale’s belly that leads to three non-overlapping storylines. Each brother has a different way of approaching problems: Brave Beard is courageous, Steady Beard is thoughtful, and Hasty Beard forges boldly ahead. Their disparate problem-solving preferences will drive some story branching, but Burly Men is less about complex puzzles than exploration and figuring out how you can manipulate the environment (not a surprise considering the developers name Kentucky Route Zero and Samorost as influences).

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Without realizing it, I took the hasty way out of the whale’s gut (if you’re familiar with Pinocchio or King’s Quest IV, you can probably guess how it went down). The Condoloras said that particular whale escape sent me down one story path; had I been more brave or steady in my approach, I would have seen different results. On each of the three paths, the brothers will encounter unique mythological creatures culled from Swedish and Norwegian legends, from sea nymphs to a kraken to a Scandinavian take on the grim reaper.

Burly Men at Sea is coming to Windows, Mac, iOS, and possibly Android in late summer, with console releases to follow later.


The Lion’s Song

Where do artists find inspiration? In the case of The Lion’s Song, the first spark came in August 2014, during the 72-hour Ludum Dare game jam. The competition’s theme was Connected Worlds, and Stefan Srb (a.k.a. leafthief) explored the idea of two characters conversing over the phone on a split screen. Set in the early twentieth century in the Austrian Alps, this “short story” game became a jumping off point for a four-part episodic series about the origins of creativity that will debut this spring.

Though Srb participated in Ludum Dare on his own, he later pitched the idea for a full-fledged version to Mi’pu’mi Games, a Vienna-based studio that mainly does work-for-hire on AAA games like Hitman. Srb and Mi’pu’mi put The Lion’s Song up on Steam Greenlight to see if people would be receptive to a longer version. In less than two weeks it received enough votes to be greenlit, making The Lion’s Song Mi’pu’mi Games’ first original project.

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When he showed me the first episode in progress at GDC, producer Gregor Eigner explained that the game “is about creativity and creative struggle, how to find inspiration. It’s about inventors and creatives before their greatest breakthrough, and how they can solve these issues, the small sparks, where they can find them.” Like the Ludum Dare demo, the first episode features Wilma Dörfl, a fledgling composer whose mentor has sent her to a peaceful cabin to work on her next composition. But even secluded in this natural setting, her creative juices won’t flow—until the phone rings and she starts chatting with a faraway stranger.

Will Wilma find the inspiration to finish her masterpiece? Maybe, maybe not. The episode has three possible outcomes, and some choices will impact later installments. Each episode has a different creative as its protagonist, but they might show up as supporting players in others. Besides Wilma, later episodes will feature “an up-and-coming painter growing through his challenges and a brilliant mathematician trying to make her voice heard in a men’s world.” Though these featured artists are fictional, they’re contemporaries of famous Austrians of the time, from Freud to Schrödinger to Klimt.

It may be point-and-click with pixel art graphics, but The Lion’s Song is much more an interactive story than an old-school adventure game. The gameplay Eigner showed me was extremely streamlined, limited to clicking around the screen to observe potentially inspiring details and choosing what to say to the stranger on the phone. With a 30-45 minute playtime per episode, the team intends for players to digest an episode in one sitting, and then hopefully replay in another sitting or two to see the alternate branches.

The Lion’s Song will be available for PC first, with iOS and Android versions to follow. After its second quarter debut, episodes are expected to release every few months.


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