The indie invasion continued in force during this year's E3. Both Microsoft and Sony devoted chunks of their conferences to the smaller yet equally intriguing titles - the haunting dystopian future of Inside, the brilliantly brutal Titan Souls but two - while the Indiecade corner of the show floor was healthily busy for the entirety of the week. Compelling works created by small teams have carved themselves permanently into the contemporary landscape of gaming and offer perhaps the most diverse range of experiences to boot. There was a lot to commend at Los Angeles this year (expect another E3 Selection piece to dive into the abstract adventure The Talos Principle in the coming days) but the title that impacted most was Cappy's Below.
Teased by Microsoft with some intriguing art prior, this E3 was the first time we'd managed to play it. The circumstances surrounding our first hands-on with the rogue-like, a beautiful yet haunting story of a lone adventurer exploring a labyrinth cavern system that snakes deep into the earth, were a little odd. It's 11pm and we're in an open-top bar on the roof of a downtown L.A hotel, squashed into one corner while several hundred developers and press mill around behind us, and music blares at bone-crunching volume from speakers all around. The party's been thrown by and for the indie scene; rows of tables line every available wall with monitors, keyboards and joypads strewn on top. Fine for the pick up and play style of arcade throwbacks and party games that also dot the floorplan. Hauntingly atmospheric solo spelunking though? Not so much.
Yet it's a compliment to Below that all that distraction fades as soon as the headphones are slipped over our ears, and we only put the controller down fifteen minutes later because we want to savour all its mysteries without time restraint.
Most developers stationed beside their works give an overview of the controls, the premise behind the game, some background about their company or themselves. Capybara only do the first; as with the game itself, they give little explanation to anything. They want us to discover and learn through exploration. The game proves a complete polar opposite to the team's recent release, the bonkers arcade shooter Super Time Force.
So, we begin beside a moored boat, having just placed feet on the sandy shores of some remote isle. The isometric viewpoint has the camera pulled far overhead, making our lone, tailed and cat-eared explorer seem even more isolated while also highlighting the shear scale of this place. Dulled sand swallows the screen, and as with the cliffs we climb, the caves we descend into, details are defined with a large splashes of subtle colouring. Our character's dodge roll, sword and shield may be inspired by old school Zelda, but the game's tone is more haunting than Nintendo's action RPG series, while a minimalist score emphasises the drip of water, the church-sized rooms that only a torch can pierce the murk of. Below makes you constantly aware of your isolation.
There are creatures down in the deep, denizens whose red-eyed glow indicate aggressive intent if you range near. Get struck, and you start bleeding out; a pixelated heart container icon that pops up when injured clashes garishly with the pixelated blood splatters that you leave as a trail until you heal. Health potions are limited to what we're carrying when we start, and while there's a crafting system to combine items found as you explore, there's little indication that further potions are going to be easy to come by. Die, and you respawn at the last campfire you lit. Very Dark Souls. Combat this early on may only require a couple of sword swipes to kill spider-like enemies, but the health restriction requires you to approach everything slowly, and with caution. Look out for tell-tale lines in the floor to circumnavigate traps, spikes. We wander into a handful of caverns during our time, each offering multiple exits, and seemingly with no map offered, you'd better start committing routes to memory.
Yet the quiet and isolation slowly becomes strangely comforting. Our own private pocket of the world, an escapism that we give wholeheartedly to, perhaps in response to a week of rubbing shoulders with crowds of strangers in packed convention halls. So when there's the brief flirtation with companionship towards our demo's end, its all the more powerful.
We briefly pop back out of the caves and spill onto a cove, a shipwreck leaning haphazardly against the rear wall. Within that we'll find a bow and a small supply of arrows, but our attention for now is on the pack of dogs that roam the beach. The glowing white eyes may be too obvious an indication of their neutrality, but we hold off from attack and wander nearby. They start following us, sniffing by our feet, and when we stop, they lay down beside us. Hold the dodge button rather than tap, and you'll roll out into a run. We streak across the beach, and the hounds give playful chase. We spend long minutes just running back and forth, playing with the hounds. It's a small interaction, but an affecting one. It's momentarily hard to leave the screen and continue our explorations. But we do, and make a mental note on what path to get back here in future.
We see huge, nearly photorealistic worlds during our time at E3, we experience gameplay that requires use of every button on a controller and the twitch skills to match. And we'll be happily playing those in the coming year. Yet in its quiet beauty, Below offered us something equally enriching and its character was as powerful as any bombastic shooter.` That's why it's one of the first games we wanted to talk about for our E3 2014 Selection. Don't expect this to be the last time we discuss it either.