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The cliché is that technological innovation in video game development is the domain of the blockbuster studios. These are companies with the requisite manpower and cash reserves to explore new ways for players to interact with digital games, or to ever more closely replicate the detail and texture of reality on screen. The indie developers, meanwhile, innovate in the area of game design, where they are small and agile enough to take creative risks.

There is some truth to this, and the interplay of technological progress and creativity between the two loose groups has produced a healthy ecosystem. Technological innovations made by the blockbuster developers are passed on to indie devs, while new forms of gameplay uncovered by the indies routinely make their way into the mainstream big-budget releases.

But in 2013 many indie devs have shown their willingness to work with emerging technologies, discovering new ways to interact with games. Indie developers in particular are exploring the new design territory opened by Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality headset due for public release next year (see “Can Oculus Rift Turn Virtual Wonder into Commercial Reality?”). These studios are uncovering new types and styles of play that are uniquely suited to the hardware. Here are some of the most interesting examples of technological invention in recent indie games.

Johann Sebastian Joust (PC, PlayStation 3)

J.S. Joust is the brainchild of academic and designer Douglas Wilson. Designed for anywhere from two to seven players, the game is played away from a TV screen and uses the PlayStation Move controllers—Sony’s wand-like batons that have a ping-pong-ball-size light at one end. Each player attempts to jolt an opponent’s controller while keeping his or hers steady. If a controller moves too rapidly, the light turns red and its holder is out of the game. The aim is to be the last player standing.

During play, music from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg concertos is played at a greatly slowed tempo. At regular intervals the music’s speed increases, signalling that the controller’s sensitivity to movement has been decreased, allowing for more vigorous action and interplay between players. A staple of indie game gatherings in beta version since 2012, J.S. Joust is a parlor game that breaks down social barriers by encouraging physical contact—and without a TV screen as a focal point, it allows for thrilling eye contact between players.

The game was slated for commercial release this fall on PC and PlayStation 3 as part of the Sports Friends compendium, but it has yet to surface.

Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party (Wii-U)

Another game that eschews the TV screen, Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party is an indie game for Nintendo’s next-generation console system, Wii-U. Players compete in teams across a variety of riotously creative mini-games, which use a combination of Nintendo Wii’s motion controllers and the Wii-U tablet-like touch-screen interface.

In one of the included games, Rabbit Hunt, players split into two teams. One group leaves the room while the other must hide the Wii remote controllers as best they can, trying to confound the expectations of the opposing team. The other team is then invited back into the room and has a minute or so to find the remotes, which intermittently make the sound of a snuffling rabbit.

Like J.S. Joust, this game transforms the room in which the game is played into part of the set; the mundane contours of a living space are made into an actualized video-game level, where routine objects become potential treacherous concealers of tiny rabbits. It’s an inspiring demonstration of how video-game hardware can be used in creative ways that the original designers never intended.

DropChord (PC/Mac, iOS, Android, Ouya)

Created by DoubleFine, the studio best known for humorous, narrative-led games (such as Psychonauts, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, and Brütal Legend), DropChord is an abstract music game for tablets that also offers one of the best uses of the Leap Controller, a computer hardware sensor device that supports hand and finger motions as input (see “Leaping Into the Gesture-Control Era”).

The game’s rules are simple: hold two thumbs to the screen and light streaks between them, joining to create a throbbing beam that bisects the darkness. During play you must position the beam in order to strike through the “notes” that appear within the circle. Peril is introduced by way of “scratches,” red dots that you must avoid touching with your beam. Strike all of the notes in a section without a scratch to score a perfect pattern. Your successful swipes trigger firework explosions that light up the screen with light and particles.

While Sony and Microsoft continue to pursue motion-controlled games (the latter’s Kinect 2.0 camera, launched alongside the Xbox One last month, is a particularly powerful piece of hardware), players still view these games with suspicion. DropChord is a rare example of a game that is best suited to motion control play; it demonstrates the powerful potential of this form of interaction where most others have failed.

Private Eye (PC & Oculus Rift)

In this striking detective game for the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, you play as a wheelchair-bound detective spying on a building through his binoculars. Clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Private Eye re-creates the sense of being a largely helpless voyeur with style.

Your only interaction with the game world is via head movements. By surveying the scene and catching important details you must work to solve the mysteries of the neighborhood, from finding a lost football for a group of children to uncovering the local Mafia’s plans.

The ultimate goal, however, is to catch a murderer who you know will kill at 10 p.m. It is a wonderful and inspiring exploration of the power of the new hardware.

Tenya Wanya Teens (PC)

Eccentric auteur Keita Takahashi is best known for his surreal PlayStation series Katamari Damacy, in which players play as an alien prince who rolls a sticky ball through the world, picking up modern living’s detritus as he goes. Tenya Wanya Teens is an equally unconventional proposition, a party game in which two players race to be the first to perform a range of random on-screen actions, from shouting “I love you” at a pretty girl, to successfully peeing into a urinal.

The technological invention comes from the game’s two giant 16-button controllers. Each of the game’s on-screen actions is tied to a different color button (so, for example, you might need to press a red button to order your character to brush his teeth in front of a bathroom mirror).

Humor derives from the fact that the colors of the buttons change at random (via in-button lighting), fooling your brain into pressing the wrong button at the most inopportune moments. In this way you may accidentally cause your character to tell a urinal that he desperately loves it, or pee on a bear. Hilarious and memorable, even if, thanks to the bespoke hardware required, it is scarce at the moment.

Escape (Google Glass)

Escape wasn’t the first game to be announced for Google Glass, the wearable computer due for release next year, but it was the first to be completed and released (albeit only to those few who own development kits).

A far cry from the real-world first-person shooters that some video-game makers have envisioned, Escape is a simple puzzle game that plays out on the surface of one of the device’s lenses. In the game you guide a stick character around a path of dots; it’s the kind of game you’d expect to idly play on your browser to while away the time, but the Google Glass context elevates it to a new level of interest, and the reception to the game demonstrates consumers’ hunger for new game experiences on emerging wearable hardware.

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Credit: Illustration by Maximilian Bode

Tagged: Computing

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