The Experimental Gameplay Sessions at GDC have become one of my favorite must-see events. Each year I leave inspired and entertained, and this year was perhaps the best yet. The ten games (or demos) shown were all at least provocative, and many were amazing.
What impressed me even more was that many of the games shown this year suggested to me not only a single concept good for one game, but rather a whole new principle that could open up entire new genres of games or at least breath new life into old genres.
Between this creative surge and the growing styles and platforms (casual games, iPhone games) and viable economic and distribution methods (various online and wireless distribution and microtransactions) it feels to me we're on the verge of a creative diversity I haven't seen since the early 1980s.
Let me mention just 3 of the games shown this year:
Achron (no, not the old classic Archon but an annoyingly similar name) is an RTS with time travel, where you can send a unit back in time to attack the enemy before he is able to find you, or time-clone a unit by sending it back in time repeatedly to make many copies of itself - but if you do so, and the original unit takes damage, all the subsequent others are instantly damaged as well. It handled paradoxes in a logical and playable fashion, borrowing from Back to the Future.
I had worked on an interface to control Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for DARPA in cooperation with Larry Holland and Ben Sawyer a few years ago and we came up with a timeline that the user could vary and look into the past or future, and thought we had something original - but clearly these guys saw our interface, went back into the past before we showed it, and started building their game...
In fact I have a feeling that there are some great serious game applications of this basic concept, involving not so much real time travel as a simulation method to try alternatives to production plans or manufacturing methods and see in real time what sort of ramifications changes might have.
Another amazing game was Miegakure, a platformer that uses rotation through a 4th spatial dimension as a game mechanism. This was more of a proof of concept than a full game, but it completely convinced me that this is a viable alternative, not just to platformers but to almost any game that uses 3D.
Like the Portal high concept, this plays with a common science fiction conceit and turns it into gameplay, but this is much more wide-ranging. I'd love to see this applied to FPS games.
And "Today I Die" blended poetry and gameplay into a new art form. It's hard to describe this game, as it flips between interactively editing a poem with gameplay or interactively editing the gameplay with a poem - in fact along with Flower that was shown in another session, the question of "can a game be art?" seems as outdated as "can games rival the movie industry for pop culture impact?"
In the last few years I've been at first relieved and then elated to see the burgeoning creativity of new experimental games after years of converging, increasingly conservative AAA titles.
It hit me at this session that experimental demos have always been done on budgets of perhaps one percent of the big titles, but that the power of today's systems and development tools has become so immense that even a half-percent of a hit PS3 title applied to a new concept can look great - or at least show us enough to let us visualize the final game.
I can't wait to play some of the finished titles that will evolve from the concepts I saw at this session.
More info on all of these and the other amazing games shown here.