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Under the Radar: Your Weekly Guide to the Games You’ve Never Heard Of

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Posted on April 15, 2014 AT 05:00pm

Welcome to Under the Radar, a column designed to expand your gaming horizons by highlighting the most interesting work from small and independent developers. Each week, you’ll get a rundown of indie-centric news stories and announcements, a game recommendation to help build your indie street cred, and the Main Event—a rotating segment featuring developer interviews, gameplay impressions, opinion pieces, or whatever else I feel like sharing.

While you’ll no doubt hear about the aggressively hyped juggernauts of the indie world from time to time, I’ll also strive to give you info on the deep cuts and the up-and-comers, the interesting fringe where weird meets brilliant. Let’s dive in.

 

Main Event: Viscera Cleanup Detail Impressions

After writing about Viscera Cleanup Detail‘s launch on Steam Early Access for last week’s news segment, I decided I had to give it a shot for myself. The basic concept—tasking you with mundane janitorial work in the gruesome aftermath of the awesome sci-fi battles you see in Halo and games of that ilk—was so brilliant that I needed to see if the game offered anything deeper than a throwaway gag.

The short answer is “sort of.” The good news is that developer RuneStorm had put in a solid amount of work before bringing the game to Early Access, so it’s already quite full-featured. The basics of gameplay are relatively polished, there’s a decent selection of different maps to explore, and you can even venture into online multiplayer (though without any matchmaking, you’ll need to arrange things in advance with a friend or find a stranger through the Steam community).

And that central punchline has been embellished with more care than you might initially expect. The world building in particular is fantastic, with levels that do a fantastic job of telling a story ex post facto. There are the organ piles, blood, and bullet holes, of course, all arranged in such a thoughtful manner that you can envision exactly how the battles went down, but there are also less obvious touches at play. You’ll find tablets containing log entries and objectives for the assuredly grizzled hero who came before you. Areas cleverly send up some of the most common scenarios that have been mined dry by sci-fi shooters: zombifying viruses, escaped experiments, zero-G firefights. It feels a bit like archaeology as storytelling—as you comb through the messy remnants of each event in pursuit of cleanliness, you can’t help but reverse engineer the story.

It’s also, I think, an unintentionally profound experience. Its send-up of violent mainstream games is blatant and heavy-handed, but there’s something less obvious at play, too. I couldn’t help but notice how quickly throwing a savaged human torso or disembodied head into a furnace ceased to be disturbing on any level. I think it’s easy to think that the act of committing violence in games it what desensitizes us, but Viscera Cleanup Detail unwittingly makes a strong argument that it’s merely the exposure and the mechanization that make the abhorrent seem normal. When a soldier grows comfortable with the sight of gore, we mourn the loss of his humanity, but when doctors, paramedics, coroners, and, perhaps, intergalactic janitors undergo the same process, no one bats an eye. There’s an interesting thread there waiting to be tugged at, to be sure.

The less auspicious side of Viscera Cleanup Detail is that the game currently suffers from two major shortcomings. The first is its repetition, which will likely come down to a matter of taste. Each level takes quite a long time to clean, and you’re not going to get a lot of variety. You painstakingly pick up giblets and garbage to take to the furnace, you mop the bloodslick walls with regular trips back and forth for a fresh bucket of water, you weld out all the bullet holes. I personally don’t mind it—that’s kind of the point, after all—but someone with less patience might not find the same kind of Zen enjoyment that I did in all the meticulous scrubbing and incessant backtracking.

The other problem is much less a matter of taste. In the simplest terms, the game just doesn’t communicate enough with the player. The only indicator of your overall progress is a device called the Sniffer, which gives a painfully basic indicator of what’s left to be cleaned. When it’s equipped and activated, it delivers a series of beeps that get more frequent the closer you get to any remaining mess. Such a simple hot-and-cold mechanic doesn’t do nearly enough to narrow down your search, especially when a nearly-removed bloodstain has woefully subtle impact on the texture beneath.

After repeated, lengthy attempts, I still haven’t been able to perfectly complete a level. I suspect part of my frustration might be due to the bugs that inherently come with playing an early build. Once, I made an effort to jettison every single object in an area out of the airlock and into the cold vacuum of space, taking several laps around the perimeter to make sure I’d nabbed it all, and the game still chided me for leaving trash and an upturned barrel lying around once I’d clocked out. I think it came down to a simple bug—objects stuck in a wall or registering as present even though they were long gone—but I can’t be sure, and that’s basically my point.

When the feedback on my progress is so vague, I can’t actually tell if things are functioning as intended. Any number of little changes could make the game much more tolerable to play. Give me a completion percentage for each room, perhaps broken down into categories. Make the Sniffer more useful by, say, adding an arrow or allowing it to highlight the mess it’s honed in on once you’re close enough. At the bare minimum, throw in some kind of scoring system that rewards me for doing an almost-thorough job, rather than simply making me feel inadequate for not doing a perfect one.

As it stands, Viscera Cleanup Detail is good for a few laughs and fun enough to muck about in as a physics sandbox, but it’s hard to approach with any degree of serious commitment. Playing to win, so to speak, currently feels like an exercise in futility and frustration. With stronger feedback and a bit more structure, there would definitely be enough here to justify the modest purchase price. Until that happens, however, you’d be better served waiting to see how RuneStorm continues to evolve the concept.

 

News Roundup: Create and Destroy

Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya’s Cave Story was arguably one of the foundational titles of the modern indie scene. I think it’s popularity did a lot to kick off widespread interest in smaller projects with a retro mentality a few years before breakthrough titles like Braid and Super Meat Boy were on anyone’s radar. Now you can watch Pixel’s GDC talk on the creation of Cave Story. He actually gave the presentation way back in 2011, but it’s finally been made available to the public in the GDC Vault. (In case you’re as slow on the uptake as I am, you can change the language to English by using the drop down menu on the lefthand side. Or you can practice your Japanese. Whatever. I’m not the boss of you.) At 52 minutes, it’s a bit on the long side, but there are some interesting tidbits about the game’s history scattered throughout.

Lucas Pope, the man behind IGF Grand Prize winner Papers, Please, shared some details on his next project with Indie Haven. He hasn’t actually started work on it, mind you, but he’s already decided it’ll be short, free, and most intriguing of all, 3D. Pope’s prior solo work has all been 2D, though he’s collaborated on an experimental platformer called Mightier and worked on the first two Uncharted games at Naughty Dog, so he’s not exactly a stranger to the third dimension. Still, I’m excited to see what kind of design he settles on, especially since he’s said he wants to avoid typical genres like platforming and third-person action-adventure. He’s also expressed a desire to do something drastically different from Papers, Please, which has my interest doubly piqued.

For an upcoming game that’s already a bit more tangible, take a gander at this new trailer for The Hong Kong Massacre. Yes, there’s clearly been a strong influence from Dennaton’s Hotline Miami, but the team at VRESKI definitely seems to be taking the concept in a different direction, at least stylistically. I mean, just look at that bullet-time, dual-wielding action. Just listen to that chill electronic soundtrack. If Hotline set out to unnerve you with its ultraviolence and David Lynch–inspired weirdness, Hong Kong Massacre looks poised to let you revel in the glorious John Woo–ness of it all. Plenty of indie games shoot for the art house vibe, but I’m perfectly down with something that’s more in the vein of Drive.

I won’t make a habit out of heralding Kickstarter campaigns here, but I wanted to mention Last Life, the sci-fi noir adventure game that tasks you with solving your own murder in a rented, 3D-printed body. I love me a good piece of detective fiction, and developer Sam Farmer seems to be hitting the requisite beats perfectly with Last Life‘s moody narration and slick, pared-down visuals. He’s drawing inspiration from modern adventure games like Kentucky Route Zero and The Walking Dead, so the gameplay should be streamlined enough to keep the story moving along at a good clip. And Tim Schafer’s on board to publish the game through the DoubleFine Presents label, so it’s kind of hard to doubt its genre bona fides. Check it out.

Finally, if you liked my interview with Tim Keenan of Misfits Attic last week and wanted to learn more about Duskers, you’re in luck. Tim’s put out a walkthrough video showing off the game in action. He’s also announced that he plans to launch the game on Steam Early Access this year, with a full release hopefully on the way in 2015.

 

Cred Builder: The Works of Jason Rohrer

This week, I’m not recommending any one specific title, but instead pointing you to Jason Rohrer’s site, where you can find everything he’s ever made, either for free download or purchase. Over the last nine years, he’s singlehandedly produced some stirring work that’s remarkable both in its simplicity and its emotional impact. I’ve always been partial to the first game of his I played, Gravitation, but I think the most valuable thing is witnessing how he’s evolved as a designer, eventually experimenting with more complex and experimental multiplayer designs.

 

Are you an indie developer? Are you making a game where everything is an intellectually stimulating metaphor for other, even more intellectually stimulating metaphors? Would you like it to be featured on an upcoming installment of Under the Radar? Shoot a message to josh.harmon@egmnow.net with “UTR” in the subject line and I’ll do my best to make your dreams come true.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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