Indie Games at E3 Expo 2015 - Small Games, Big Stage

With its theatrical press conferences, surprise announcements and celebrity cameos, E3 Expo has long held a place in the heart of video game fans. We offer a look at the independent strand of this year's E3 games

Feature by Andrew Gordon | 23 Jun 2015
  • Firewatch

As many good reasons as there are to be cynical about E3, it’s hard for anyone passionate about video games not to get caught up in the excitement of the industry's biggest event. Held yearly at the LA Convention Centre, the Electronic Entertainment Expo is where the big name companies like Sony, Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft come to hawk their wares, staging elaborate variety shows billed as “press conferences” that have historically enlisted everyone from Paul McCartney to Steven Spielberg in helping promote the next supposed evolution in gaming.

In a lot of ways it’s profoundly absurd – what value is there, you might ask, in salivating over painstakingly rehearsed snippets of games that are still a way off from being done? Game projects can mutate wildly over the course of development, meaning the demos that accompany E3’s notorious big reveals (games that are years away from completion) are usually speculative prototypes at best. Even if the game being exhibited is just a few months from release and thus almost guaranteed to perform as advertised, why not just wait and play it for yourself? Watching an E3 stage demo can sometimes feel like being shown a scene from a film as a set of stills; the unnatural display comes nowhere near approximating a first-hand experience with the genuine artifact but is nevertheless sure to undermine the initial impact of the finished work. And yet despite the silliness of it all, there remains a niggling promise that this could be the year you see something truly revolutionary, an idea so genuinely radical that it transcends all the marketing hype bullshit. E3 after all, is where the world was introduced to the Nintendo Wii.

Women in the Videogame Industry

While no such thunderclap shook this year’s conference, there was still plenty to be optimistic about amid the usual monotony of sequels, shooters and smarmy executives. It was a tiny glimmer of respite, for instance, to see an improvement in female representation across the board – both within the games themselves and among their creators – following what’s been a gruesome year of targeted hate campaigns against women in the industry. Japanese games also enjoyed their most significant showing this decade: Microsoft announced it’ll be publishing a new game from Megaman director Keiji Inafune, while Sony will be instrumental in resuscitating the cult-favourite Shenmue series, both abating fears of a national industry in decline. And as much as an outlet like The Skinny might argue that many of the medium’s best offerings aren’t to be found at glitzy industry shindigs (much like you don’t look to the Grammys for your music recommendations), unique and interesting games were far from scarce at E3 2015.

Though both previously announced, Firewatch and Tacoma were two of the most interesting smaller-scale projects to receive the big stage treatment, both first-person exploration games that stood out for their focus on dialogue and emphatic lack of violence. The former is the debut project from Campo Santo, a small ensemble of industry veterans that includes talent from Telltale’s The Walking Dead team. Set in a stylish brightly coloured approximation of Yellowstone National Park, players control a newly appointed forest lookout called Henry who finds himself implicated in the disappearance of two teenage girls. With the real culprit at large and seemingly always one step ahead, players must rely on Delilah, Henry’s supervisor, for the vital intel needed to piece the mystery together.

Sci-Fi Classics

Communication is just as important in Tacoma, which will see players interrogating an AI on board an abandoned space station with the goal of discovering the fate of its crew. Its gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere brings to mind slowburn sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon and is sure to draw upon the same knack for tension building that its creators Fullbright demonstrated with Gone Home. Neither games have definitive release dates, but Firewatch is expected to hit sometime before the end of the year while Tacoma will release “when it’s done”.

Due much sooner is Beyond Eyes, whose sole creator Sherida Halatoe must be one of a small few (if not the only) solo developers featured at a press conference in all of E3’s twenty year history. Her first game, to be released on Xbox One this summer, is about a blind 10 year-old girl called Rae on a journey to recover her lost cat. The game’s watercolor world is presented in a way intended to express Rae’s fluid perception of her surrounding environment, objects prone to shifting and changing depending on what her senses are telling her. Importantly, the player doesn’t have complete control, Rae exerting a partial autonomy that reflects her trust in her own instincts over and above the player’s commands. A single trailer isn’t enough to pinpoint exactly how Beyond Eyes works, which for our money is a good indication of an inventive game.

The same couldn’t be more true of What Remains of Edith Finch, the Sony backed “collection of short stories” coming exclusively to the PS4 sometime next year. The trailer features slow panning shots through an empty house with moving images of trees, a bathtub and a boat projected on the walls. Each scene, developer Giant Sparrow elucidates, is a separate vignette about the death of one of the house’s former residents. Playing as Edith, players have chilling prospect of uncovering what happened. These stories will be surreal to say the least, the first of which sees the protagonist transform from a young girl into cat and then a shark before meeting her foretold demise. With each story promising different types of interaction, Edith Finch seems primed to offer a much more nuanced and experimental exploration of death than we’re used to from most games – namely, being shot in the face repeatedly.

Mainstream games versus indie games

It’s definitely heartening to see smaller games like these (including others like Super Hot, Relativity, Cuphead and Alone With You) get the mainstream media exposure that an event E3 brings. And the platform exclusivity deals that make it happen seem like a win-win situation, exposing the indie teams to a much wider audience than their budget would otherwise allow while giving Microsoft or Sony a chance to one up the competition. Yet when you get down to it, it’s skeezy and ultimately unsustainable for the console manufacturers to continue offloading the financial risk of ambitious game design on self-employed indie studios, effectively outsourcing innovation while plucking up the most auspicious prospects for themselves.

As runaway budgets produce increasing homogeneity in mainstream console games, it’s the work being done on the fringes that’s keeping the medium alive and the industry in business: work that’s becoming less and less possible to undertake. It seems tragically fitting, for instance, that the week of E3 was also the week that seminal indie studio Tale of Tales announced that it’s getting out of the videogame business, saddled with various debts from unrecouped development costs.

So as fun as it can be to jump aboard the hype train, it's important to remember that E3 is far from the be-all and end-all when it comes to considering the future of video games. After all, what a shame it would be if genuinely radical ideas were quietly left to flicker out unnoticed while we were transfixed by the bright lights.