The annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco is a sight to behold. Creators of all kinds, including game design legends, gather around to learn from and support each other in a rapidly growing industry.
It’s important to remember that every legendary creator began somewhere much more modest, and this new generation of students are already beginning to show as much promise as any iconic figure. The GDC show floor is rife with these students, eager to show off their hard work, and these are some really cool examples of what they’re making.
Team OK/USC Advanced Games
In life, and in most games, it’s best to not look at things in black and white. In Chambara, that’s almost all you can do to stay alive against an enemy team of color-coded ninjas. Whether it’s a dense urban jungle or a quaint festival ground, players turn hide-and-seek on its head by utilizing color-based stealth and perspective. One good strike and it’s all over, so players are forced to balance strategy between hiding in and lunging from plain sight. Matches can get surprisingly heated however as multiple players enter a fray and throttle enemies backwards in a flurry of feathers. Team OK members hope it draws out the best in sportsmanship and competitive positivity, rather than succumb to the toxicity of other video game competition.
“This is really the best time to be a student making games because we’re the first second generation,” lead designer Esteban Fajardo says. “My father made games and that just goes to show how we’re the age that’s really learning from people who’ve had an actual lifetime of experience.”
5. ‘APE OUT’
Gabe Cuzillo/NYU Games Incubator
Not since the PlayStation 1 days has an ape running amok provided so much fun. But while the Ape Escape games focused on capturing the beasts, Ape Out is all about showing your captors what you really think of zoo life.
Ape Out lets you wreak havoc in a randomly generated zoo inspired by the artwork of designer Saul Bass (West Side Story, North by Northwest), complete with areas gated by glass walls and a small army of guards. As you careen through various levels, smashing guards into a bloody paste, each strike is punctuated by a rollicking jazz soundtrack.
It’s not so much "Benny Hill” as it is “Burn the Gorilla, Oh God Here It Comes.” Eat your heart out, Curious George, or this big guy might do it for you.
4. ‘PITFALL PLANET’
Bonfire Games/NYU Games Incubator
What’s a little subterranean excavation without your best buddy by your side? Well, probably death, if the rising pool of lava has anything to say about it. Pitfall Planet is a monstrously charming adventure best shared with a friend who can work their way through simple puzzles, while also avoiding monsters with drills for faces.
As two cute little robot astronauts, you’ll search for fuel and treasure while doing your best Gimli the dwarf impression, tossing your buddy across a chasm to grab that precious diamond. Pitfall Planet may be designed to test friendships, but it can also build them, as it’s easy to fall into a groove with even a total stranger. While madly running away from the aforementioned lava, my partner and I slipped into careful strategy, taking priority on grabbing a rare diamond or hitting a switch that created a bridge of light, until our narrow escape down a hatch. Many high-fives were had.
Team Magnus/USC Advanced Games
Did you ever think that Rocket League, for all its incredibly tight derby car battles and oversized soccer balls, was just missing something? Well, the team behind Magnus have the answer, and it’s a loud, neon-soaked “spaaaaaaaace!”
Magnus drops players into a low-gravity arena equipped with a pair of robotic wings. Goal zones hover a short distance away from the wall, so players can hover in and around the area to bat away the ball with a sort of “force push,” giving the game a sense of urgency to rival that of beloved car soccer.
Oh, and everyone’s helmet has cat ears, which means this is a universe we definitely all want to live in.
2. ‘THE AUTOMATICIAN’
Victorian London is weird enough as it is, but it’s about to get weirder for one talented tinkerer in The Automatician. Brought to a mansion staffed by friendly, yet sinister-looking dolls named “Whodos,” a female mastermind must work her way through various Rube Goldberg puzzles (think Saw but without the blood or lazy writing) to earn the title of “Automatician.”
For the team at DreamPunks, The Automatician isn’t about working your way through the mind of its creator; it’s about surprising everyone, including the developer, with new machinations to solve each puzzle. Players are given a set of tools, two points to connect, and an objective like “make your machine smash these bowls by any means necessary.” And absolutely anything goes. The game even utilizes a special eye motion tracker to determine where a player is looking during specific sequences.
“What we thought is, because it’s set in Victorian times, and because these Whodo monsters aren’t human, the Whodos don’t have human norms,” team lead and NHTV student Reinout Ruland said. “So they will treat anybody the same. Women historically weren’t treated equally at that time, so we have human male characters in the house as well, and they will be more aggressive. Like ‘why do you get to take on this opportunity to be the next Automatician? You better show your worth and challenge me.’ We have to be careful that we’re not sending the wrong message, but hopefully, if we get it right, it will show that we should take a lesson from the Whodos who have no preconceived notions about certain people.”
Jennie Jiao Hsia & Alec Thomson/NYU Games Incubator
The trouble with describing Beglitched (winner of this year’s Indie Games Festival’s Best Student Game Award) is that the less you know about it, the better. At first glance, the game might seem like just another Candy Crush clone, albeit tripping on battery acid. However that’s so incredibly far from the truth that diving further into comparisons risks diminishing what developers Hsia and Thomson have accomplished. You, the player, find a computer, and that computer belongs to someone named the Glitch Witch. She’s on a little siesta from fighting off hackers, and she sure would appreciate you taking up the mantle while she’s out. Kthxbye.
And that’s all you get. Suffice it to say that the game pulls itself back in layers, as both a game of modest strategy and nonsensical hacker humor. If one game had to beat out all four other IGF Best Student Game Award nominees, it’s understandably this one.
That isn’t meant to diminish any student game, though. Each IGF nominee, showcase participant, or laptop demo deserve their due praise. Creation, especially that of a compelling game, is insanely difficult, and every creator must first learn their lessons in success, stumbles, and outright failures. Like USC student/Chambara developer Esteban Fajardo said, now is the greatest time to be a game design student, as the industry has reached a tipping point in favor of rich, fully-realized experiences that expand our understanding of the world around us. Watch these young folk. They, and their games, are going places.
Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.
RELATED: Watch Amelia Recreate Her Life and Murder People in ‘The Sims’