At E3, indie games are set to sparkle

E3 used to focus entirely on attention-seeking big budget AAA monstrosities. But these days it's also about those smaller games that sparkle in the firmament of publicity.

With hardware manufacturers like Sony and Microsoft falling over themselves to present hot indie games at their conferences as well as indie showcase initiatives like IndieCade, there has never been a better time to sample the best games created by small teams and individuals.

It's impossible to do justice to the many indie games at E3, and those lurking at the perimeter, showing off their precious creations in rented suites, but here are just a few examples that are likely to garner attention and admiration in the days ahead.

The Witness

From Jonathan Blow, the maker of Braid, a PlayStation 4 console exclusive that delivers originality and charm. Players explore a lush island in first-person view, solving logic puzzles along the way. The Witness, ready to launch any time now, has been trailed by Sony since PlayStation 4 was first announced and has been knocking around since 2010.

"I want to build a structure where you start out knowing nothing," Blow told Polygon. "You gradually know some more things and by the end of the game you potentially know a lot, based on how you engaged with the game, but there is still space. It's not one of those things where it tells you every last detail and who thought what. There's room for you to fill in the gaps."

No Man's Sky

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Hello Games' space exploration adventure has been the indie game du jour since it was first shown late last year. Despite a debilitating flood at the developer's offices, the game has been the focus of intense interest from hardware companies seeking to advantage by signing up console exclusives. It's a visually arresting procedurally generated universe of planets awaiting your footprint. It is likely to feature prominently at E3.

According to Hello Games' Sean Murray, the game is seeking to bring back the golden age of sci-fi pulp fiction. "As a child I would look at the sky at night and all the stars and I would want to visit them," he said. "That's the feeling I got later, when I would read books from the golden age of sci-fi, from the '60s and the '70s, and that's what we want to do with No Man's Sky."

Hyper Light Drifter

Any game that raises $650K on a $28,000 Kickstarter target has got to be worthy of sustained interest. Alex Preston's action-adventure pays homage to some of the great games of the past, taking inspiration from the likes of Zelda and Diablo. Set for release later this year, it drops the player into a lost world, where dangers and lootable equipment await.

Preston is still determined to keep certain secrets about the game. "I think people are very curious about the story, but I always say the same thing, which is, 'You'll get to it when you play it,' because for me, that's such an integral part of the experience," he told Polygon. "Movie trailers blow it all the time, and some games are like 'We're doing this, and we're doing that,' and you get into the story before you even play the game."

Below

Capy Games' Below is a stylish, atmospheric dungeon-crawler for Xbox One and Windows PC, that puts players in control of a tiny warrior exploring a sprawling land rife with mystery and danger. The Rogue-like (randomly generated levels, instant-death) was first shown at last year's E3 and is expected to feature during Microsoft's presentation.

"We wanted to make a game that was brutal," Capy Games creative director Kris Piotrowski told Polygon at PAX East. "Initially we started off the player with just one hit point. That was our starting point: a game where you are a very, very capable character but you're one hit away from death. What we ended up with was that you have one hit point, but there's a moment of grace. If you do make a mistake, you do have a chance to recover."

The Long Dark

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Stunningly pretty and relentlessly dark, The Long Dark from Hinterland Games is a Windows PC first-person post-apocalyptic disaster sim in which players must survive the rigors of a northern forest. Drawing inspiration from the Canadian wilderness, it's made by a team of industry veterans from the likes of Relic Entertainment, Volition and BioWare.

"In the game, knowledge of the world is a really important resource," said Creative Director Raphael van Lierop. "Everything is kind of pressuring you to make good decisions about how you're going to use your time. Daylight, for example, the daytime hours are really critical, because at nighttime temperature drops and wildlife is more active. It's harder to travel. You're always trying to maximize what you can do with the day."

Nuclear Throne

The ever-voluble Vlambeer showed cartooney overhead shooter Nuclear Throne at GDC earlier this year. Vlambeer describes it as an "action Rogue-like about mutants that spend their workdays trying to fight for the throne in a post-apocalyptic world." It originated as a 72-hour prototype at the Mojam game jam early last year.

"The idea is to take what we've learned in the past few years and really explore that to the fullest of our abilities," according to a post on the company website. "Nuclear Throne is something we couldn't have made without the things we've made the past few years. It's full of tributes to our other games, but in a way it's really our own little tribute to this thing that is Vlambeer."

#IDARB

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Microsoft's re-invigorated attempts to woo indies through the ID@Xbox initiative has thrown up some interesting offerings, including It Draws a Red Box from Other Ocean. It's an 8-player single-screen soccer game with a whole bunch of weird and wonderful stuff thrown in. Single-screen multiplayer is one of the big trends in indie development right now, and this one looks like a blast.

"Getting the game ready for Xbox One has been really easy," said developer Mike Mika. "Right now, it's an Xbox exclusive." It could, he said, go to other platforms in the future.

Thralled

There are so many great games being shown at IndieCade that it's difficult to pick any in particular. But Thralled has caught the eye, with its focus on the issue of slavery, both today and in the past. It's a heart-breaking, side-scrolling platform game in which a woman seeks to escape her enslavers, on a Brazilian plantation in the 16th Century.

"Slavery can be no less than upsetting," said the game's designer Miguel Oliveira. "It's very much on purpose. It can't somehow not bother people."

Volume

Following on from the hit Thomas Was Alone, Volume is a minimalistic-aesthetic crime adventure game which incorporates heist-planning and stealth, as you create a Robin Hood style persona. The game is also designed to be as mod-friendly as possible, something that animates UK-based Mike Bithell.

As much as anything, he wants to show that he's capable of more than Thomas Was Alone. "I think the act of creating something, at a basic level, is probably the same for everyone. And the whole second album thing is terrifying," he told Polygon. "I'm scared of being typecast Thomas, I'm scared that this game moves away too much and will annoy fans of that game. I'm just scared in general, basically."

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

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Stylish top-down murder-sim Hotline Miami is back with a sequel, set to release later this year. The original game, in which players worked as an assassin, arrived with a bang, and this second and final title is also hoping to attract attention.

"This is the end," said creator Dennis Wedin "This is the grand finale for Hotline Miami. Everything will end with this game. We also tried to give that tone to the game as well. This is the theme for the whole game. It has that sadness. All good things end."

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