E3 2021 And Its Indie Game Excellence

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After last year forced the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) to cancel, E3 finally made its welcome return. Not as a physical event of course, but an online bonanza of streams and pre-recorded events, starting with The Summer Games Show and wrapping up with Nintendo and its signature Treehouse. Along with the European Championships, I feel like I’ve been staring at screens full of advertising for the last two weeks.

At its core, that’s what E3 has always been. A marketing negotiation between the biggest gaming companies and gamers. Every year we wait with baited breath to see awesome gameplay trailers and hyperbolic reveals. In many ways however, that delicate balance between content and advertising wasn’t always achieved this year. But one area we saw truly varied excellence was in the indie conferences.

Sure, Microsoft did impress with its newly forged bond with Bethesda, and Elden Ring finally emerged from the shadows on opening night. But these major conferences were more often than not met with larger swathes of silence and felt more filler than killer between their more significant announcements. But, when it came to conferences full of substantial gameplay and delightful surprises with no filler, the numerous indie conferences felt head and shoulders above the AAA conferences. More often than not, the indies are the underdogs of these conferences and don’t get hit with the same expectations as the bigger studios. But these fledgling studios thrive in unexpected ways and the true strength that indie developers have always capitalised on is using quirky methods to advance the medium and make something totally different.

It began immediately following the Summer Game Fest conference, with the Day of the Devs show. There were so many games to catch the eye, whether it be Vokabulantis’ incredible stop-motion photogrammetry methods producing a wonderful puzzler, the Kickstarter funded rhythm game Unbeatable, Studio Ghibli- inspired painting story Behind The Frame or the humorous crow-based action game Death’s Door. Even with just the small selection, the Day of the Devs were the first of many eclectic indie showcases that understood that variety is the spice of life. Giving us a variety in gaming is crucial to prevent players who don’t favour certain genres from feeling like there isn’t anything for them. 

The Ghibli-esque ‘Behind the Frame’ was a standout of the indie titles.

That variety continued throughout the indie showcases. However, where they also excelled was in providing non-violent alternatives to the third-person or first-person or close quarters or ranged combat. This year’s E3 saw a third of its titles lacking in violence. Whilst I’m more than partial to combat in my gaming (Halo: Infinite is pretty much the game I’m hanging my year on), not everything needs to use violence as the main gameplay hook and not every title needs to use combat as a way to string the player between their set pieces. This was especially notable in the Wholesome Direct show, which accounted for more than half of those non-violent titles.

Even within that parameter, the presentation managed to display many nuanced titles. Whether it be the character-focused narratives like We Are OFK, Lake and Moonglow Bay, or artistically stunning mellow affairs in the form of Bear & Breakfast, Yokai Inn, or Garden Story. That doesn’t even account for some of the more indescribable titles like pigeon-boarding game Skatebird, airship-repairing narrative Tasomachi or alchemical school simulator Witchery Academy

Without recounting everything here, E3 2021 dispelled any notion that 2021 wouldn’t have its fair share of glorious looking games with equally intuitive gameplay mechanics for players to sink their teeth into. The indie showcases got through these at a brisk pace, giving enough time for in-depth gameplay trailers and demos and giving developers the opportunity to present themselves before an audience. That, combined with crucially managed expectations, provided these conferences with so much food for thought you’d struggle to finish it all.

It was particularly pertinent when contrasted with the various AAA offerings in an increasingly disparate E3/Summer Games Fest in desperate need of streamlining. However, these conferences could prove to be a learning experience for the larger studios. Throughout the indie offerings, they balanced gameplay with people effectively, giving the viewer the sense of what the game was and how it would work whilst demonstrating some of the people involved. Effective trailers can be memorable in their bells and whistles, but must also efficiently communicate what the game can be. 

This was something that the Day of the Devs was particularly masterful at. With trailers that, while ultimately memorable in their approach, never strayed from being honest portrayals of the title being promoted. Whether it be Road 96’s extended gameplay demo showcasing the conversation mechanics fully at play, the lengthy demonstration for The Wandering Village or even Miro Straka’s walkthrough of his upcoming game Lootriver, a viewer could easily understand what these games were and how they would play out, allowing the viewer to make a decision as to what interests them. That level of honesty, that down-to-earth approach to an event is something that should remain consistent for future events. Give players spectacle, but don’t lose sight that ultimately, players want to know how they will have fun with these games.

If you’re one of the people finding little of interest in 2021 or frustrated with the E3 offerings from AAA companies, look no further than the indie scene, because as always, they’re ahead of the curve. Even when it comes to presenting during a global pandemic.

Words by Alex Green

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