The best thing to do during Game Developers Conference, which has taken over downtown San Francisco this week, is be spontaneous. Those rare, unplanned experiences — whether it’s a game you’ve only just heard of, or a party you just got invited to — are often the most memorable parts of the show for me.
And although GDC has barely begun, I’ve already gone with the flow, and it’s paid off in spades. In the Wild Rumpus’ annual showcase, which is adorably tucked into a quiet, untouched corner of the bustling Moscone Center’s West Hall, there’s a demo for a game called Small Talk. And despite that name, Small Talk — due on PC ... eventually — is one of the most exciting, intriguing, beautiful games I’ve played in a very long time.
Designed by Austin-based team Pale Room, Small Talk is like an interactive comic book set on the night of the apocalypse. But it’s not as dark as it sounds: The color palette is dominated by an inviting pale red, with pops of colors to highlight characters and other fine details. And those characters, those partygoers, are all equal parts terrifying and adorable. There’s a man with a plate of eggs and bacon for a head; there’s a cat demon who refuses to look up from their phone; my favorite is a person with a collection of cartoon character popsicles stemming from their neck.
They’re all at the same party, a low-key affair where there’s not much to do but listen to music and mingle. As you choose whom you want to interact with, the small talk you have is much more engrossing than the usual “Where ya from?”; it’s foretold that the end of the world is happening tonight, and everyone around you is very peacefully having their own existential crisis as a result.
This begets the kind of writing that I imagine players wanting to screenshot and post on Twitter with hashtags like #bigmood or #me or #same. Monsters open up to you about their fears of a life wasted; people you have never met before forewarn you that they’re glued to their phones due to a self-consciousness they’ve never been able to shake. It’s a little shocking how open these folks are, but their candor quickly becomes endearing, even comforting.
I would have been fine just navigating around the room, probing the inner machinations of a strangely assembled, beautifully illustrated group of creatures is wonderful. But the more talkative few go the next step and invite you into their headspace, where you can actually interrogate the source of their anxieties. These take the form of bookstores where they loved and lost, or the forest where they were born; these are short and lovely deviations from what could become a claustrophobic, repetitive party setting.
Small Talk plays out like a trip through the hidden terrors we all have haunting us in our heads, whether or not we choose to expose them. I’m already in love with its shamelessness, and especially with how beautifully it chooses to illustrate fears of which we dare not speak with anyone, let alone strangers. There’s no demo online, and the release date remains an unknown. But if you, too, find yourself ambling through GDC this week, this is one of those rare treats that make the show so fantastic.