Last weekend, I was lucky enough to visit IndieCade 2015 in Culver City, one of the biggest independent video game festivals in the world. There were a ton of fascinating games on display, and it wasn’t just their mechanics and concepts that impressed me. The booths at IndieCade were populated with a variety of experimental platforms on which games could be experienced. Whether they be subtle, content-altering peripherals or devices that radically changed player input, many of the festival’s displays left me impressed. In an industry where player immersion is often implemented through writing or visuals, the games at IndieCade actively seek to integrate the player in their worlds by bringing them in. These games were far more than contrivances; they were signs of what is to come in the medium. Here are the top three devices I was able to check out.
One of the first games I was able to observe in the exclusive media event was Flying Mollusk’s horror-explorer Nevermind, which released last month on Steam. In Nevermind, players find themselves in the shoes of a psychologist that can enter patients’ minds in order to cure their traumas. The game uses biofeedback -the tracking of physiological data- to enhance its experience. The player wears a heart rate monitor and the game tracks his/her pulse during gameplay. If the player’s heart rate increases, the game adds more scares and increases the difficulty. Instead of defeating enemies or solving puzzles, the player has to conquer their own fears to progress in the game (though “safe rooms” do exist that allow the player to calm down, ensuring that it isn’t physically impossible to complete certain segments).
I talked to creative director Erin Reynolds about the game. Nevermind began as Erin’s thesis project at USC, like so many other games featured at IndieCade. Erin said she first heard of biofeedback from its therapeutic uses, especially for PTSD victims, which was a clear influence on Nevermind’s subject matter. While the technology was previously limited to clinical environments, PC-compatible heart rate monitors are now commercially available. Erin also told me about Flying Mollusk’s plans to port Nevermind onto the Xbox One. The Kinect sensor is able to read the player’s pulse without any analog attachments, and the function comes stock with the console, proving the potential viability of biofeedback in mainstream games.
2) EEG Sensors
It wasn’t just pulses that were being sensed at the convention, either. Throw Trucks With Your Mind also had a booth, and the name says it all. Players use telekinesis to pull and throw large objects at each other, using blue and red energy to do so, respectively. The twist here is that sensors attached to the player’s forehead is what measures their energy levels. High concentration will produce red, while low concentration will yield blue. Of course, adjusting levels of focus will allow you to maintain copious pools of both resources. It’s another example of how traditional skill and strategy are eschewed for mental fortitude and control. Plenty of games make you think about how you play, but now we are entering an era where players will be forced to think about how they think about how they play.
3) VR Headsets
The most popular device featured at IndieCade was, of course, the Oculus Rift headset, as well as several other VR modules. Now, I had long been a skeptic of VR in games, without ever having used it. I’ll stand by my view in that its inclusion in existing shooters and other games is more gimmick than device, but my first experience with the device at the VR tent was with games specifically designed to utilize it. Players in both Classroom Aquatic and Pixel Ripped assumed the roles of students in classroom settings, using their perspectives to solve stealthy puzzles. Whether it was cheating off of dolphin classmates in Classroom Aquatic or discreetly playing a gameboy during a lesson in Pixel Ripped, both games relied on the player’s awareness of the teacher and other characters in the room to remain undetected. I experienced palpable tension in Classroom Aquatic as I craned my head, inch by inch, hoping not to get spotted by the ever-vigilant Mr. Porpoise. Yes, I was offered more control than a mouse or thumbstick, but I also felt more exposed than ever while playing a video game, which is a sensation I could only experience in VR.
I wasn’t expecting to change my views on gaming going into the convention, but the more experimental titles on display make me think that there may yet be room for gaming to evolve this generation. The aforementioned devices were only the tip of the iceberg of oddities and curios featured there, and I can only imagine what new offshoots we’ll see in the future. If this is what indie devs can accomplish with new technology, I’m excited to see what a AAA studio can accomplish with the same tools. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to see about ordering a headset of my own.
So what do you think? Are you also excited about the new dimensions of interactivity in gaming? Do you think I’m gimmick-loving fool? Let me know down below!