Works in progress: hands-on with Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight prototypes

Two weeks ago, there was nothing. And now there’s these: five roughly hewn, cobbled together ideas, all bearing the marks of their rushed, hectic invention. It’s an odd experience, sampling the prototypes that have emerged from Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight. Checkpointing is inconsistent, there are glitches everywhere, and the games themselves can be opaque or simplistic. And yet playing them is surprisingly affecting. Beautiful, varied and run through with bright promise, that they exist at all is a tribute to the power of creativity.

Interacting with ideas that a fortnight ago were mere pitches is a wonderful reminder of what talented people can do when their imaginations are fired, and a fascinating insight into development processes that usually happen behind closed doors. Some of these games have utterly pointless collectibles – hinting at more complex systems that might exist were these prototypes to become full games. Many start in the middle of a journey that doesn’t yet exist, giving a weirdly dreamlike feeling to the action-adventure titles in particular. Some have deftly papered over cracks we would have surely forgiven: a piano tinkle lending an air of silent movie slapstick to a sound-effect free cinematic.

And they’re diverse – in more than one sense. Less than half of the games are built around violent conflict. Three of them have female protagonists: Double Fine’s always been ahead of the curve when it comes to providing varied heroes, but it’s pleasing to see the absence of grizzled marine types all the same. And in terms of design, well, there are five games here, and not a shared genre among them. There’s a fantasy bias, perhaps, but even then the experiences range from tributes to the 16bit RPG to stark, minimalist platform games.

Some of these games could be demos, others feel more like the unpolished prototypes they are. But if these titles were greenlit, how indicative would these small slices of code be? Playing the prototype of Costume Quest, offered alongside the new games for those who contributed towards Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight Humble Bundle, offers perhaps some clue. This skeletal version of Double Fine’s pared-down but charming RPG offers the weird familiarity of looking at a friend’s school photos – the features are there, just not quite arranged as you’re used to them. Still, it’s remarkably close to the finished project, even if we can’t help noticing it feels less solid than the prototypes built with outsider eyes in mind.

These games are by turns witty, touching, varied and remarkable, given how quickly they’ve emerged. This year’s Amnesia Fortnight project might have had an air of TV talent show about it, with its audition videos and dash of commercialisation. But the result is, a week before Christmas, an assorted box of treats.

Hack ‘n Slash

A top-down Zelda tribute that doesn’t try to hide its influences, Hack ‘n Slash starts slowly but builds into something very promising indeed. The promise of using hacking, cheating and reverse engineering tools on the game from within the game¬†seems a bit weakly realised at first, since the first set of fourth-wall-breaking tools you’re handed are merely a save and reload function. Everything changes, however, when you get your hands on a hi-tech reimagining of Link’s hookshot – a USB cable that can be used to literally reprogramme enemies once it makes contact. It offers genuine choice (do you simply lower the guards vision ranges or mercilessly remove all their health?) and makes puzzle-solving feel like breaking the game: we managed to get a bunch of fire-spitting monsters to annihilate themselves by switching on friendly fire and scaling up the size of their fireball sprites.

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