gamer's notebook

Hype and circumstance: Developers show off their latest at GDC 2012

By Chris O'Neal 03/15/2012

In the previous century, authors imagined a world in which businessmen in jet packs flew in V formation like migrating ducks on their way to work. Cars powered by an endless supply of star energy zipped through skyways, and Godzilla, having wrecked most of Tokyo, moved on to earn his degree in accounting. What we actually ended up with was a future invested in information, and so we are given the products of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2012, a seething mass of visual impossibles, truly mesmerizing technologies and designers ready to talk at length about them as a byproduct of our endless need for entertainment.


GDC is an industry-only event held yearly in San Francisco, where everyone involved in making the games you play gets together to show off the latest. When hype becomes reality, fanboys squirm. This year, the squirming was mild but notable.


Take for instance pseudo-strategy, semi-realistic city building and managing simulator SimCity, the game that launched the careers of many a site surveyor. Last seen in SimCity 4, released in 2003 from EA Maxis, the fifth installment of the series will possibly allow a player to construct a literal world of tomorrow. May we finally be able to watch a tornado rip through the center of “Butt Town” in HD with SimCity 5? The answer is yes.


Quickly approaching is the May 1 release of Bluehole Studio’s Tera, a massively multiplayer online game promising to be more action-oriented than your typical World of Warcraft clone (not pointing fingers, Star Wars: The Old Republic). Showcased at GDC were several high-level dungeons in which players would fight bosses more in the style of God of War – running, jumping, clawing and prodding. Meanwhile, stunning visuals created for the world in which Tera resides make for an aesthetic break from monotony.


But the biggest announcement wasn’t an announcement at all. For fans of gaming on the PC, developer Valve lead by co-founder Gabe Newell is held in high regard. After all, this was the company from which Half Life and Team Fortress were birthed, two series that have stolen more hours of a boy’s life than school or talking to girls. Rumor had it in the weeks leading up to GDC that Valve would be announcing the so-called “Steambox,” a console-like device to play games available on Steam – a program used by computer gamers to download and play everything from major releases to indie games.


Too bad for Steam fans that it’ll probably never happen, as the rumors were squashed like so many bugs.
But in the midst of all the glitz and glamour, when a person watching the festivities can’t stand to think any longer about how it could possibly be that so much handsome has been concentrated into one convention center, there are always the games that aren’t games in their subtle genius.


In Dear Esther from indie developer thechineseroom, there is no quest, there is no call to arms, there are no enemies to face or towers to climb. Instead, there is a story to uncover as you explore an eerie island where something terrible happened – the only “goal” is to listen while exploring the beautifully rendered island.


Poetic narration reveals the spooky ghost story that makes up the abandoned homes and shacks littering the island, and that’s about it. Dear Esther challenges the very fabric of what it means to be a video game by placing you within the context of a visual storybook more akin to an Edgar Allen Poe mystery than Alone in the Dark. In other words, go on a night hike with Dear Esther and you may not be leaving alone.


If GDC 2012 taught us anything, it’s that the information age is alive and well in the form of a wide variety of gaming experiences. Build a city, slay a dragon, tell a story: why choose? Own them all.

Dear Esther is available on Steam for $9.99 while Tera will be available May 1, also for the PC. SimCity 5 is still under construction.

Chris O’Neal wants Mulder and he wants those files. Follow him on Twitter @AgentONeal.

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