The loose, informal format was very much appreciated by the packed crowd of around two to three hundred, a significant majority Japanese, who packed one section of the Restaurant NOA at Makuhari Messe, adjacent to the Tokyo Game Show.
The event was co-located with the International Party on Friday evening, and the audience were given 'laughing' smiley-face toys to shake and make noise when they felt a 'sense of wonder' over the demonstrated titles.
A particular theme of the SoWN selections were new forms of expression and emerging genres in games, from titles using physics and flocking through titles that were prototypes or sketches designed to make you think about the nature of video games. As such, a light-hearted, wry approach was quite a contrast from the relatively formal strictures of TGS' Business Day and showfloor.
The order of the presentations for Sense Of Wonder Night 2008 was as follows:
Camera (Yareyare, Japan) (not available online)
First up was Camera, a art-game made for the PC where, simply enough, you control a hand holding a mouse. If you move or click your mouse, then the hand onscreen moves or clicks its mouse. A kind of Dada-ist prank, it's evidently pretending to be a camera showing your desk. But of course, it's actually not.
The wry Japanese author suggested to the Sense Of Wonder Night onlookers that Camera creates a "sense of unexpected that no other game offers." The crowd were much-tickled by it, and asked about the commercialization of the project -- not entirely seriously, of course.
Depict (Jesus Cuahtemoc, Moreno Ramos, Mexico) (video available online)
Next up, a Mexican duo discussed using the iPhone camera and a cute game concept to create a link with the real world. In the game, you are shown a picture consisting of a shape and some colors (say, a half red and half black image, or a white background with a red circle in the center of it), and you have to match it in the real world.
The creators then showed a cute demo video in which they and their friends tried to match the image by finding objects in real-life that resembled those colors, and taking a picture of it with the iPhone camera.
In fact, the Q&A revealed that the idea is not too far into development on iPhone just yet, because the creators can't afford to buy one of their own. But their video and ideas, including the concept of having multiplayer duels with different iPhone players submitting their photos and the best one being picked, are charming.
The Unfinished Swan (Ian Dallas, USC, United States) (video available online)
This prototype, from a member of the P.B. Winterbottom game at the University Of Southern California, starts in an all-white world, and has the player throw missiles that cover the walls and floor and effectively 'illuminate' the space with black color splatter.
The game has other twists, including a set of blocks that can be moved by projectiles, and the ability to move into all-black spaces and then throw white projectiles.
The stark, monochromatic game generated a lot of oohs and aahs from the crowd, who really appreciated the abstract, art-inspired nature of the title. In his presentation, meanwhile, Dallas honestly explained that, from what he'd seen, people were impressed with the game for about 30 seconds, until the brain understood what was going on.
But they tired quite swiftly of playing it, and in fact, many players asked for harsher game mechanics -- to have hard jumping puzzles, and even death. But that's not what he wants the game to be, even though he noted that wonder alone isn't enough for games to have longevity -- a good observation.
WorldIcelansista (Ambition, Japan) (Japanese website available)
This title, from developer Ambition, is an online RPG which creates picturebooks on mobile phones in Japan. As noted, cellphone gaming is pretty ubiquitous in the territory, and the title, a cute-looking 2D pixelated game, allows users to pick from multiple choices to make their own stories which they can save and replay.
Unfortunately, the Ambition representative didn't appear to do a great job of explaining the unique selling points of the game itself, other than explaining to people how to search for it correctly on the Internet.
However, at the close of his presentation, he showed a real printed book, and revealed that you will be able to print-on-demand books for the game, using the stories you pick out -- a neat concept.
Twin Tower (OMEGA, Japan) (Windows download available online)
Next up, noted Every Extend creator OMEGA, part of the hobby game development circle GameHell, explained his physics-based construction game, where the player needs to alternately stack falling blocks on a floating scale. If you can correctly stack either side without letting the sides tip over, then you've completed the level.
He then revealed that the GameDev forum at the infamous 2channel forums, based around rapid prototyping, were what spawned this title. Specifically, the theme for this particular 2ch competition was "Two Towers". Also, somewhat unexpectedly, OMEGA explained that the game was inspired by the "not so fun" 1983 Namco arcade title Phozon.
But how so? Well, the Japanese designer noted that he likes construction games like SimCity or Age Of Empires, but they have a long play time and are pretty complex. However, simple titles like Kenta Cho's dojin title Tumiki Fighters or Keita Takahashi' Katamari Damacy take a different, more chaotic, shorter-form approach to construction games. It was this spirit OMEGA was trying to call upon when creating Twin Tower.
PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games, Japan) (information available online, out now on PS3)
PixelJunk Eden was introduced by two Japanese staff members of Dylan Cuthbert's Osaka-based studio Q-Games. The abstract PlayStation Network downloadable 'jump action game' is on many Westerners' radar, thanks to its high-profile release in the West and the other games in the PS3-exclusive PixelJunk series -- but is not so well-known in Japan.
The creators explained, after showing a well-received trailer, that the combination of art and music was key to the creation of PixelJunk Eden, and particularly noted that an 'outsider perspective' from some of the game's designers really helped its unconventional style.
In addition, they discussed the particular choice of art direction and colors to make sure that the game looks good, but the characters are still well-differentiated from the background and playfield in the borderline psychedelic title.
Gomibako (Trash Box/ PlayStation C.A.M.P!, Japan) (video available online, PS3 version due out soon)
One of the most intriguing games of the evening, this game was developed by Jetraylogic as part of the PlayStation C.A.M.P project from Sony Japan, and a PSN downloadable title for the PlayStation 3. It's a physics engine-based title in which the player must break objects into a trashcan.
For example, you can drop wooden barrels on metal objects to smash them, and then lower in a flaming object to set the entire pile on fire. In addition, you can break water-filled objects to fill the trashcan with liquid, and then have the contents of the can rot.
In the game, which was also playable on the Sony booth at TGS, the 'bosses' are massive chunks of garbage such as trucks. If you don't correctly get rid of them, they dump mounds of tires on you. At the end of each level, you then get additionally rated on either 'ECO' (if you're good for the environment and didn't burn too much trash), and 'EGO' (if you're bad for it, presumably.)
This slick, well-produced and innovative PSN physics title went down extremely well with the packed audience. It's a devilishly smart physics-based take on Tetris, somewhat reminiscent of elements of recent PC indie title Blast Miner -- and it was also a hit with mainstream journalists covering TGS.
Moon Stories (Daniel Benmergui, Argentina) (Flash game available online)
These series of Flash 'micro-games' are created by an Argentinian former Gameloft programmer who wants to make titles "about people, not objects", and his wordless, highly conceptual game sketches were one of the hits of the night with the audience.
His main demonstration, I Wish I Were The Moon is about a three-way love story between a girl, a boy, and the moon. It has multiple endings, all set around taking pictures of the moon or manipulating the characters in the game, and is genuinely affecting.
Benmergui also showed a second title, Storyteller, which has a similar no-text, no-movie, simple art approach, and features three windows, each with a separate comic strip-style occurrence in it. Juggling what the characters are doing (attacking, imprisoning, etc) in each of the frames results in a different outcome in the final frame, an ingenious study in causation.
The Misadventures Of P.B. Winterbottom (The Odd Gentlemen, United States) (video available online, coming soon to consoles)
USC's Ian Dallas made a re-appearance to present this title, since he was also a designer on the university's Winterbottom, which he revealed will be coming to un-named consoles at some time soon. The Gorey-inspired side-on platformer stars a pie-loving Edwardian villain, and includes normal running, jumping and gliding controls.
But the main differentiator is the ability to record and utilize multiple versions of Winterbottom doing things such as jumping, balancing on teeter-totters, and even dying, using these multiple simultaneous character actions to solve puzzles and complete levels.
The title has been a multi-award nominee in areas from the IGF to Indiecade and beyond. It obviously echoes indie darling Braid in its time rewinding and recording, but uses very different design elements - for example, the player having to avoid previous versions of himself.
And with SCEA previously having a close relationship with USC projects such as Flow, this author is wagering we'll see this title on PS3 and PSP some time in 2009.
Genocide Automation (Naoya Sasaki, Japan) (Windows download available online)
The swarm simulator, with many units fighting against each other, looks a bit like a mutant Game Of Life. It features odd, abstract shapes being formed by lots of individual units - both blue and orange - attacking each other and fighting each other off until one side or another is destroyed.
Even though "each unit is only thinking about itself", the acting-out of the game logic creates the swarms that appear co-ordinated.
The author, Sasaki, explained that the title was simply to "watch and enjoy" until just recently, where he realized that mouse control could affect the swarming of the characters in real-time. Now, the aggressiveness of the AI can be affected by mousing over an area of the screen - leading to interesting conceptual possibilities for this prototype.
Nanosmiles (Yu Iwai, Japan) (Windows download available online)
Finally, Engrish-Games creator and OMEGA's fellow GameHell hobby group member Iwai showed Nanosmiles. This is a micro-organism shooting 2D game that uses some of the same swarming ideas shown in Genocide Automation.
However, it differs in that it has automated swarming characters gathering around the player, and only indirect offensive attacks are allowed. In effect, your swarming colleagues do your dirty work for you after you point them in the right direction. Iwai (aka Dong) also noted you can hide behind walls and let the swarm intelligence -- using boids -- take all the risk on your behalf.
Following the end of the presentations, the judging committee, which included Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy creator Keita Takahashi, Enterbrain's 'Maker' series director Kenji Sugiuchi, and Vector.co.jp executive Takashi Katayama, as well as the author of this article, were asked to give their impressions on what we had seen.
Particularly notable were the clipped comments from an ever enigmatic Keita Takahashi, who claimed that he hadn't been to Tokyo Game Show for 8 years -- but that this event had drawn him to attend.
The evening ended with assurances from Shin that Sense Of Wonder Night will occur again next year -- a good thing for uniting the indie game scene in Japan with the rest of the world.