If there is one place where you can reliably find adventurous, thought provoking games, it’s usually at the IndieCade Showcase. Each year at E3, IndieCade puts together a collection of video games, experiences, and tabletop games to help provide attendees with a taste of the sheer breadth of work being done in the independent game space.
For my money, if you want to see what is coming up next in games, this is usually the place to look. These games are experimental, provocative, silly and thoughtful. They play with narrative and form in beautiful and innovative ways. The IndieCade space highlights artists and game creators who we may otherwise never get to hear about or from and that’s why I was so excited to get the chance to look at some of what the featured games had to offer.
There were seventeen games featured in the showcase, each doing something unique in the space of games in their own right. You can read all about each game featured at E3 over on IndieCade’s website. My favorite game of the showcase was actually a pair of games by a small team. For this article, I wanted to focus solely on the experiences from the creators behind Cosmonet Games.
Sean Bouchard is a game designer at the USC Game Innovation Lab and part of the creative team behind Cosmonet Games–a pair of narrative driven experiences linked together thematically. On day two of E3 I spoke with Bouchard about the games he and his team were showcasing this year. What caught my eye was the installation he and designer Martzi Campos put together. The thoughtful curation immediately situated the player within the world in a clever way.
The first game, Cosmonet, has the player take on the role of an avian biologist named Lena. Lena’s job is to sit on a space station and study how well birds fly in zero gravity (hint: not well). It’s not exactly a job that requires 100% of one’s attitudinal resources, so you do what most employees do when they find themselves with free time, you spend it online. In Lena’s case that means talking to friends, family, and taking online personality quizzes.
When we play games, often much of the narrative experience tends to be dictated by direct input. In turn, this directly influences a character’s actions and the progression of a story. The creators behind these two narrative experiences have innovated on this form by allowing the player to influence how the character perceives and interacts with the world using indirect input.
In Cosmonet, you influence the character by your responses to personality quizzes. You know how almost everyone in your friend group knows which Harry Potter house they would be sorted into? In Cosmonet, the first quiz you take is a personality quiz based off of a popular book about wizards. After completing the quiz you are sorted into a house, the house you are sorted into will influence dialogue choices and responses available to you as the player.
This innovative way of storytelling excited me as branching narratives can often feel predictable. Using an indirect way to manipulate the result of the game helped make this branching narrative feel new. Players at IndieCade controlled the game using a custom controller, which was a trackball and two buttons. By taking away the presence of a keyboard and only allowing the player to access the game using a simplified control system, the player is forced to be a part of a sterile work environment. It was easy to imagine yourself bored as beans waiting for another one of your experiments to ultimately fail.
The game has a cheekiness to it that belies what it is really trying to get the player to think about. Part reflection on the way we work, part reflection on how we choose to spend our time. When we fill out a quiz online we aren’t really finding out anything about ourselves we don’t already know. There are predetermined paths and people likely choose the path they feel reflects them in the best light. In the case of Cosmonet, the paths available are either independence or idealist and the rest of the game unfolds based upon these character traits.
The world of Cosmonet is built to be evocative and intriguing without pulling focus from the characters that inhabit it. It is a reflection of our own, where global politics and power structures played out in dramatically different ways but the lives and problems of our protagonists are surprisingly familiar and relatable. — Developer’s Artist Statement
While Cosmonet is a short game, about twenty-five minutes in length, it packs a punch. It got me thinking about work, futility, and how I personally choose to connect with people (or not). If I take a quiz and share the results with a friend, is that a genuine interaction? What I’m still thinking about days later is how the media organizations and corporate entities I choose to spend my time with online may indirectly influence not only my behaviors but my language, the framework I use to understand the world around me.
From Ivan is the second game from game developer Bouchard and game designer Campos. This game tells the story of Lena’s brother Ivan. As Ivan, your job is to manage human resources which you do by choosing the best greeting card to send to people. The first thing your employer impresses upon you is how important your job is, how vital it is that you choose the most appropriate greeting card for the occasion. The cards you choose impacts the way friends, family and coworkers see themselves and you. From Ivan has eight different endings depending upon the greeting card choices you’ve made through out the game.
Ivan works within a cyclopean bureaucracy that borrows heavily from the dystopian fiction of the Cold War era, but the conflicts in his life are relational, rather than cultural.– Developer’s Artist Statement
Choosing greeting cards to express sentiments rather than just simply saying those sentiments yourself has always been a sort of questionable practice I have never personally understood. You know what is better than a greeting card on “Administrative Professionals Day”? A livable wage. From Ivan explores the axiom of corporate sentiment over personal action and change. Despite knowing that choosing the right greeting card was a futile endeavor, one that as a human being I know I probably shouldn’t have cared about, I found myself caring quite a bit. When a coworker lost their beloved cockatoo I didn’t want to be dismissive of the loss of their pet. Then I felt silly for caring at all.
If you have ever had the experience of working for a giant corporation, or any entity that feels too large and amorphous, From Ivan will immediately put you back in the bad place. It’s for anyone who has ever worked at a job doing menial tasks, yet caring deeply about those menial tasks and desiring to be recognized for them. Most of us can’t help but care, we want to do a good job. When we are recognized for doing a good job we get that lovely reward feedback loop activated in our brains. Before you know it, you’ve dedicated ten years to your life and earned the title Deputy Steward of the Greeting Card Digital Native Advertising Department. From Ivan touches on something real. It scratches at how we are each achingly clawing towards some sort of attachment to one another but how often we search in all the wrong places.
Both Cosmonet and From Ivan are short narrative experience aimed at getting us to think a little bit more about the world we currently find ourselves inhabiting. From how we choose to interact with one another to how we express ourselves.
Cosmonet and From Ivan are available to download and play for free Itch.Io. Cosomonet was developed by Sean Bouchard with design work by Martzi Campos and music by Kyle Laporte. The team behind From Ivan is Sean Bouchard, Martzi Campos, and Will Campos. Music is once again from Kyle Laporte.
Andrea Ayres writes about comics, video games, and representation in pop-culture.