This week, at the 2016 Game Developers Conference, we saw a lot of games. Some we recognized, some felt familiar, and some were unlike anything we'd seen before. Across all consoles and even virtual reality, we found a handful of experiences that we know you haven't heard of, but that we think are cool. Here are our 8 favorites.
Candle Man, by Spotlighter
Beijing-based developer Spotlighter's Candle Man isn't just a platformer. It's a beautiful, finely-tuned death trap. You play as a tiny ambulatory candle, running through mazes lighting other candles along the way. As you light each candle and burn away wax, you become increasingly smaller--but the smaller you are, the higher you can jump, granting you access to more harder-to-reach places. Every level begins in total darkness and will frequently revert back to it; lighting others candles illuminates pathways hidden in the gloom--as well as potential traps, like poisonous flowers, spikes, and bottomless pits.
Some levels are straightforward: run and jump through a mix of deadly flowers or wooden beams, lighting candles and searching for the exit. Others require you to briefly flash your candle at the right moments to make bridges appear over a dark abyss. Some require you to watch carefully for the shadows of invisible bricks and trust you won't fall as you run across bottomless spaces. Sometimes flickering, sluggish white ghosts chase the little Candle Man, their touch an instant game over.
But according to producer Gao Ming, there's more to Candle Man than just platforming. Candle Man is a game about knowing your limitations, and being at peace with them. The limited range of movement--running and jumping--and the finite amount of energy from your ever-melting wax castle are a metaphor for learning to work with what you have, powering through and achieving your goals without straining yourself irreparably. With this message in the back of your mind, Candle Man becomes an intriguing little game indeed.
To Azimuth, by Bracket Games
Developer Zach Sanford is working on his point-and-click inspired adventure To Azimuth on his own, with his brother composing the somber music. The overall tone is exceedingly somber: colors are muted and lean towards warm, dark reds, browns and black. The music is soft and melancholy, a scatter of notes that lull you into an uneasy calm. And the premise is also black, as you explore the tiny world of a family who have lost one of their own--possibly to alien abduction.
Sanford says the game is somewhat inspired by five-act adventure game Kentucky Route Zero, but a majority of it comes from his upbringing in rural Alabama. To Azimuth explores his own childhood obsession with the search for aliens--he recalls clicking through Yahoo Geocities pages at all hours of the night, following conspiracy theories--as well as themes of crippling anxiety and PTSD. The characters in To Azimuth are harshly drawn, the angles sharp on their long limbs and their faces featureless, and speak harshly to one another, bickering about better times and events out of their control. It's a sobering experience, with a tense emotional uncurrent that you can't help but want to follow.
Perception, by The Deep End Games
Developed by former Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite lead designer Bill Gardner, Perception takes horror games' tendency to fray one's nerves and goes a step further. You play as a blind woman who has accidentally stumbled into a time-traveling adventure, guiding her through a mystery to unravel a series of odd events. She navigates by echolocation; tapping her cane on the ground produces a sound that bounces off the walls and objects in the room, illuminating the area immediately surrounding you.
But Perception dissuades you from continuously tapping by adding an ever-watching predator who is hypersensitive to your noise: The Presence. The Presence lives in the house she is exploring, haunting rooms and at first manifesting as a roaring fire in a fireplace or a string of electricity blocking a stairwell. At times you'll round a corner, tap the cane, and run smack into a spider. Other times the reverberating sound of a ticking clock or music box will guide you into another room. And sometimes you're totally out of luck, and The Presence--we won't spoil what it is here--will come after you.
There are no traditional jump scares in Perception, but you'll find yourself expecting one because of its atmosphere. Tension mounts as you tap away, trying to find your way through the pitch darkness. A low, seething soundtrack adds to the intense journey through the house, and you're always nervous something is waiting to jump out at you. It's a horror game that drags out the anxiety in terrible, smart ways, making it something horror fans will want to try--as well as maybe players who aren't quite ready to dive into something more illuminated.
Her Majesty's Spiffing: The Empire Staggers Back, by BillyGoat Entertainment
Those who love narrative-based adventures like Telltale Games' fare will feel at home with Her Majesty's Spiffing. The premise: the Queen of England wants to expand the British Empire--again--but the world isn't interested in joining and the once-affected nations are not keen on seeing it happen again. So the Queen looks in the only direction she can: space.
In this comedic tale--with some very cheeky writing loaded with British-isms--you control Captain Frank Lee English on his quest to the stars alongside his young assistant, Aled. On his quest for a galactic British Empire, English will have to solve problems you encounter in most 3D point-and-click adventures: repairing broken things, finding batteries for a controller, and engaging in personable banter with those around you. It plays like what we've come to expect from a Telltale game, but the art style is more cartoony. Light and dark throw sheen and shade over English and Aled and the rooms in their spaceship, making it look like something pulled right out of a Pixar film. While we've only seen a brief bit of the game, the dialogue we did run through was clever, with a jovial tone overall. In a market someone lacking in variation for these adventures, a space-faring conquest sounds like a great new twist.
Everspace, by Rockfish Games
Permadeath and procedurally generated levels have enjoyed a powerful resurgence in recent years, but not many Rogue-likes look or play like Everspace. Pitched as a cross between Freelancer and Faster Than Light, Everspace drops you in the cockpit of an upgradeable, spacefaring fighter vessel and directs you through a series of randomly assembled “sectors.” It’s unclear what awaits you at the end, but along the way, you’ll need to acquire fuel and fend off attackers. To that end, you actually have a few options: you can locate and mine specific asteroids for resources, trade with various named characters for fuel and components, or just blow up any bases you discover and steal what’s left.
Regardless of which approach you utilize most, you’ll inevitably engage in fast-paced, flight sim-esque dogfights, using missiles, guns, and upgrades like cloaking devices and shields to dominate opposing ships. Unfortunately, if you fail, it’s back to sector one--though you will retain any upgrade blueprints you’ve found up that point. You’ll also be armed with some additional knowledge. Every time you die, you’ll see a new flashback that reveals another slice of your character’s backstory, which (somewhat sadistically) turns death into a storytelling mechanic. And even though each sector’s composition changes on subsequent playthroughs, characters remain consistent. If a trader turned out to be a traitor last time, you know better than to trust them again.
Everspace faces stiff competition from the likes of EVE Valkyrie, No Man’s Sky, and Elite: Dangerous, but its Rogue-like structure might allow the game to carve out a space of its own when it launches this winter.
The Turing Test, by Bulkhead Interactive
GLaDOS was a real jerk. Just flat-out mean. So imagine if her soothing voice had been a source of comfort rather than ridicule. This is, in part, the approach first-person puzzler The Turing Test takes. Like Portal, it challenges you to make your way through a series of rooms by solving deceptively simple puzzles using a gun-like device while a seemingly omniscient AI comments on your progress. Unlike GLaDOS, though, Turing Test’s AI Tom seems...friendly. At least for now. His commentary guides International Space Agency engineer Ava as she reactives a dormant base on Jupiter’s frigid moon Europa.
The base has clearly been abandoned for some time, leaving Ava to restore power by, well, solving puzzles. The game gives you a simple tool--in this case, the aptly named Energy Manipulation Tool--and challenges you with increasingly complex tasks. The simplest room requires you to transfer power from one node to another by grabbing the energy source with your gun and firing it into the appropriate slot, but as you progress, you’ll have to figure out how to, for example, grab some glowing blue energy without trapping yourself in a room when the automated door loses power.
While these puzzles comprise the bulk of the gameplay, Turing Test also contains deep, ambient storytelling in the style of Gone Home. As Ava dives deeper into the base, she’ll discover emails, audio logs, and personal effects left behind by the previous crew. According to the developers, these items and the sometimes tragic tale they tell create a somber atmosphere that compliments Ava’s loneliness while also driving the experience forward. Perhaps we’ll find out if her isolation is part of the titular test when the game launches this August.
Deliver Us the Moon, by Keoken Interactive
Although it involves wandering through the corridors of a space station with a floating robot companion, Deliver Us the Moon is not a light-hearted action game. From the opening moments where you fire up a realistic launch sequence for your shuttle to the moon to your race for an oxygen tank refill buried in the remains of a shattered walkway, Deliver Us the Moon feels like a game that's trying to channel the solitude, glory, and horror of being trapped in space.
The early in development build we played at a GDC Xbox One event only showed a small portion of what the game has in store, but it's an experience that channels Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Moon. Quiet, deliberate, and focused on promoting the science of space over the thrills of blowing up aliens, we can't wait to get lost (and hopefully found) on this Moon.
Manual Samuel, by Curve Digital/Perfectly Paranormal
Manual Samuel is weird. It's not just that the plot revolves around making a deal with a skateboarding, foul-mouthed personification of Death, it's that the controls are a mix of QWOP, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, and Weekend at Bernie's.
In Manual Samuel, you play a recently dead character who now has to manually control every aspect of being a normal-looking human. If you can make it through one day, Death will bring you back to life as a regular person; if you fail, Death gets your soul. Putting one foot in front of the other is performed with the trigger buttons, alternating X and B keeps Samuel breathing, and hitting Y will force the muscles in your back to keep your spine erect--Manuel Samuel is frustrating, silly fun. If the developers can keep the game short and focused on its bizarre humor, it'll be worth seeing just how long you can Samuel shambling along as a totally not-dead being.