At many gaming industry events, high-profile, AAA games tend to garner most of the airtime and ensuing discussion. The Game Developers Conference is different – it’s an event where indies have traditionally stepped into the limelight; indeed multiple showcases were fully populated by upcoming independent titles this year.
At GDC 2023 we’ve been celebrating 10 years of [email protected] with a Preview event showcase featuring a number of titles coming to Xbox consoles and PC this year, showcasing the diversity of genres and styles in independent games. Here’s a look at a few we got to spend some time with.
The debut title from UK-based Balloon Studios nestles comfortably in the burgeoning “Cozy Games” category; my time with this plant-based puzzler was undoubtedly the chillest experience of the conference. Here’s how it works:
I stepped into a fogged-up greenhouse, and planted a seed which germinated, but would not grow further. Finding clues to the plant’s native land and temperature preferences around the room, I learned to place the plant pot in front of a heat source at the exact right intensity to heat the soil. The plant obliged my efforts by blooming dramatically, clearing out smog in the greenhouse and allowing progress to the next area. The next plant was a bit more complicated; I needed to replicate its favored stormy conditions by mixing chemicals and placing the sprout in front of an old-timey flash camera.
The more plants you grow, the more puzzles you solve, the further you go. Fans of puzzlers like The Witness and Escape Academy will feel right at home… only cozier.
My time with this plant-based puzzler was undoubtedly the chillest experience of the conference.
Laure De Mey, creative director at Balloon Studios, promises the final game will be much more open-ended than the linear demo – if a player gets stumped on one plant, they can pursue clues to others across the sprawling manor, returning once they’ve hit on a revelation.
De Mey explained how the plants grow into the story: “When people see weeds, they pull them out, because they didn’t put them there. These weeds are forgotten flora, and the main character is also a bit forgotten.”
Botany Manor is part of the just-announced Developer Acceleration Program, and Balloon Studios plans on a release this year. We won’t forget it.
Planet of Lana
Another studio’s first title, Planet of Lana comes from Wishfully Studios, a gaming offshoot of Sweden-based artist and animation group Fully Studios – and that artistic influence shows.
This cinematic puzzle adventure is stunningly animated; evident not just in the movement of main playable character Lana and feline-esque alien companion Mui, but throughout the mysterious world of Novo. Throughout the showcase, I found myself gazing at the gently swaying branches of Planet of Lana‘s lush swamp level – but this isn’t just something you look at, and fortunately the gameplay holds up its end of the package.
Lana and Mui work together in symbiosis, using their unique strengths to help each other overcome obstacles and enemies as Lana aims to rescue her sister, kidnapped by robots who have besieged the peaceful planet.
Tom Davis of publisher Thunderful said the game was as “if Studio Ghibli made Inside.”
The demo started off simply; players guide Lana towards a raft to help the hydrophobic Mui cross a bog (even alien cats hate baths, apparently). But this isn’t a one-sided escort mission: hold RT to point and direct Mui to places that Lana can’t get to, like up a high ledge where it can release a vine for Lana to climb. Mui can also interact with the world in unusual ways to allow Lana passage through routes blocked by alien creatures. While it wasn’t part of the demo, I was told puzzle solving extends to combat, as the pair use the environment to defeat enemies and survive, as opposed to direct conflict.
Tom Davis of publisher Thunderful said the game was as “if Studio Ghibli made Inside.” I was also reminded at times of Ori and the Will of the Wisps… if any of those references made you perk up, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Planet of Lana, which it comes to Xbox consoles and PC with Game Pass this spring.
From new studios readying their first games for launch to veteran teams prepping their latest creation: Harebrained Schemes, makers of BattleTech and recent Shadowrun Trilogy presented the first playable experience of Lamplighters League, announced earlier this month.
Lamplighters League is “a globetrotting adventure” set in a stylized take of the 1930s. Initial vibes are very “Indiana Jones meets XCOM“, though after playing for an hour I believe the closer comparison is the excellent Mutant Year Zero. Players control their party from above in a real time “Infiltration mode,” going over or through obstacles via class-specific abilities. Often outnumbered, there’s an emphasis on staying stealthy; you can see how much noise you’re making while moving and interacting.
Lamplighters League is “a globetrotting adventure” set in a stylized take of the 1930s. Initial vibes are very “Indiana Jones meets XCOM“.
Once detected, the action pauses and proceeds as a turn-based battle until the skirmish is through. Each character has a signature ability which can be used once per mission, and these can be game changers. “Sneak”, for instance drops a decoy and becomes invisible, which helped reestablish strategic positioning after I was clumsily detected in an open area.
After combat, which can range from a small fray to a pitched battle, the game reverts to Infiltration mode; and levels may feature several different battle sequences. The flexibility in choosing when or even if to engage enemies, paired with the not-often-seen setting make Lamplighters League a must-play for strategy fans when it lands day one with Game Pass for Xbox Series X|S and PC this year.
Also coming to console and PC with Game Pass this year is Venba, a cooking/puzzle game where players experience the lives of an Indian couple who immigrate to Canada via interactive, stylized food prep.
Each of Venba‘s levels places us a little later in the characters’ lives, with a new recipe to make. Our demo had us prepare idli, a savory rice cake from South India. After reading the recipe, I arranged batter on special plates and set them to steaming… spilling batter everywhere. I should’ve read the recipe more closely! Next time, I placed towels over the plate first, and rotated the trays to allow more even steaming. These came out perfectly, and then I learned more about the couple, and their decision to stay in Canada.
Venba’s art is inspired by cartoons like “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Powerpuff Girls,” but more serious.
“A lot of stories about immigrants focus on the kids, but we wanted to talk about the parents,” explained Sam Elkana, lead artist at developer Visai games. “They really sacrifice so much, so we wanted to tell the story from Venba’s perspective.”
With art inspired by cartoons like “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Powerpuff Girls,” but more serious, Venba will bake a place in your plans this summer.