IndieCade2017 was held the same week as Blade Runner 2049, and oddly enough, it was also crammed with not-so-utopian sci-fi worlds. Most are funny and use interesting tech, like Virtual Virtual Reality, but some are more traditional with a twist, like OneShot. In honor of both, here’s a look at the dystopian future games of IndieCade 2017 that stood out, in alphabetical order.
In Bit Rat, you’re some still emerging AI questioning your existence: Why were you made? What is your purpose? That sort of thing. But these are real questions, not some plot stop towards the making of an evil robot. In fact, the AI you control seems curious rather than malevolent, and seem to want to befriend the lab’s rats who, like the AI, seem to be trying to get out of the lab, as it were.
The game plays a bit like maze/logic puzzle with a story. You move a data along a current, but can only rotate a current if it’s being powered. Even if you select the right room, you need to find out how to get power into the current before rotating it towards the position needed to reach the goal. It means backtracking a lot, but to put things in perspective, I played over 20 minutes without even realizing it simply because the puzzles feel fair and the narration is so spot on. For example, you find out that some of the employees have chips inserted into their skin (sound familiar?), which allows the AI to take control of them. It’s not to hurt them or anything, just to override their free will and get them to flip switches.
It’s quite refreshing that the game can explore relevant, almost-no-longer-science-fiction type questions without being too heavy-handed. A quick reference here, use of modern ethics and technology issue as a gameplay mechanic there, and voila! An entertaining puzzler safe for kids, but juicy enough for adults!
It’s like a Turing Test for humans. The idea is that human emotions in the future aren’t so great, so people need to put a lid on it. However, after being “caught,” there’s a second player behind the “machine” trying to guess your emotions while you try to hide them from the facial recognition device that is the game. If your subtle emotion is picked up by the other human, they’ll match it with the press of the correct button, causing an “error” in your favor and moving you one step closer to freedom. Three mistakes and you’re terminated.
The game’s cute enough, but the story behind it is even more interesting. Game designers Alexander King, Sam Von Ehren, and Noca Wu mentioned that the original idea was to make a fighting game that used facial recognition instead of a controller. For gamers, keyboards and controllers seem natural, but compared to a touchscreen, they’re quite difficult. However, the tried-and-true control methods are more stable. Wu and Ehren mentioned that the facial recognition tech they were working with was far from perfect, and I saw first hand how finicky it can be.
EFD was born out of convenience: to make a game where the limited technology’s failure could lead to player success. Looking at other people without talking for awhile is awkward, but that’s part of the intention. The rounds were quite short, and sadly this is more of an installation piece than a game you’ll see coming to Steam, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Hopefully the team will be able to get something more home-accessible out to the public, like that face-controlled fighting game. I’d love to feint-smile into an angry face heavy punch for a surprise virtual victory one day.
It’s a shame we haven’t covered this in the approximate one year it’s been out, but I’m glad it was at IndieCade because it feels like it deserves a lot of love. Like Undertale, the game is one to be experienced, and the more you know before going in, the more it may ruin your experience. That being said, it’s established quite quickly that in the game world, the sun’s gone dead and it’s up to the player to guide the main character, Nikko, into restoring the light. As you can imagine, the game world is quite barren, overpopulated with decaying buildings and machinery that doesn’t seem all that safe.
Even more interesting is the meta puzzles the game asks you to solve. Like, literally. The player is actually asked for their name and Nikko and others will talk to you directly, such as if you try to get Nikko to do the usual RPG thing and sleep in strangers’ beds. The puzzles can feel a bit more heavy-handed in breaking the fourth wall than Undertale did, such as being asked to shake the game’s window off-screen to highlight a code, but the systems are quite creative. For example, Nikko can equip an item in his hand, but if he uses it with another item in his inventory, he may create something. I thought combining a tin can with scissors would create a muzzle to stop an animal from eating a man’s plants, since plants seem rare in Nikko’s world, but it made something for my main objective instead. Truth be told, while I love Undertale, I don’t think it’s the best comparison for this game. In fact, the demo I played had absolutely no combat. It felt more like a puzzle game than your average RPG.
Similar to Undertale though, it feels like there’s a lot going on below the surface in terms of symbolism. There are so many myths of how the sun got in the sky, and the name “Nikko” sounds quite Greek to me. It’s actually an interesting spelling, though if it comes from the name “Nicholas,” it means something like “victory for the people.” However the Japanese place Nikko, I know the word means “Sunlight,” which is also very fitting. Keep in mind that all this unfolded within the short demo (as opposed to full versions of the game lots of other indies brought). I’ve already added OneShot to my Steam wishlist and will have to set aside some time and money for it soon.
I’m sure plenty of people have heard of this one, but it’s worth mentioning since the developers mentioned that Google’s exclusive rights to this expire in 2018, when we can potentially experience it on other platforms. In VVR, you play a human playing in virtual reality. Yeah, it’s pretty meta, but the idea here is that humans assist AI, not the other way around. For example, in the 5-minute demo I experienced, I was told that the goldfish I chose was not the most aesthetically pleasing object I could have picked since another object had better color balance. I also was terrible at coordinating when the toast in 32 different toasters would be perfectly done so they could be attached to a giant slab of talking butter. Who is one of your clients. And you’ll fail him and receive a tongue lashing for being too human.
VVR is weird, wondering, and witty. The controls are simple, the tasks are interesting, and the humor is great fun, especially for VR vets. The total game is only a few hours long, but even the short demo left me feeling satisfied enough, and a few hours sounds long enough for the full journey, especially one that seems driven by narration. I only hope that, should AI take over humanity, it’ll be half as humorous as Virtual Virtual Reality.