LudoNarraCon: 2021 indies we can’t wait to play

Danielle and Harry dive into several upcoming indie titles
Screenshot of retrofuture UI from Mind Scanner

Indie label Fellow Traveller has almost finished with LudoNarraCon, a digital games festival celebrating new and old narrative games. Over the last three days, it has featured talks with writers and developers from games such as The Outer Worlds, Spiritfarer and Paradise Killer while featuring upcoming titles such as TUNIC, Lake and No Longer Home.

A wave of demos for these existing and upcoming titles has been unleashed, and Overlode co-founders Danielle Partis and Harry Mitchell have reviewed some from the selection. These will only be available until the end of April 26th, so get in fast.

Unpacking

Danielle Partis

Unpacking is an upcoming cozy puzzle game developed and published by Witch Beam, that sees you unboxing personal belongings while a narrative slowly unravels around you. 

The game starts in a childhood bedroom in 1997. You’re given a modest diorama to populate with possessions, both nostalgic and decorative. Items pertaining to that time period will pop out of the room’s box one by one each time you click them. A stuffed animal here, an unbranded rectangular handheld games console there; you’re creating your own sense of order in this room. 

There’s a light element of puzzling in that some items must be placed in their correct spaces – objects that haven’t been placed in a suitable home will flash red, so they’re easy to spot and fix. However, Unpacking is largely open to letting you design the space however you want, and there’s no real right or wrong answer unless you’ve left mountains of junk all over the floor like an animal.

Books, toys, memories, are all part of the journey. As you move through each scenario, certain objects will move with you, alluding to details about your life, interests and goals. But, as your character is totally anonymous (so far) it’s up to you to decide what the story is. As someone that has moved house a lot and lost personal possessions to the chaos of it, I appreciate the details that follow you through levels for no real reason, leaving you to decide for yourself why this item made the cut.

The openness of the narrative is a nice touch, but I am mostly here for the neuron-soothing object-Tetris. The stylish art coupled with a simple click and drop mechanic makes for an immersive and addictive timesink. While there’s an intuitiveness to the design and you’re not being anywhere as near creative as you think you are, there’s still a delightful sense of satisfaction packaged with putting everything in its right place. 

TUNIC

Harry Mitchell

Announced at E3 in 2018, TUNIC dazzled crowds with a 3D Zelda-like experience with stunning lighting and an adorable fox adventurer. It quickly became one of my most anticipated indies of the year, as the mood and exploration of Zelda was one of my favourite elements that seems appreciated here. Now, three years later, a demo is finally out.

TUNIC still looks just as good as it did in front of that 2018 conference crowd, and it’s a joy to walk through the forest as light trickles through the leaves. The fixed camera makes areas feel like classic 2D Zelda zones, and finding hidden chests is always a pleasure. However, I do think the game has a lot to work on. The movement and combat feels awkward, and the small amount of enemies offered were quite underwhelming. The modeling and shading is fanciful, but the problem with standing next to a titanic Nintendo property is needing to match the feel of its consistent polish. Polish and adjustments that, I hope, can be present in the final experience.

This is a demo after all, and demos are meant to pique interest and keep players checking in. What kept my interest about TUNIC was the foreign runic language it uses for any items you pick up. Nothing in TUNIC says ‘healing potion’ or ‘sword’, with any statistics or bios. It relies on a meta-textual connection with The Legend of Zelda, and all games inspired by it. At one point you pick up what appears to be a game manual from the 1980s, with runic instructions to the control scheme. I knew that pressing X gave me health, because of course that’s what the red potion does.

TUNIC may be a wannabe Zelda, but it uses that connection out of love for the franchise, and uses it in an interesting way to connect with a player’s existing muscle memory in gaming.

The TUNIC demo is out on Steam, and its release date is still to be confirmed.

Lake

Danielle Partis

Lake is a narrative-driven exploration game set in Oregon in 1986, in the fictional(?) waterside town of Providence Oaks. The story revolves around Meredith, a city-dwelling software developer heading back to her hometown for the first time in 22 years for a moment of respite and to help out her parents.

During her two-week stay in the sleepy lakeside town, Meredith is pencilled in to fill in for her dad, the postman of Providence Oaks. Equipped with a trusty van and a map of the town, she must deliver mail every day to the town’s residents. Providence Oaks is a modest area in terms of size, but its sprawling roads, lush forests and a dazzling centrepiece lake make for a delight to bumble about in.

Each day starts at the post office, and Meredith’s deliveries for the day will show up on a minimap. As the gameplay has an open world element, you can pick and choose which order to deliver things in. Most of the mail is letters, and Meredith will monologue something about a particular house or building as she leisurely shoves letters inside each garden mailbox.

Occasionally, Meredith will need to deliver a package, which means encountering people in the village. The story begins to unfold through dialogue as she reconnects with forgotten friends, familiar faces and fresh fodder among the townsfolk. As you progress, certain characters will ask you for favours, creating small side quests as a bonus to flinging out letters all day. 

There are no stakes in Lake; you don’t get punished for taking your time with deliveries and there’s no reward for helping someone out. Meredith’s decadently lethargic journey is about what she learns; about herself, about the town, and about the time that she’s lost. Going out of your way to aid a resident will reveal inconsequential information; a local business has had a refurb or that the local cat lady has been feeding cupcakes to her pets. 

Lake also suggests that Meredith will be able to form relationships with residents later down the line, though the demo didn’t let us get that far. I had that in my mind from day one, making sure the cute blonde in the video store was the last stop on my route before the game had even hinted that I might be able to woo her with my unbridled cinema prowess.

The game is due out in summer 2021, developed by Gamious and published by Whitethorn Digital.

Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Harry Mitchell

Funded on Kickstarter last year, Chicory: A Colorful Tale is the new title from indie publisher Finji (Night In The Woods, Overland, TUNIC) and had a trailer from PlayStation as they announced it for PS5. It’s about a dog janitor with a magic paintbrush, and it’s a nice time.

I was originally nonplussed by its colouring book concept as I’d seen it done before with Drawn To Life and Epic Mickey, but ended up completely won over by it. It follows a janitor that picks up a paintbrush belonging to a great leader responsible for painting the world, who is now missing. The world is colourless, and it’s up to you to fix it.

Chicory is top-down, exploring through houses, caves and forests to the north, east, west and south similar to classic Legend of Zelda adventure games. You can paint anything around you various colours (including yourself) depending on a changing color palette, which can interact with platforming and exploration elements such as growing or shrinking trees and colouring in light for dark caves.

The characters are all charming, and as it’s hard to use the paintbrush with a mouse or controller it was hilarious to listen to villagers politely hold in their dislike as their godly artist leader is replaced by you, a buffoon who just coloured their whole house cyan and brown. You can carry out quests for them, colour their house to their annoyingly specific requirements, and discover cool outfits to swap out.

It’s a good time. I like the magic painting dog.

The demo for Chicory: A Colorful Tale (developed by Greg Lobanov, Alexis Dean-Jones, Lena Raine, Madeline Berger and A Shell in the Pit) is available on Steam, with the full game pinned for Spring 2021.

Forgotten Fields

Danielle Partis

Forgotten Fields is another cozy narrative game with a stark and familiar premise. You play as Sid, a struggling writer trying to secure a grant for his next book. Unfortunately and far too relatably, Sid is failing to generate ideas.

On the day of his grant deadline, Sid is invited back to his family home, which is being sold off to new owners. Cogisant of the fact that it’ll be his last chance to visit, Sid abandons his desk for an evening to traverse his former stomping ground, in the hope that it’ll drum up some fresh thoughts.

Sid can wander around old surroundings in a point and click fashion, chatting to neighbours and friends, searching for a new story premise. As he uncovers new ideas, the book he’s writing plays out parallel to his life. You’ll often switch from controlling Sid himself, to controlling his fictional character and her story. As the two tomes play out in unison, Sid learns about himself and the time he’s lost to being so wrapped up in his own tales.

Forgotten Fields is light on gameplay, clicking an area of a pretty diorama will take Sid to where he needs to go, and there’s light puzzles dotted around, as well as objects to interact with. There’s also an inventory where Sid can store things he finds on his travels, be that inspiration, an item for a friend, or something to advance the story.

In all, Forgotten Fields is a warm, welcoming story brimming with creativity, developed by Frostwood Interactive and published by Dino Digital. It’s also actually out right now, which is a bonus.

Mind Scanners

Harry Mitchell

Set within a retrofuture user interface, Mind Scanners is set in a sci-fi dystopia where your duty is to diagnose and treat the citizens of ‘The Structure’. It’s up to you to decide after an evaluation who is sane or insane, and then ‘treat’ any insanity in a variety of ways. 

I was immediately taken aback by these mechanics using insanity and mental health as something that can be pulled out with a machine and classed as ‘contagious’, but it all seemed to be a part of a satirical totalitarian state, which you can fight against. In the often sampled realms of Papers, Please you have to look after your family’s safety, and decide whether to work with terrorist revolutionaries contacting you. But this time it isn’t paperwork and acceptance stamps, but working with real lives and personalities.

However in its own right, the design and gameplay of Mind Scanners is wonderfully unique. Time is treated as a much more dangerous currency, and you swap out a series of puzzle tasks to stamp out certain matching icons. Sometimes these require slow patience under a ticking clock, and some require quick thinking and memory. All of these use beautiful art of physical and biological technology akin to Blade Runner, paired with interesting character design.

While I think Mind Scanners might raise questions on its satire around mental health and psychiatry even as science fiction commentary, the look and frantic play of the game felt fresh and original, more so than the Papers, Please story elements we’ve often seen before. 

The Mind Scanners demo developed by The Outer Zone is out on Steam, and is due to be released on May 20th 2021.

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