By Josh Speer / May 13th, 2020
Yesterday was a day of many firsts. It was the first time I’ve attended an expo centered around video games from the comfort of my home. It was also the first time I really paid attention to games developed by college students. And lastly, it was also the first year that USC Games Expo was held remotely. In years past when I’ve attended events like PAX West and E3, I admit I hadn’t paid much attention to student projects showcased there. My time was very limited at those events, after all. But the more I thought about it recently, the more I realized that I should have been paying more attention to events like the USC Games Expo a lot sooner. Cause after all, while students don’t have access to the resources a big studio might, game development has to start somewhere. And as an advocate of sharing niche and indie games, it was a simple logical jump to virtually attend the USC Games Expo this year.
This article is focused around the USC Games Expo keynote address, which lasted for a bit more than an hour. It introduced the event to those watching as well as highlighting 6 titles from the 50 or so total. It was also dedicated to all the graduating classes of 2020, which have been impacted by covid-19. The actual coverage was interspersed by small commercials from lead sponsor Jam City, and the show actually lasted for several hours after the keynote, but I wanted to focus on the main points. I’m not one for watching streamers play titles ad nauseam. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the keynote. For one thing, it had a lot more celebrity talent showcased than I was expecting. It started things off with Danny Bilson and Mark Hamill. And while I was obviously more familiar with the latter, I quickly discovered the former’s resume is nothing to scoff at either. There were also short addresses from the USC principal and a couple of deans. Most of the show was hosted by Geoff Keighley, who I also wasn’t familiar with. We even got names like Judd Apatow, Jeff Kaplan, Kellee Santiago and even rapper T-Pain thrown into the mix. But the real reason I was watching the USC Games Expo wasn’t for the celebrities, but for the games. And just going from those highlighted, I was quite impressed.
As I mentioned earlier, the expo featured 6 titles that helped showcase various styles and genres. It started and ended with a horror title, though neither was remotely similar. That first game was called Light at the End of the Tunnels. It was introduced by Karter Duff, the game’s creator. The first impressive aspect of this project is that it was made for Oculus Rift, making it a VR horror experience.
It also incorporates clever uses of light to trigger sensors, reveal your surroundings and frighten the ghoulies lurking behind every corner. Your goal as a simple office intern is to investigate an old mining site while searching for your missing colleague. Words don’t do the game justice, so hopefully the included visuals help illustrate why this game looked so compelling. Definitely worth checking out for horror fans that have VR.
Next up was Catharsis, a first person game set in a pitch black world, introduced by creator Dan Qiao. You play an artist who has suffered a traumatic accident, losing your sight in the calamity. Before you worry about the entire game involving stumbling about blindly, there is a key mechanic. By pressing a button, you use a sort of echo location to light up your surroundings temporarily, helping you navigate while reliving your painful memories. But going from the title of the game, I’m sure there’s some form of recovery at the end of this adventure. A very personal and unique journey.
The third title was ShortStacked, and it’s a perfect example of why good PR matters. One creator of the game, Christie Xu, was so effusive and full of positive energy that her presentation easily proved the most entertaining of all 6 featured titles. As for what ShortStacked is all about, the premise is it’s a couch co-op stealth game where two players play children stacked atop each other to pretend to be an adult. Think Octodad but more wholesome, and you’re on the right track.
The only bummer about this creative and colorful game is that it’s meant to be played with a friend in the room, which is a bit of a challenge in the current pandemic. That said, I was impressed by the demonstration of the mechanics in this game, as well as the cute cartoony style.
The fourth game was Koshka’s Kofe, created by Jasmine Jupiter, Michelle Ma and Cloud Tian. It’s a VN with animal characters, punny names and a Russian cultural focus. You play a young woman who has inherited her father’s coffee shop, and you make drinks for patrons while fighting off the unwelcome advances of a large corporation.
The only other title I can compare it to at all is VA-11 HALL-A, since that’s another story focused game that revolves around making drinks properly. Maybe with a dash of the art style of Hatoful Boyfriend. I dig the noir vibe of Koshka’s Kofe, as well as the charming music.
Next up was Bottles, by Brooke Jaffe, the only mobile title of the featured projects. You play a small aquatic creature in a ship in a bottle world. It makes use of gyroscopic features where you can swipe your phone to move the world as well as move your character, and you can even play Bottles one handed.
Though I normally don’t pay much attention to mobile projects, this is a really beautiful and impressive looking game. Definitely the sort of title that might convince me to be more open to mobile gaming in the future.
Finally the keynote ended with Ginkgo, a 3D horror project by Joey Tan with really amazing production values. Had I not known this was a student project, I would have thought this was from a AAA studio. The game is inspired by East Asian horror, and the story revolves around a young woman’s search for answers regarding her mother’s mysterious death. You use a magic sewing needle to literally sew parts of this mystical world together, solving puzzles and evading terrifying monsters. As someone that is inexplicably drawn to horror, yet terrified to bits by it, Ginkgo looks really promising.
All in all, I was very impressed by what I saw at yesterday’s USC Games Expo. To catch bits of the keynote, just check out the trailer below, and stay tuned in the coming days for my own hands on impressions of some of the demos from the expo!
2020 USC Games ExpoBottlesCatharsisGinkgoJam CityKoshka's KofeLight at the End of the TunnelsMark HamillmobileoprainfallPCremoteShortStacked