Walking the miles of dreary, clinical corridors between Birmingham International Airport and hall nine of the National Exhibition Centre, I had plenty of time to contemplate what wonders awaited me under the hopefully bright and colourful lights of the Rezzed show floor at the other end. The promised land of PC gaming had a full lineup of indie titles, from the small-studio big-hitters, the likes of Dennaton and Bossa, to the one-man garage-bands accepted into the Leftfield Collection.

Now that the fog of post-Rezzed exhaustion has lifted it’s time to fondly try to remember the weekend that was with a look at all the award winners. Sadly, I’ve just realised there were only two official attendee awards (well done to Sir, You Are Being Hunted and Reus!) so I’m going to have to make up some based on my own expert assessments of the talent on show.

Best at making you go “Ooooh, that’s pretty!” Award

The proud recipient of this terribly-named award is Ether One, which also shares the “Game I waited the longest for” mini-award with the other two booths demoing Oculus Rifts (Surgeon Simulator and Undercurrent, an upsettingly realistic deep-sea diving experience). Developed by White Paper Games, Ether One is a first person adventure in a beautifully hand-painted world recently approved via Steam’s Greenlight service. You play as a Restorer who must enter the memories of those with mental health issues, discover their roots and help alleviate them. Though the low resolution of the Rift devkits don’t quite do the visuals justice, the immersion is startling, and even without a screen strapped to my face I fell in love with the world.

Ether One screnshot

Speaking with tech/environment artist James Burton, he explained that the visual style of the game was heavily influenced by a 2011 short film, The Backwater Gospel. and that most fancy VFX like motion blur had to be turned off for the Rift demo to avoid ‘instant nausea’. It showed in the desktop version as the small team really has pulled together to squeeze everything out of the Unreal engine for that cel-shaded, ‘living painting’ art style. The fact that Ether One is a UDK first person game without guns is refreshing and the mental setting and story do some fantastically Inception-like things. One to keep an oculus-covered eye out for in Sep/Oct this year, with the trend for First Person Experiences like this hopefully carrying on with the Rift’s continued support.

Best Unsettling Experience Award

Just edging out the time I spent standing behind a seven-year-old playing Hotline Miami 2 shouting “DIE” at the screen is Gone Home. While not quite as ‘in your face’ as telltale serial killers in the making, Fullbright’s subtle ghost story in a spooky house was enough to make me want to leave, even on a busy show floor. You return from your gap year to find, much to your horror, that you have to get a cab home from the airport because no-one’s there to collect you. Then you find out your entire family is missing and there are creepy post-it notes everywhere. The second bit is slightly more terrifying, but incredibly compelling.

I have no express desire to read through my sister’s diary in real life, or search my parents’ bedroom and inadvertently stumble across a sex guide for older couples, but in Gone Home I really couldn’t get enough. It combines a natural voyeuristic tendency with the vague promise of supernatural happenings to keep you in a heightened state of suspense while you read about your sister hating that kid she used to hang out with. Mundane, maybe. Creepy, definitely.

Most Fun Award

Going into the show, this was almost a given the moment I heard Hotline Miami 2 was in attendance. But after arriving, playing and ultimately finding out that ‘more of the same’ may not be the best way forward for an infinitely replayable top-down brutaliser, I defaulted to my next most-anticipated timesink for the weekend. Luftrausers, also on the Devolver Digital rollcall, is the latest game from Vlambeer (Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box) to keep you eternally aiming for that next attempt that’s definitely going to be better than the last 47. Set as a 1940s dogfighting arcade shooter, Luftrausers has the perfect combination of fluid controls, simple but difficult objectives and seemingly endless customisation. As JW (Jan Willem) said after I finally hung up my flight cap and goggles, “It’s a game where we wanted people to feel like a fighter pilot god, where they can loop guys and wipe out massive blimps and stuff.” There’s a loose story going on too, and I was assured there would be some nice art to go with the cutscenes in the finished product which will release simultaneously on PC/Mac, PS3 and Vita in the next couple of weeks.

Luftrausers screen

BUT, in a massive upset, the winner of the Most Fun Award for the most fun game to win an award is actually a game I had no knowledge of until I sat down to try it out. Helix, by Michael Brough, is perfectly described by the creator as a schmup with a twist. The twist being that there is no shooting. Instead, destroying enemies involves the common avoiding technique of circling around them as they flood in from all sides of the screen. A combination of evading and ensnaring the various enemies is needed to boost your score, with several types requiring you to circle them in the right direction just to throw you off guard. The art style is…what you’d expect from a man wearing a 6-tone hula shirt, colourfully psychedelic. Brough explained that the BROG were organo-techno hybrids, and the pixel art does manage to convey that much, as an apparently jellyfish-like enemy on closer inspection has cables in lieu of tentacles. Helix is a fantastically difficult and entrancing game, and definitely the most fun I had on the Rezzed show floor. Things that happened at Rezzed After Show Drinks are not eligible for consideration.

Most Important Award

As is often the case in the indie development scene, fun is not always the main priority unlike many commercial ventures. Indie games provide a platform for those wishing to make a statement, tell a story or connect to others. Other times they provide an outlet, a means to process feelings too difficult or painful to express otherwise, and in this respect they can be immensely powerful communication tools.

That Dragon, Cancer is a game I was lucky enough to experience last weekend in the presence of creator Ryan Green’s sister, who could tell me more about the circumstances of its creation. Ryan, an indie developer from Colorado, and his wife Amy brought a son, Joel, into the world. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer when he was just one year old. “That Dragon, Cancer is a representation of one of the darkest times in my brother’s life,” Steph said. “Ryan’s a creative person, and this is his way of telling others about it, and how he processes things. It’s his way of reaching out to tell his story.”
That story plays out as an interactive poem, the lines displayed around the walls of a hospital room, read out by Ryan himself. They tell you about what it is like to cling to hope in a darkening world where a parent can do nothing to help their child. It is a profound experience, one which is filled with all the emotions the creator has lived through and expressed in a bleak, but beautiful way.