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E3 2017’s brightest indie games, cataloged in words and video

Record crowds, long lines, and hype-filled booths meant that much of Ars’ E3 experience was spent not playing video games. We do our best to inform you about upcoming titles when we have little more to work with than promises and hands-off demos. But there’s nothing like a “no time limit” chance to sit and play, play, play.

That’s a big reason why we love the conference’s indie-focused events. Hype has no place among gaming’s small fries; you gotta have game. With that in mind, we dragged a video crew with us to some of E3’s funnest events to play indies and talk to their creators. The below video wraps up many of our favorites. For more on each of the featured games (and a few gems that didn’t quite fit), read our detailed explanations below.

(FYI: Game order is determined by order in the video, not ranking. Game platforms are not listed, as many developers could not yet confirm which platforms their unfinished games will launch on. Pretty much all are targeting Windows PCs, along with as many consoles as they can muster.)

Ars goes hands-on with tons of E3 indies. Video filmed/edited by Jordan Service.

Anamorphine: The twist to this experimental game is how its story plays out wordlessly. Instead of dialogue or button-tapping moments, Anamorphine asks players to simply walk and look at objects. Don’t be fooled: this “walk around and absorb” game employs myriad perspective-melting tricks, and the result feels like a truly David Lynch-ian interactive experience.

March across a grayscale golf dystopia, or drive in a rickety golf cart, in <em>Golf For Workgroups</em>.
Enlarge / March across a grayscale golf dystopia, or drive in a rickety golf cart, in Golf For Workgroups.

Golf For Workgroups: Ever wondered what a golf game in development for 12 years might look like? GFW answers that with a custom 3D engine, complete with its own physics system, that pits WASD-controlled robots around dystopian golf courses with a clever mouse-to-swing system. Play traditionally for normal score, or try the online two-on-two mode which rewards speed, not getting under par. (Splitting up who hits the ball when is encouraged in this mode. So is ramming your opponents with a rickety golf cart.) GFW is currently available via Steam Early Access for $5.

Phantom Jump: This game’s sole programmer started out as a Super Meat Boy speedrunner. After two years of playing that game over and over again, he decided to make his own twist on the genre. Phantom Jump also draws inspiration from brutally hard platformer I Want To Be The Guy and rhythm-tapping game Elite Beat Agents.

Kingsway is possibly the world's first "desktop RPG."
Enlarge / Kingsway is possibly the world’s first “desktop RPG.”

Kingsway: This might be the world’s first RPG set inside of a Windows 95-like interface. Half of the challenge comes from managing an increasing number of windows that are divided into categories like questing, inventory, actions, and battles. Random-encounter enemies appear as annoying pop-up windows, for example, but worry not: in our relatively lengthy tests, the Win95 gimmick felt slick, not cumbersome.

Riverbond: This four-player co-op hack-and-slash game caught our eye thanks to gorgeous, clean “voxel” design and a propensity for serious difficulty.

Ctrl Shift: Much like Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes, Ctrl Shift requires two players to work together in the same room to complete missions. But Ctrl Shift feels way more like a full “adventure” game. One player dons an HTC Vive VR kit and must break into an office whose various rooms are patrolled by guards. The other player sits at a computer and must manage a dated, VGA-palette interface, complete with a building map and live camera feeds, to help out the spy. Each player has limited information, so both players must constantly exchange information they each see to keep the VR spy on the right track; the primary system here is computer code commands, which the spy and hacker must figure out together.

Getting into the right order, and doing so at a pretty high walking speed, is essential to getting through <em>Joggernauts</em>.
Enlarge / Getting into the right order, and doing so at a pretty high walking speed, is essential to getting through Joggernauts.

Joggernauts: This four-player co-op platformer answers the question of how the Bit.Trip Runner series would play with more players simultaneously. It, too, is an auto-runner, but your four-player group must work together to switch places in a platforming conga line. In order to get through colored barriers, the person in the front of the line must match the color—and switching at the wrong time can screw up the jumping timing of those in the back. Joggernauts is a group co-op riot, but be warned: after playing this as a team, certain Ars staffers are taking a break from talking to each other for a few days.

Hackers of Resistance: This experiential game requires actors and multiple computers because it is designed to be played at events with hosts and large groups. We only got a taste of Hackers‘ weirdness in a limited demo, but as our video snippet demonstrates, its creators certainly don’t slack off in the live-set production aspect.

Polititruth: It’s best described as “Tinder for fact-checking.” Various news-related statements appear on your phone screen, and you are asked to quickly swipe to pick whether a given allegation is factual.

The Cat in the Hijab: Animal Crossing-styled characters star in a politically charged subway-confrontation simulator.

The art of <em>Where the Water Tastes Like Wine</em> is impeccable.
Enlarge / The art of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is impeccable.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine: Johnnemann Nordhagen rose to prominence as a dev on Bioshock 2 and Gone Home, and he is now leading development on a new “interactive campfire story” experience. Over 20 authors and writers have created tales and characters that speak to American hardship, oppression, and heartbreak. You unravel these stories by hearing anecdotes wherever you set up camp in a cross-country jaunt, then trading your anecdotes with the people you meet on the trail. The way stories morph and blend in these campfire exchanges is unlike any I’ve seen in a narrative video game. That, coupled with a gorgeous, tarot-inspired art style, will hopefully make up for this game’s otherwise simple gameplay.

Virtual Virtual Reality: Much like the free HTC Vive comedy experience Accounting, VVR delivers a meta-meta-meta VR experience. Players enter virtual realities within virtual realities until your sense of place and existence becomes incredibly unclear—and from the brief demo we played, this sensation is equal parts trippy and humorous.

Not in the video, but just as awesome

A few other games did not receive formal, proper video treatment above, but we’d be remiss to not tell you how much we enjoyed them at E3’s most indie-friendly events.

Tunic: Formerly titled Secret Legend, Tunic is easily the most adorable Zelda-inspired adventure game at this year’s E3. The toughest part about previewing Tunic is that we can’t yet tell whether its first eight minutes, which pay major homage to Zelda games of old, reflect a truly engaging full adventure or not. But its brief slice, thus far, already charmed us at a recent PAX, and this “sometime in 2018” game has only grown prettier and more confident.

The many gooey faces of <em>Nidhogg 2</em>.
Enlarge / The many gooey faces of Nidhogg 2.

Nidhogg 2: This is my personal pick for “ugh, it should’ve been in our E3 Top Ten list” game. Like its predecessor, N2 pits two players against each other in a fencing-and-platforming battle. To win a round of combat, successfully run past your opponent (usually killing him/her a few times along the way) until you reach your goal. A successful kill switches the tables and lets the other fighter run towards the other goal.

What’s incredible is how distinct this feels as a sequel. Physicality, speed, and aggression pan out far more than the cautious play of the original, which is thanks to a new melee-stomp attack (which finally feels good after nearly a year of tuning) and a range of random weapons given out after every respawn (from heavy Highlander swords to slow-but-awesome bows and arrows). Plus, the sequel’s aesthetic is finally coming together in beautiful fashion. Gorgeous level designs, silly characters, and Saturn-worthy light/particle effects add a surprising amount of “wow!” factor.

Ninjin with backwards throwing stars.
Enlarge / Ninjin with backwards throwing stars.

Ninjin: Clash of Carrots: Beat-’em-up and shoot-’em-up mechanics come together in novel ways in this “R-Type with a sword” arcade game. A huge array of enemies, attack patterns, and awesome character designs round out this indie surprise. This feels way more unusual than it sounds, and after 10 minutes of playing, Ninjin‘s “sometime in 2018” launch window already feels way too far away.

Listing image by Jordan Service

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