EGX 2016: Intimate moments outshine the games industry’s big hitters

Another EGX has wrapped up, leaving a lot of exhausted plug sockets.

With a sizeable sprawl of games covering Birmingham’s NEC arena, there was a lot to play. Last year it was interesting to see several developers playing with ideas of urban unrest, and new ways of considering exploration of virtual environments. It was much harder this time to tie pieces of string between the games on show. Except for Squeaky Wheel’s cutesy election-sim Political Animals, for example, there was little in the way of attention to political systems or ideas – despite the fact that 2016 has been one of the most politically significant years in living memory.

Instead of looking outward, several of the most interesting games at EGX focus inwards, examining smaller, more intimate moments. George Batchelor’s Far From Noise begins with your car teetering off the edge of a cliff. With your character obscured in the precariously balanced vehicle, the game plays out via a series of text choices. Both funny and meditative, Batchelor’s game offers a neat, theatrical conceit as a way to kick up thoughts about death and nature.

Accidental Queens’ A Normal Lost Phone also pays attention to intimate, albeit less perilous, moments. As with Sam Barlow’s database mystery Her Story, the game cleverly makes use of an established interactive language, in this case a smartphone operating system. As you trawl through contacts, messages and dating apps, you uncover the story of the phone’s owner. It feels invasive – something the game’s creators consciously push by letting you send previously drafted messages to contacts on the phone.a_normal_lost_phone

(Above: A Normal Lost Phone)

Still very much in development, John Lau’s Uncanny Valerie is being made as part of an MA course at the National Film and Television School. Taking inspiration from Black Mirror and Ex Machina, the game puts you in the role of a robotics engineer who has been left by her long-term girlfriend. Your character decides to program her ex’s consciousness into a robot – as you do – but can’t make room for all aspects of her personality. Do you decide to leave behind empathy or responsibility? It’s fairly rough around the edges at the moment, but Lau’s game has the scope to grow into something touching and thought-provoking.

Places to go and things to do

While the games mentioned so far put a degree of emphasis on text, elsewhere at EGX there were pieces that focus less on words and more on environment. Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmareswhich I previously played at Gamescom, touches similar notes to Playdead’s Inside with its grim, wordless world. There are interesting images at play – notably a sea of abandoned shoes that echoes imagery associated with the Holocaust – and it’ll be interesting to see whether these symbols coalesce into something meaningful.

Talking of ambiguous images, games have learnt the power of leaving ruins in a landscape, and letting the player come up with their own interpretations. Big Robot’s Signal from Tölva uses this to intriguing effect in its landscape of monoliths and enormous robot skeletons. The game plonks you in the body of a (man-sized) robot and tasks you with fighting other factions of robot for territory. Pulling on sketches by famed illustrator Ian McQue, Tölva looks gorgeous – like the front cover of a pulp sci-fi novel.signal_from_tolva

(Above: Signal from Tölva)

Striking visuals are around every corner in Arkane Studios’ Dishonored 2. The sequel to 2012’s excellent stealth-action game, Dishonored 2 moves the story from the plague-stricken setting of Dunwall to the coastal city of Karnaca – less rat-infested London and more fly-infested Mediterranean. Dishonored 2 was open to the public at EGX, and players were able to go hands-on with the puzzle-box design of the Clockwork Mansion level.

Manual work

Cycling back to games that focus on smaller moments, several things I played complicate actions that other games gloss over with a few button presses. Greg Pryjmachuk’s Jalopy gives you an old car and an expanse of Europe to travel through. Described on its website as “an ex-AAA developer’s response to the depressingly uniform design of modern racing games,” Jalopy is less about hugging corners as you skirt through Germany, and more about making sure your doors don’t fall off.

Also nodding to an age of tactile technology is Supercore Games’ TV Trouble, in which you fix an endless conveyor belt of broken TV by twiddling aerials and flicking buttons. Of all the games I tried at EGX, this felt like one of the most tightly made – clear in what it wants you to do, satisfying in its clipped sound design, and faintly terrifying with its backdrop of TV stacked on rows, like some nightmare dreamt up by Don DeLillo. There’s a lack of any overarching progression or narrative, but it works well as a very short game.

tv_trouble

(Above: TV Trouble)

Elsewhere, there was the N64 nostalgia of Yooka Laylee, the post-apocalyptic robot-romp of Horizon Zero Dawn, and the tilt-shift assassination game Tokyo 42. Sunless Sea creator Failbetter Games also unveiled its next project, Sunless Skies – which moves its predecessor’s nautical exploration into space. There’s nothing in the way of pictures yet, but the game is apparently inspired by the science fiction of H G Wells and Art Nouveau design, so hopefully the studio channels some pre-20th-century visions of space travel. Personally, I’d like to see something like Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone – a 17th-century account of one man’s journey to the moon, on a chariot pulled by geese no less.  

For a year marked by political upheaval and growing social tensions, it was surprising not to see more games explore these issues head on. Instead, the games I played at EGX tended to focus on moments of intimacy, from isolated moments on the edge of a cliff, to the relationship you can have with a car when you’re begging it not to break down. On a different scale, this sense of attachment was echoed by the bigger games, which tended to tout carefully crafted environments over procedurally generated playgrounds. If No Man’s Sky pushed the idea of generated worlds to its extreme, the evidence at EGX is that authored worlds still hold a strong appeal. 

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