During the Experimental Gameplay Sessions panel on the Friday afternoon of GDC, I saw the prototype of a puzzle game called Scale that requires the player to scale objects up or down in order to trigger switches and unveil objects. The prototype build with its rough sort of pixel art marveled the audience. The mechanic of shrinking and growing objects seems so obvious that it's amazing no one's thought of it before, but my throat tightened up and my eyes welled for the childlike wonder at seeing an idea so simple turned into an experience so enthralling
It harkened back to something Sid Meier had said in his "Forgotten Tales" panel the day before, in reference to comparing the potential of modern games to the potential of the medium back when he was making games like Pirates!. "Our games are a hundred times more powerful, but are they 100 times as cool?" he asked.
Another inspiring game at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions was Storyteller, which won the Independent Game Festival's Nuovo Award. Storyteller uses comic book frames as the play space and pixilated actors and props as the playing pieces. It seemed like such a simple game but managing the relationships between actors and props, and the relationships between the contents of each panels, was deep and complex. I'd never seen anything like it before.
I want Scale and Storyteller right now. I'm less bullish on Medal of Honor: Warfighter, because it looked a lot like Call of Duty: Black Ops, which I've already played. I'm looking forward to the two new online MechWarrior games I previewed at GDC because I'm a BattleTech nerd from the days of hardboard maps and cardboard Mechs, but I've been playing BattleTech games for over two decades. I really enjoyed my time with the Tactical Intervention demo because I love a frenetic first person shooter, but I've also played Counter-Strike.
I look at all these games, and think about the indie titles I saw at GDC, and finally understand what Jamie Fristrom and other indie developers I've met over the last year and a half, and all my friends and colleagues that love indie games are always talking about. There's nothing innovative in Warfighter or MechWarrior Online or Tactical Intervention. There's plenty of iteration on established genres and conventions, but there's nothing new. That doesn't make them bad, or lesser-than. I imagine I could enjoy them all immensely. Experimentation and innovation doesn't automatically make indie games good or superior-to, either, but they take risks that triple-A games can't afford to because the stakes aren't as high, and as a hardcore gamer I play so many games that I'm always looking for the different and the new.
Words like "hardcore" and "casual" are used to bifurcate the gaming audience into easy-to-understand packages by attaching gamers to genre preferences. I subscribe to the idea that these words actually represent levels of devotion, not preferences, and by that measure it seems like hardcore gamers would be the first people to appreciate the value of independent games. I might just be looking for an explanation as to why, after years of ignoring the indies, one week spent studying them and meeting their creators has turned me around on the subject completely, but how often do you see the most dedicated, vocal videogame players complaining vociferously about buying the same game over and over again?
That feeling of being ensconced in sameness has only increased for me since I began writing about videogames and therefore felt the responsibility to widen my awareness of them. I play so many more triple-A games than I used to, so perhaps that experience gave me the context I needed to finally appreciate independent games. What I learned at GDC this year was how to fall back in love with videogames as a whole by grasping their possibility and potential, and to see the value in broadening my horizons not just as a journalist covering an industry, but as an enthusiast who wants to share all of these experiences with you. That's probably the most important part of writing about videogames, and I'm thankful for the reminder.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.