Last Thursday the NFTS (National Film & Television School) had their graduate class game showcase at BFI Southbank. It was my next to last day in London and to be honest there was no better way to spend the evening that looking through the titles in development by a fantastic group of new designers and developers.
If you read 1001Up during last year’s EGX, you might recognise many of these titles. The team interviewed the NFTS Head of Games Design and Development Jon Weinbren and some of the developers about the program and the titles they were working on. Sadly, for me, I couldn’t interview all the developers, it was a busy night for them but I did get the chance to play almost all the titles on display.
Vocal confused me a bit at the start. I won’t deny that I thought the control scheme was wonky as it seemed my character moved sluggishly across the empty lot the demo took place in. But then everything clicked into place when I saw what I thought was the avatar move away from me and towards some mysterious red footprints. As I moved in the same direction I realized I was another set of feet, green ones. For the longest time everything was silent which struck me as odd because at first I could hear voices saying “Left” or “Right” over and over.
Then when I caught up to the avatar and he started following me and I heard the voices once more it finally clicked and my mind was blow immediately. I wasn’t the avatar, I was one of the voices in his head! And that’s what Vocal is, a game where you are one of the voices in a character’s head, a symptom of his schizophrenia.
Beyond the original and ambitious concept, which Creative Director/Developer Paul Dillon tells me will include voices and commands for interacting with the environment and manipulating things, there is a nice sci-fi setting and plot. The protagonist, Adam, is an astronaut and one of the few chosen to be the first people to set foot on Mars. But he’s losing control to the hundreds of voices in his head so as the nicer one you need to keep him in line and help him survive and make it through his ordeal.
Speaking with Paul, he told me his original concept was controlling the game from an isometric perspective with a point and click control scheme, but he felt—and I agreed—that it failed to convey the idea of voices in the characters head, while the third person and close-up camera did—even more when coupled with the whispers from the different voices.
Paul mentioned the game had recently changed focus slightly but he’d secured funding for the rest of the development. Hopefully we’ll get to play the final version soon so you can be as blown away as I was.
Graduate: Paul Dillon
Hindsight gives you a simple task: fix your patient’s memories. You are a Doctor and you dive into your patient’s memory to help him recover the lost memory of his brother. To do this you’ll have to fix the broken memories, which are in most cases literally that, broken artefacts or items that you need to restore. For example, one of the earliest ones is a carousel with a horse missing.
To perform all these tasks you take photos of the different objects and then superimpose them on the target hotspot—to use a common adventure term—and you’ll fix the object.
If this concept wasn’t already brilliant, developer Johnathan Hatton upped the ante so to speak by making your mobile (or a tablet he had there for the presentation) the controller for the game. With the app installed and synced to your computer, you’ll tap to move and use the camera to take snapshots in-game, then opening the album and superimposing the mobile images onto the PC hotspots. The controls are incredibly tight and as we all have mobiles it felt completely natural to tap and swipe for actions.
As I played it I commented this was a game I would love to see on WiiU and Johnathan positively beamed at me and said that would be his dream as he is a big fan of Nintendo’s console, and he thought the same, that it would work wonders with the WiiU gamepad. But with the price tag on WiiU Dev kits, he fears he won’t be able to work on a version for it for the time being.
I discussed with him what his plans were for the game. He mentioned he’s still looking for funding so his plan right now is to condense the experience into a 20-minute demo he can pitch to potential investors. I asked him what he wanted to do if the sky was the limit, and he mentioned four different minds to explore, changing seasons in the mind, a deeper exploration of your main character and many other features.
What he does have planned however are a greater variety on not only puzzles but also the type of things you can do with the images. For example, a puzzle where you need to restore a boat, but the only one around is a tiny toy boat. You would then take the image, zoom in and use the zoomed version to restore the life-size boat. Another feature he’s thinking of is using the snapshots for exploration, such as taking pictures of a plank and then using it to build a bridge by essentially copying and pasting the image.
Johnathan mentions that one of the things he likes the most is the visual style, which went from a painting-shading style to the current one when he realised the photo-centric game mechanic would clash with such a visual design. Instead, his focus now is to make the environment as surreal as possible, to give you a sense that it is the mind of a person. He aspires to do this by merging objects in the world with human body parts, such as a bench with literal armrests, as if straight from a strange dream. The main character reflects this in her overall design, which is reminiscent of the eye-hand monster from Pan’s Labyrinth.
Playing it reminded me of the beautiful Ether One which also works around the concept of memory restoration. When I asked Johnathan the game inspired him, he shyly admitted to only recently having heard about it, and his desire to play it because he’d heard it was outstanding.
Graduate: Johnathan Hatton
Spirit guides takes a different spin on the modern ‘helpless’ horror game genre. You take the role of a woman lost in time trying to get back home. With her is her trusty sidekick ghost, who offers her sage advice and just about mocks her at every turn. Their problem is that the only way to travel through time is through ghosts. When you touch one, they draw you into their past or another timeline, but not every ghost will get you home.
The demo on display was a short one but it successfully displayed the core mechanics. There are golden hotspots strewn around the environment—spiritual safe-zones. You can use these to hide from ‘regular’ ghosts so they don’t send you to another time. But as is usually the case, if one of them is already pursuing you, the safe-zone is going to do squat. If a ghost catches you, you’ll be thrown to another area where you need to keep an eye out for strange orbs flying around. I died at this bit because I didn’t know what I had to do.
The ghosts currently all look the same, just blue semi-transparent models, but I hope the final version makes them unique, so each ghost is distinguishable from the next. It would add a lot to the immersion.
Graduate: Andre Smith
Pawnbroker is visually striking. The environments are all in black and white and the items you can interact with glow but are otherwise undistinguishable from others, yet their importance is immediately apparent. Pawnbroker is the concept of “less is more” put into game form. You explore empty environments collecting keys and scraps of paper that tell you the story of your protagonist.
While the demo ends before you can get a definite answer, the story had me hooked. It was a story of lies, grudges and vengeance woven into a still and dead environment that made sudden moments of colour that much more striking, such as when you walk into the room with a large pool of blood on the floor. It draws your attention and sends your mind spinning towards conclusions that might or might not be the correct ones.
I was sad that I couldn’t speak with this developer, because I wanted to know so much more about this intriguing title.
Graduate: Anthea Kennedy
11 Days to Save the World
11 Days instantly caught my attention with its unique visual style: Retro-style comic book shading, including those big circle grains. Everything mundane and uninteresting looks grained while your character and the important parts of the environment aren’t.
The premise: You live your live as you always did, going to and from work, but then you meet a girl, she saves your life and then vanishes. You have 11 days to find her again before the world ends.
The demo I played was quite short and skipped ahead from one day to the other, showcasing small bits of gameplay. My only complaint was the lack of hotspots in the environment. No matter where you hovered the mouse, it showed the same action, as if it was the point & click version of an on-rails game. Still, the narrative jump between days and the intriguing visual style more than made up for it. Also, the demo did its job: it made me want a longer experience to fully explore all game’s ideas.
Graduate: Darren Neville
The Lost Tower
The Lost Tower puts you in control of John, going with one of his friends into a mysterious tower to find her brother. Soon you find a discarded flashlight and with only this simple task your adventure begins.
The Last Tower plays similarly to games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, in which having the light on isn’t necessarily the best thing for you. Soon after you acquire the flashlight, you find yourself on a snowy clearing. On the edge of it is a strange man, who vanishes the moment you approach and leaves you standing in darkness. With only the flashlight to guide you, you must explore the way opened to you, the way into a darkened tower.
This is where the game reminded me the most of the new wave of horror games. You need your flashlight on to know where you’re going, to avoid literal pitfalls. But there are guardians patrolling the tower, massive tower-like aliens with spotlights for eyes. If you have your light on, they will follow it and track you.
The first few times I played I died to that, but then learned how to manipulate the enemies, such as flashing the light, making them pursue it and then sneaking off in the cover of darkness. When I made it through the opening area, I found a large spiral staircase where every other step had a strange hallucination—one of which actually made me jump. After that you’re back at the tower foyer, where you start the game, and it ends with giant skeleton construct rising from the floor.
The game doesn’t give you any explanations and Leon, the developer, had to fill me in on the background for the game, which he plans to add at a later point in the development. But he’s being careful because he likes it when the players themselves come to conclusions on the story and make up their own theories. I had a few of them but I lacked proper context without the backstory.
Leon mentions that he plans the game to be at most 2-hours long. He prefers to focus on a tighter experience and tell the story he wants to, even if it’s a shorter one.
When I asked him about his inspirations, he mentioned most notably the works of H.P. Lovecraft and if you had seen the guardians of the tower, you would’ve agreed. Additionally, he mentions Bioshock, but not because of the game itself but because of the respawn mechanic in it. In Bioshock when you die, you respawn—a new clone of yourself—and no one questions this. He says he plans to add respawning for the main character with the express purpose of questioning it, of having the realisation of “I died” as part of the narrative.
Graduate: Leon Delgado
Pixel Rift was the only game on show that didn’t use ‘classic’ PC controls. It used an Oculus Rift and a classic NES controller. I waited in line to play this one for the entire event and it was the last one I had the opportunity to try out.
I didn’t have any clue as to what would be waiting for me when I put on the goggles. I only had the other players’ reactions to go by and that didn’t tell me much.
I put on the Rift and found myself in a classroom and I was a boy. The teacher was talking about the human body. With a look to my right at an angle, I saw something loading, my brand new weapon: a spitball. I wasted no time in using it against my fellow classmates and even the teacher. She caught me once, but I was sneaky enough not to let it happen again.
Then I looked down and my character pulled out a Gameboy, with a game already loaded, a mix of Mario and Mega Man. I played it as much as I could, while at the same time keeping an eye on the teacher so she wouldn’t catch me. It took a few tries and more than enough trial and error but I eventually reached the end of the stage and met the boss.
And then it happened. The main character and the boss, a big dragon, left the Gameboy screen and appeared right in front of my eyes, using my desk as the battlefield. I struggled but I couldn’t hit the boss, until I looked right at the familiar spitball angle and saw it loading. Then it clicked and I used the spitball to ground the boss so my hero could pummel it into submission.
I took off the goggles marvelled at what I had just played through and then had a nice chat with Ana. It was difficult because so many were crowding her. I didn’t have a chance for the one-on-one I had with the others but I managed to get a few snippets. The most important of them is that the game has already been Greenlit on Steam, and the first episode (it’s an episodic title) will release this December, with the next ones coming soon afterward. The first episode will offer Atari 2600 visuals and gameplay. I asked her what the newest console would be and she said the last episode would be Nintendo 64 era graphics.
According to Ana, you have to switch between gaming and paying attention to other things because that’s how it usually goes in life, there are always distractions and responsibilities that keep you away from the games you want to play. The first episode had the classroom, but further episodes might include your mother having shouting at you from the kitchen o something similar.
Graduate: Ana Ribeiro
Sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to play and speak with the developer for The Secret of Kitty City, a charming 3rd person adventure that reminded me very much of classic N64 or Gamecube titles, especially the Harry Potter movie adaptations—the good ones.
If I had to choose my favourites from this impressive lineup, I would give my top 3 to Vocal, Pixel Rift and Hindsight, in no particular order, as they completely blew my mind.
If you want to check them out, check out the NFTS site and contact the amazing developers I had the pleasure of meeting. Also, if you would like to fund them, I’m sure they’d love to hear from you!