I am cross-posting this from Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.com.
After taking the measure of Tokyo Game Show on day one, I saw little to change my impression of the indie presence. There were some complaints from developers that TGS staff only asked them for screenshots and trailers for an event featuring their games this weekend the day before the show started, when they were already in Tokyo and didn't have access to the files and tools they needed to prepare such things. I finished out the day at Sense of Wonder Night 2013, and it was... well, it was wonder-full.
Sense of Wonder Night has been part of Tokyo Game Show for several years now. Its goal is to highlight games which somehow engender a sense of wonder. Developers of all skill levels and from anywhere in the world are welcome to submit games to be considered. Several finalists are selected to present their games at Tokyo Game Show, with a panel of judges giving out awards for Best Presentation, Best Art, Best Game Design, Best Experimental Game, and Best Technology. An Audience Award is also given for the game which gets the greatest response from the audience.
This year there were 125 entries from 23 different countries, and 9 of those were selected as finalists. Experienced game developers shared the stage with some fresh out of (or still in) college, but every one of the games had something unique to offer. Here are my impressions of each game, listed in order of presentation.
Kenta Hamaguchi & OECU Takami-Lab (Japan)
Kapolachica-san is a music game which one-ups things like Guitar Hero and Rock Band by using real music as input. The game can be played single- or multi-player, but each player must have either a xylophone or an ocarina to play on. The game scores the players not just on hitting the right notes at the right time, but for holding them out for the right duration. They didn't say anything about what kind of equipment was necessary, so I don't know if a regular old microphone would work. However, it seems like a great way to get people, especially kids, to be able to read sheet music. When one of the judges asked why they chose to use the ocarina and the xylophone, the presenter responded that they wanted the inputs to be instruments anyone can play.
Chu-Ta in Wonder Cave
Hiroyuki Nakamoto, Project Chu-Ta (Japan)
This presentation began with an explanation of the game's special controller. They called it a soft controller, and showed a video demonstrating how it records the pressure exerted on it. The developers talked about how most controllers are hard, unyielding, and "businesslike". They wanted to make a controller which was completely different from what is standard. Once the controller was working the way they wanted via bluetooth, they put it into an ordinary-looking stuffed mouse which looked like the main character of their game. The goal of the game is to carry things from one point to another, and the player controls the mouse's speed by increasing or decreasing the pressure exerted on the stuffed animal.
Winner: Best Presentation
"Tsuri" is Japanese for "fishing," and as you can see the developers really played that theme up during their presentation. They had a lot of time for theatrics, since their game was so simple. Playing Tsuri, an iOS game, is simple. First, you open the app (the green man is you). Then you close the app. Then you do other things -- hang out with friends, go for a walk, whatever. Eventually, when you open the app again, it will tell you how big a fish you caught. The longer you wait, the bigger the fish, with the display showing a silhouette of your catch and telling you how long it is. Various examples were shown of fish caught after certain periods of time. If you wait a month, for example, you could fish up a giant robot. For the last few minutes of the Tsuri presentation, the developers started the game and proceeded to do other things. One developer, the primary presenter, alternately talked to the audience, played elevator chiptune music, and asked his comrades what they were doing. Another developer spent the whole time reportedly playing Puzzle & Dragons. The third developer pulled out a hot water dispenser so he could make and eat some cup ramen. Even though the presentation was mostly theater and had very little explanation, Tsuri didn't need much explanation for its point to sink in. The nature of the game is in stark contrast to how mobile games, particularly free-to-play ones, try to grab a person's attention and keep them playing as often and as long as possible.
Kyoto, which we've mentioned before, was submitted from Japan, but ex-Q-Games developer Eddie Lee originally comes from North America. Shortly after arriving in Kyoto, which the Japanese consider to be the most beautiful city in the country, he had a wonderful nighttime experience with his then-girlfriend, now-fiancee. He wanted to capture what that memory felt like, he said, in the only way he knew how: making it into a game. Some would argue that this is more of a toy than a game, but whatever you want to call it, it's beautiful. If you missed it before and want to try it for yourself, you can download it for free for Windows or Mac from the Funktronics web site. I recommend doing so in the dark with headphones on. There are some beautiful light effects and it makes full use of stereo sound. Oh, and it's Leap Motion compatible, for those who want a more tactile experience.
Space Qube is actually a third-person space shooter and a set of building blocks rolled into one. A simple interface lets the player build their own voxel ship layer by layer. They can make it look like anything they want, as developer Owen Wu demonstrated by showing "ships" that looked like sushi, hamburgers, angry birds characters, and a slice of a Mario game level, among other things. The number of voxels used affect the ship's armor and speed; more blocks means more armor, but a heavier ship. Once a player has created a ship, they can share it via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter -- or push a button to have their design sent to an online 3D printing service to be printed in the size of their choice. Awesome as that is, the sense of wonder really comes from how this game was conceptualized. Wu started working on this game while he was living in Canada, far from his Lego-loving son in Taiwan. What started as a way to play with his son half a world away has turned into an iOS app that anyone can enjoy. Although it didn't win any awards here, it won a Best in Play Award at GDC 2013.
Mario von Rickenbach (Switzerland)
Winner: Best Experimental Game
Mirage, which we've talked about before, is a game about eating popcorn. One goes about it in a strange way; the player's avatar consists of a top hat that picks up stray human body parts as it goes. Each body part improves on the player's current capabilities and/or adds new capabilities. You move slowly until you get a foot. Your sight is blurry and you can't see the popcorn until you get an eye. The popcorn is inedible until you acquire a mouth. All these body parts float freely around the top hat, connected to it by a black strand of some kind. The reason this game won the Best Experimental Game award is because von Rckenback is using pictures of his own body parts for the game. He painted his face blue to isolate the parts he wanted pictures of and took hundreds of pictures to give him something to work with for animation. The whole game has a unique aesthetic. It lost the Audience Award by tie-breaker vote and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it came in second for the Best Art category as well. It was nominated for Excellence in Visual Art at the IGF awards last year, too.
Framed, which also appeared at the 2013 Freeplay Awards and IGF China 2013, is a puzzle game for touch devices in which the player rearranges the panels of a comic so that the main character can successfully run away. Each panel represents an action or set of actions, and they occur in sequence from left to right, top to bottom. Changing the order of the panels effectively changes the context in which each action takes place, and finding the right sequence finishes the puzzle. At the beginning of each puzzle, the game attempts to run the sequence, showing you where the action stops and why. You then have to rearrange the panels until the whole sequence runs. There's no dialogue, Boggs said, because he wants the player to fill in the details with their imaginations. It's still in development and slated for release in about six months, but it's shaping up to be quite an interesting game.
Museum of Simulation Technology
Albert Bor Hung Shih (USA)
Winner: Best Technology, Audience Award
The first thing developer Albert Shih told us when he began his presentation was that he was very nervous. He didn't need to tell us, since it was clear just looking at him, but it wasn't long before watching the gameplay prevented anyone from looking at him anyway. Museum of Simulation Technology is a 3D first-person puzzle game based on the idea of forced perspective illusions. If you've ever tried to squish the moon between thumb and forefinger or seen a photo of some giant person holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you've had experience with forced perspective illusions. There is no shooting involved, though as with Portal the game relies on a simple mechanic and constructed environments to create the puzzles. Besides moving, the player can pick things up and put them down. The player's perspective when the item is put down affects the placement and size of the items, with things like fans increasing or decreasing in power along with their size. It's a little difficult to explain in just words, so I recommend you check out the demo video Shih has uploaded to YouTube. This was the only game that took home multiple awards Friday night.
Lost Toys is a high concept puzzle game. Developer Danielle Marie Swank believes that wonder is an individual thing, and Lost Toys encourages players to find their own meaning in the game by eschewing any kind of external motivation. There are no time limits, no scores, no leaderboards, no social media sharing options. There aren't even any in-game instructions. Just broken wooden toys for the player to fix in a room the player can't quite see at first. More details about the room are revealed over time, but there are still a lot of details left unfurnished. The developers at Barking Mouse Studio, said Swank, don't even interpret the game the same way. Of all the games I have played, the only one this reminds me of is Zen Bound -- and even Zen Bound tells the player how much rope he or she used to complete the puzzles.