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The 3 games of IndieCade that best showcased the potential of mixed reality

The niche future of indie development is here.

IndieCade is an international juried festival of independent games that is known as the video game industry’s Sundance. I had never been before, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but what I saw amazed me. I saw mechanical, visual and even social innovation in games of all imaginable and unimaginable ways. From Busy Work, a game developed by Mouse & the Billionaire that simulated an actual office experience (timesheets and all), to Cat Sorter VR, a game by Pawmigo Games about sorting cats with alien defects, the games of IndieCade bent the typical video game framework of design. One trend that highlighted the experimental essence of the convention was the use of mixed reality. These games blend the physical and the virtual into one, cohesive game world. The mixed reality style is not constrained to any particular genre, breathing fresh ideas in games from horror to comedy.

Un-Destined

Un-Destined escape room

The first game I played at the convention, Un-Destined, introduced me to this trend. The creators, Zino Studio, run an escape room in Taiwan and are looking to open one in the States. Un-Destined, in its IndieCade form, is an abridged form of the escape room experience and open to two players at a time. One player uses a virtual reality headset to navigate around the room while the other player, who doesn’t have one, solves puzzles using real, physical objects. The players work in conjunction to solve the puzzles in the mixed reality game space.  I volunteered to be the player interacting with the physical world and had to press buttons, connect electric cords, and even arrange a puzzle. Completing these physical tasks would then directly impact the virtual world. For instance, when I connected the right cables, I was able to unlock a door in the game. It was a dynamic interplay between the virtual and the physical world, unlike other games that limit the player to only one of these realities. The potential for applications to even more escape rooms and exhibition spaces is explosive. The demo may have been short, but this sort of gameplay as applied to the escape room phenomenon is very promising.

Emotional Fugitive Detector

My favorite game to use this style of mixed reality was Emotional Fugitive Detector, a game developed by Sam Von Ehren, Alexander King, and Noca Wu. In the game,  the player tries to trick facial recognition software while still seeking to convey their emotions to another human sitting across from them. The narrative of Emotional Fugitive Detector is of humans trying to deceive the virtual robot ruling class through the use of subtle emotions. The micro-expressions had to be small enough that the other (human) player could pick up on it without it being read by the computer.  It was a really fun game to play that adapted the simple concept of shrouding emotions from a computer and turned it into something really unique. Talking to the developer, I learned that the game was originally intended as a fighting game in which the player would use facial recognition to control their character. But, when they ran into difficulty with the software, they pivoted, finding an even more interesting application of mixed reality.

Fear Sphere

The Sphere

There were a number of other games with physical and virtual components to them that I didn’t get the chance to play, but which caught my attention. One that stood out to me most was a game by HNRY called Fear Sphere. In Fear Sphere, the player enters an inflated, black sphere, with a controller that acts as an in-game flashlight by projecting the game onto the tarp around them. This is truly an amazing innovation to have the player not only virtually illuminate the game world but also to literally illuminate the game world against a physical space. The seamless melding of the real with the virtual that Fear Sphere is able to accomplish highlights how powerful mixed reality games can be.  

Before going to IndieCade, I never realized that videogames could have a physical component. There is a powerful, underutilized design space inherent to mixed reality games, that should absolutely be explored further than Amiibos. Virtual reality and augmented reality recently are gaining more and more attention from the public. Augmented reality (AR) is similar to mixed reality as it augments an existing physical space, but it only adds things whereas mixed reality combines the physical and the virtual in a cohesive game environment. Mixed reality as a medium is difficult for mainstream audiences unlike AR where there has to be both virtual and physical augmentation, but as IndieCade showed me this is completely and fascinatingly possible.

Written by Charlie Bruene

One man in a large sea of culture trying to paddle to shore.

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