E3 Wrap-up: Off The Beaten Path

Innovation abounds at E3; You just have to look for it

In the first part of my E3 coverage, the big name games got the attention. But if you go to E3 and look only at the booths of game companies who can afford to construct mini-cities in a convention center for the sole purpose of having them devoured by aliens or blown up by war planes, then you’re missing a lot of what makes E3 that special place where the fledgling games learn whether or not they can fly. And as I wandered a bit off the beaten path, there were some less prominent gems I was only too happy to discover.

Here is a small sampling of some titles that caught my eye, the ones I didn’t know I was looking for until I found them because they didn’t have big banners and weren’t featured in any showcase. Some you may have heard of, some not, but they’re worth keeping an eye on if you’re in search of something a little bit different.

Kalypso Media describes their forthcoming game Dark as "a stealth action game with RPG elements that lets you slip into the role of the ultimate killer’a vampire." But don’t run away just yet! Even those who are sick to undeath of vampires might consider giving Dark another look. Here’s the premise: in a world controlled by a vampire oligarchy, our protagonist was captured, murdered, and turned into a vampire as party entertainment. Left weak and not fully converted, true death would have been assured if not for a timely rescue by a revolutionary group, who will heal you up and train you up on condition that you march to their tune and help bring about the vampires’ downfall.

Don’t expect to be wielding any guns in Dark; the name of the game here is to remain undetected as you go about your subversive work, so you’re expected to sneak, sneak, and sneak some more, with the aim of creeping up on everyone so that you can snap necks, suck blood, all that fun stuff. As you begin to tap more deeply into your vampiric abilities, you can disappear in a swirl of black smoke and reappear at an enemy’s back in a heartbeat’presuming you still had one.

Dark has a color palette suited to its name, rendered in cool blue, green, and black tones in darkened buildings and neon night streets. That visual scheme could get old fairly fast if things aren’t shaken up occasionally, but the game shows some promise. Not every game needs to break stunning new ground in the graphics department to be good (and Dark doesn’t); gameplay always matters, and with such a flood of shooters on the market these days there is something to be said for the appeal of a game that forces you to take a different approach, and in which the protagonist wants to avoid getting shot as much as the player probably would.

And the idea of not getting shot brings me to a game which features even less shooting: Focus Home Interactive’s The Testament of Sherlock Holmes.

Some of us may remember toddling through childhood playing Sierra’s old quest games, from King’s Quest to the Dagger of Amon Ra to Leisure Suit Larry (and not being old enough to understand most of what was really going on with the latter). Some of us may even remember playing Zork, and being amazed by the introduction of EGA graphics (let alone VGA), and feeling awed when Myst first hit the eyeballs. Some of us may also be starting to make themselves feel a bit old’

But if the preceding sentences sparked a little flame of nostalgia, you might want to keep an eye out for The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike some later incarnations, this Sherlock solves mysteries solely with his intellect – and the player is expected to do so as well. Five interlocking mysteries form the over-arching story of the game, and you will need to solve them all in order to unravel the web of deceit and murder which has entangled our intrepid investigator. You will play as both Holmes and Watson, sometimes working on the same mystery from two different angles. As you explore your environments to look for clues, both through interaction with objects and interrogation of NPCs (in which you can choose your questioning approach), your discoveries appear in your journal. Using the interactive journal the player then needs to brainstorm; if x is true, and y is true, then clue #1 has to be a false trail, so strike it out. Manage to get all the pieces of the puzzle together and the answer should be obvious.

It’s impossible to determine just how challenging the puzzles might be through just a short hands-on demo, but games like this are rare enough that anyone who finds themselves intrigued by the premise should probably allow themselves to take the plunge. The game is at least taking itself seriously on the visual front, which is good in an investigation game relying on visual cues. Rooms are rendered with a truly Victorian love for ornate detail, rewarding you for taking the time on that second and third look.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is scheduled to release in September of this year on PC, Xbox, and PS3.

Also scheduled to release later this year is Gamigo’s Otherland, a free to play MMO based on the series of SciFi novels by best-selling author Tad Williams. Those familiar with the books will already be appreciating the irony; building an interactive virtual world to emulate a series of books premised on the quest to tear down an interactive virtual world is either a brilliant idea or a terrible one. Fortunately it appears that Gamigo is making an effort to do some interesting things with Otherland, and the world itself is definitely rich and ripe for creative plunder. Author Tad Williams has not only endorsed the project but also consulted on it.

He provides the voice over for the game’s tutorial, and has likened the game to the "fifth novel" in the series. Set after the events of the fourth book, the virtual world of Otherland is being rebuilt – and as a person coming to consciousness already plugged into it, you start off trying to understand what the whole place is all about, and why you have found yourself there.

The game is borrowing some locations from the novels, and also some basic premises, such as the idea that you should be able to change up your avatar’s appearance whenever you so choose. Otherland features an incredibly detailed character customization process, not at all limited to basic human parameters – and you can return to Lambda Mall at any time and change your avatar’s appearance to best reflect your mood for that given day. Personalization of the Otherland experience extends beyond your avatar’s appearance, however, and into Uspace – home "apartments" that you can customize, including buying more space to play with.

But perhaps the most intriguing concept is that of Clan Lands – guild lands where you and your guildies can collaboratively build the environment, and not just with buildings, but with people too. As you go about Otherland killing enemies, they drop eDNA which you can gather and then "plant" in your Clan Land where it will "grow" into an NPC who will defend your guild home while players are out exploring new virtual dimensions.

In the books, Otherland boasts as many virtual realities tailored to as many tastes and imaginations – inspired, warped, and otherwise – as there are people connected to the network. That’s quite an ambitious project to try to capture in an MMO, but there is also currently no better arena in which to attempt it. If Gamigo can truly meet this challenge, they’ll have something pretty remarkable on their hands.

One of the realities you can explore in Otherland is Five Isle – a land of floating islands in which each island represents a Chinese element. And because it’s a small world – virtual or otherwise – we can shuffle down the aisle and find similarities with another MMO due to release this year: Age of Wushu, from Snail Games.

If you’re a fan of wushu movies (think Crouching Tiger, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers), this game is going to take your breath away. Even if you’re not a fan of wushu movies, or couldn’t care less about martial arts, most would have to admit that there is some really gorgeous eye candy going on in Age of Wushu. From color palette to textures, from the shiver of water as your character runs over it to the movement of sweeping fabric as your ornate outfit flutters in the wake of your graceful martial arts moves, there’s a real love for the romance of the setting and the genre on display here.

There are no character levels in Age of Wushu. You level up skills, not characters, and whether you succeed or fail in battle is as much about your ability to best use the skills you’ve learned as it is about the variety or rank of the skills themselves. The combat blends your typical MMO key-mapping with the real-time combo execution of an old-school fighter game. Learn your skills from combat, exploration, or from the sacred texts of one of the eight martial arts schools available in the world. Branch into other disciplines by joining other schools – or get some friends together and stage a raid on another school’s temple in order to steal their sacred texts and cheat your way into knowledge of their secret super moves. Though of course you should always expect characters who are students of the school you’re raiding to fight back!

But there are even further levels to PVP potential and an immersive world experience to Age of Wushu than raids on rival martial arts schools. There are raids on rival player guilds’ estates, for one. The rep who talked me through it assured me that you could log on to find your guild home had been burned down to the ground, though he wasn’t entirely clear on what you could do to get it back! But the surprises that may be in store for you on logging in don’t end with inter-guild arson.

When you log off Age of Wushu, your character remains visible and present in the world as an NPC, continuing whatever activity you engaged them in at the time you logged. So, if you’re fishing when you log, your character carries on fishing until you come back. And in the meantime, that jerk from your rival school who mocked your choice of dragon embroidery can meander on by, notice you placidly fishing – then mug you, stuff you in a sack, and sell you into indentured servitude. This nets them a fair degree of EVIL alignment, but really, who among us wouldn’t sometimes accept that for the chance to get back at that bastard who ganked the respawn you were waiting for?

Having to log on, wonder where the heck you are, and then buy, fight, or charm your way out of indentured service could be either excruciatingly frustrating, or delightfully unpredictable fun. Only time with the actual gameplay will tell, but I can say this much: I’m normally a very monogamous MMO player, but I will not be able to resist a dalliance with Age of Wushu on the side as soon as it becomes available to play.

There is no official release date for Age of Wushu at this time, but the beta should hit North America sometime this year. It has not been determined as of yet whether Age of Wushu will be free to play, or if it will adopt any other of the myriad distribution options for MMOs these days.

Innovation Unveiled

The catch phrase for this year’s E3 was Innovation Unveiled, and there was some innovation to be found. This would not, however, have been obvious at first glance.

After all, many people were hoping for an announcement of next gen platforms, or at the least a few less sequels. Though there are tons of games on the horizon that look like they will be fun to play, some might argue that the gaming industry as a whole has not got their arms around the creative potential made possible by today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape.

I sat down with Eve Seber of Viva Media, currently famous for the Crazy Machines franchise, for a talk about Crazy Machines and the state of the gaming world for smaller development companies.

"From what I can see, all of the big name developers out there seem to be in kind of a holding pattern," Eve says. "No one really wants to be the first to take the risk to try something new."

Some might say that the preponderance of sequels and never-ending franchise titles is evidence of this reluctance on the part developers to really take that plunge. And it’s not just about game content, but also about medium; about the way games get distributed, and how games, game developers, and gamers all interact.

In Crazy Machines games, players create elaborate mouse-trap like contraptions and mazes in order to get their mouse to the flag, their ball to the vase, or their firework to go off , and any other number of tricks and goals. (Older generations can think Lemmings, except with vastly more variety, ingenuity, and interactivity – and significantly less fuzzy animal carnage.) Crazy Machines games have been used in schools all over the country as a teaching aid in Physics classes, and are the delight of gadget-minded folks everywhere who would probably be building clock-work toys in another age, but in this age construct elaborate mouse trap mazes on their tablet device instead.

Using little, elaborate devices to construct virtual, elaborate devices is an illustration of how the circle of creativity and innovation works; the young Crazy Machines aficionado of today will be the iPhone designer of tomorrow. Whether you’re building proto-engineering skills with Crazy Machines, or proto-geometry skills with Angry Birds, or even just plunking away at Words With Friends at the stoplight, the lifestyle being created by access to all of these shiny technologies means that games could be reaching out to an even wider audience than they currently do, and doing so in more creative ways – resulting in a general enrichment of the gaming industry and environment for all of us.

Eve, who has a background in art and museum work, directed me to an app released in conjunction with the National Gallery’s current exhibit on Leonardo DaVinci. The app, titled "Les Amis du Credit Suisse" or "Leonardo: the Studio Tour," is an interactive recreation of Leonardo’s studio. You can explore his belongings, investigate his books, devices, and paintings, and get information on each one and insight into the man and his work.

Designers like those behind the Leonardo app are, as Eve said, "Doing amazing work in the field of museums and art, taking advantage of advances in technology. Comparatively, the gaming industry seems to be’sticking to what they know works, and following trends. These sorts of apps, this is where gaming should be going."

Of course an app can’t deliver the gaming experience of a fully-fledged monster of a game like Halo 4, Tomb Raider, or Star Wars 1313. But there is an underlying idea to what Eve is expressing: innovation.

At E3 2012, innovation may not have been well-represented in many of the games on the exhibit floor, but if you had the chance to stop by the Sphero booth you would have caught a glimpse of it, and of the potential it offers.

Sphero is a robotic ball, roughly four to five inches in diameter, whose movements you can control from your iOS or Android device. It calls out to the inner child in all of us, who never quite outgrows the fascination with remotely controlling little vehicles or other devices.

You can zoom Sphero around the room to torment your cat, run it through homemade obstacle course races with your friends, or etch-a-sketch draw shapes on your touch screen and watch Sphero mimic it on the floor. Alternatively, you can choose to turn things around, picking Sphero up and using it as the controller itself, as you can already do by linking it up to apps like Last Fish – for those who might want to play while hanging upside down in traction, precluding them from tilting their tablet. (Or playing while lazing about on their back in bed, which we all know is far less common than meditative traction.)

All of those Sphero tricks sounded clever and cute enough when I heard them, but it was when the developers started talking about their Hack Tour that my interest was really piqued.

At several times throughout the year they will take Sphero on tour to cities across the US, and everyone is invited to show up, play, and submit their apps or their ideas for apps. The Hack Tour invites the gamer to participate in creating the Sphero experience. The Sphero designers expressed their constant amazement at all of the creative uses gamers have devised for their little white ball. When you visit the Sphero site for the Hack Tour, you see that they refer to the people who show up to the party and contribute their ideas as "developers." Because, in a very real sense, that’s what they are: developers of their own apps, developers of ideas. They are contributors to the experience, making it broader and more fun for everyone in the process.

As gamers, and the population in general, becomes savvier about their technological gadgets, and grow more comfortable with an interactive technological world, we’re likely to see expectations evolving when it comes to the games people want to play.

The question is – will it be the big name companies and developers who take the zeitgeist bull by the horns and forge a new and exciting path for gaming? Or will it be the smaller developers, seeking to make their own way and blaze new and innovative trails that the bigwigs were too entrenched in their ways to see?

After all, interactivity isn’t just about wiggling in front of your Kinect, engaging though that can be. It’s about the sense of agency and ownership that only creative participation can really inspire, whether that be in a game or a business project.

And let’s face it, as gamers we all know: gaming is serious business.

Big Business

At E3, gaming is certainly serious, big business.

But E3 is also rather unique in the history of industry trade shows, in that it’s a show where the attendees can expect to have real fun ‘ and perhaps that’s the greatest testament to the industry E3 represents.

If a big, glitzy, loud and exciting event like E3 does nothing else, it should remind us that underlying all the critiques, complaints, and criticisms, hopes, expectations, and desires, is the one thing that brought 45,000 people out to the Los Angeles Convention Center this year: a simple but always exciting love for the game.

And if you didn’t find at least one game to fall in love with at E3 this year, you probably weren’t looking hard enough.

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