Horizon, the aesthete’s antidote to E3

Up until recently, E3 press conferences have strictly been the province of monolithic companies like Sony and Microsoft. This year, however, indie-focused alternative E3 conference Horizon bucked the status quo by presenting a diverse selection of games that weren’t just beautiful but also bereft of men with guns.

Jointly hosted by Venus Patrol, a website “in search of beautiful things from the world of video games,” and LA Museum of Contemporary Art’s MOCAtv, the Horizon event was very low key. At 10am, Venus Patrol founder Brandon Boyer began proceedings by explaining how Horizon came to be: through a desire to create something dedicated to the kind of games that made he and his fellow organisers excited about working with the medium.

Brutal Legend and Psychonauts creator Double Fine was the first development studio to take the stand, presenting gameplay footage of Broken Age (the new name for Kickstarter smash Double Fine Adventure) along with a compilation of fan reactions. Then came an announcement by Thatgamecompany alumnus Kelly Santiago that Indie Fund will be financing the creation of two still undisclosed projects. Next came Toronto-based Capy, with a brief exposition on moody Xbox One roguelike Below and a slightly extended trailer than that shown on Microsoft’s stage earlier in the week.

Media Molecule brought no surprises, just an explanation of the inner workings of the deeply tactile world of Tearaway, Vita’s brightest prospect – and Nyan squirrels. Ramiro Corbetta and Douglas Wilson followed with updates on PS3′s local multiplayer games collection Sportsfriends. Hokra is to receive new arenas and a level editor; Johann Sebastian Joust will feature illustrations by Dominique Ferland; Baribariball is being balanced for high level play and will make an appearance at Evo, the biggest date on the fighting game calendar; Super Pole Riders, meanwhile, now has a 2v2 mode. Wilson also disclosed that he is currently working on an “illustrated, quiet single-player game” called Mutazione. “Her name is Kai,” Wilson explained, as an image of the brown-skinned, for once decently clothed female protagonist eclipsed the projector screen.

Mutazione.

After experiencing a motorcycle accident, Kai finds herself within a “strange, tropical derelict” world, one that plays home to the eponymous town. Less an epic tale about saving the world and more a soap opera, Mutazione, which draws inspiration from games like Another World and Majora’s Mask, will have players acquainting themselves with the settlement’s mutant denizens, exploring the town and engaging in botanical pursuits.

As the applause died down, Frobisher Says creator Honeyslug made its way onto the stage. The two representatives touched briefly on the changes that their upcoming PS4 project Hohokum, which features a stylised, rainbow-coloured snake, have experienced over the last few years and announced their collaboration with US record label Ghostly.

In contrast to the rigidly managed E3 conferences, little about Horizon seemed rehearsed. Voices shook; people fluffed their lines. Yet the atmosphere was exuberant. When Kachina creator Ben Espito greeted the crowd with a Bill and Ted-like ‘Whoah’, it was honest laughter, not polite chuckles, that ensued.

Though largely a hilarious, nonsensical experience – a chicken coop grows massive legs while an abundance of rabbits fountain out of a hole after an initial pair is sucked into its depths – Espito, designer on The Unfinished Swan, revealed that Kachina might have a more serious side. “The game kind of explores themes of, like, Native American and our relationship with Native Americans and how we build cities and how people are displaced.” he said. Then, after explaining that there was a new mechanic in place that would allow players to take on the perspective of other characters, he made burgers fall from the sky.

Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi and Robin Hunicke, formerly of Thatgamecompany, came up to talk about their long time association, which has led to them working together on a game. Partially inspired by Takahashi’s interactions with his two-year-old son, the project will feature Mayors and their deputies. Like any good showman, Boyer ended the press conference with a flourish – a surprise announcement of Fez 2 that sent the gathered press members scrabbling for both their smartphones and laptops.

Later, after the initial tsunami of congratulations had ebbed away, Boyer took the time to share the selection process behind the games. “There’s the sort of this undefinable quality to all, a sort of soulfulness, a certain sort of quiet and a certain beauty to all of these things,” he told us, adding that there were two narratives behind Horizon. The first was, quite simply, that while not necessarily anti-violent, it was a line-up made up of nonviolent games. Boyer was intent on not positioning Horizon as indie versus triple-A, too. “Like, people can be a part of a bigger studio but still make something beautiful,” he said. “That’s the only overarching theme, really. I just wanted to have a bunch of beautiful things in one place at one time.”

Is the Horizon conference an indication that indie developers can expect bigger and better things? An alternative E3 where bootstrapped RPGs and unorthodox narratives will shine? Not really – Horizon reinforces the notion that video games are spreading far beyond the bounds of the LA Convention Center. As it becomes easier to develop games, more and more people are electing to put their own spin on things, to interact with the industry on their own terms. At GDC this year, IGF Grand Prize winner Richard Hofmeir celebrated his victory by ceding control of his booth to Twine virtuoso Porpentine. At E3 last week, the people behind crowdfunded Android console Ouya chose to host their own event outside of the Los Angeles Convention Center, much to the umbrage of the ESA, E3′s organiser.

If there’s anything that Horizon represents, it’s that choice matters. Desire matters. The idea of anyone other than a multi-million dollar corporation staging a successful conference at E3 would have been seen as ludicrous not too long ago. No longer. This sprawling, varied industry is growing and changing at so thrilling a pace that its historically most important event can no longer keep track of it all.

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