Radius Festival - Friday and Saturday

Small but perfectly formed, Radius Festival rocked London town with its off-kilter charm and wholly collaborative feel. If you haven’t already done so, do check out Edd’s Thursday report – each day the selection of games changed, enticing us back for both the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.

With E3 occupying a weird liminal space where there were plenty of games but a lack of surprise or innovation, Radius Festival – brainchild of Guardian games editor Keith Stuart and developer/co-founder Georg Backer – rose from the eToo experiment of 2013. eToo, described as an idea born out of Keith’s jealousy at not attending E3 that year, has morphed into a showcase for the best and brightest to show off their current projects. Let’s start with the Friday evening and it’s charmingly DIY ‘Court of Indie’ panel…

Presided over by Keith himself with Ann Scantlebury from One Life Left as honorary judge, the ‘Court of Indie’ brought the arguable superstars of the festival – Mike Bithell, Rami Ismail and Paul Taylor – together to find out just who was the most ‘indie’ of the three. Anyone unfamiliar with those names will certainly recognise their work. Mike Bithell, developer of Thomas Was Alone and the forthcoming Volume is a huggable bear of a man, smart and witty with the experience to back up his observations. Rami hails from developer Vlambeer, famous for the eclectically brilliant LUFTRAUSERS as well as Nuclear Throne (more on that one later) is incisive, with an unwavering sense of humour despite racking up almost as many airmiles as John Drake. Paul Taylor brought British wit with an insanely intelligent edge – unsurprising from the man behind the deep tactical experiences that are Frozen Synapse and Frozen Endzone.

The overriding message from the panel had to be that the hard work and devoted passion needed to become a successful indie developer is vital. Making games is a huge risk, but anyone interested should keep developing – even if it’s private and not for show, simply doing so increases familiarity with software, leading to bolder experimentation and better skills. There was also mention of Torville and Dean. Yeah. Still, the panel was a great insight into these developers who have already tasted success – inspiration for the next generation of creators.

In a most welcome moment of spontaneity, a Skype call with famed composer Austin Wintory brought opportunities for the audience (The Digital Fix included) to ask questions about his methods, works and the trinkets littering his desk. All hail the banandolin! Thankfully the panel was livestreamed via Twitch and has since been archived at the site – check it out here. As for the games we saw over Friday and Saturday, they were numerous, inventive and offered an exciting glimpse at what’s to come on the horizon.

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A Light in Chorus
Developers Eliott Johnson and Matthew Warshaw brought this beautiful, intriguing game to Radius. You might not recognise it by name but you might be familiar with the image of a stag made up of hundreds of points of light doing the rounds. A Light in Chorus’ world is entirely made from these motes of light and looks absolutely stunning, even at such an early stage of development. More a proof of concept demo, the developers are still exploring the possibility of where to take the game in terms of gameplay and system mechanics. There are hints in the demo as to what might be included – certain items triggered scene changes, zooming in on certain props produced subtle effects, that kind of things. At its heart the game is all about exploration, so it’s good to see that pathfinding solutions are already working, from trails of footsteps to follow to subtle audio cues guiding the player in what could be a disorientating environment. A Light in Chorus felt akin to The Unfinished Swan in concept – perhaps with a basic story added to the mix this could be truly amazing. As it stands it’s gorgeous and already hits the meditative quality the developers strive toward.

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Gang Beasts
This was unfettered fun – a game sure to spread via word of mouth and anecdote, in the same way Nidhogg’s slapstick ridiculousness generated buzz around its release. Like the combination of that overused Peter Griffin/Giant Chicken fight in Family Guy with The Long Big Punch Up from The Fast Show, Gang Beasts pits men in animal suits against each other in the most wholesome battle royale since the 12-rated cut of The Hunger Games. With a deliberately loose physics system, you can control each arm of your fighter separately, with the ability to punch and grab. This results in a hilarious flailing of arms at the start of each bout and soon develops into clumsy attempts to throw each other into various traps on each stage. The developers at Bone Loafery definitely have superb comedic sensibilities – environments include a giant Ferris Wheel, two window-cleaning platforms suspended halfway down a skyscraper and one fight set atop two trucks aside each other, speeding down a highway. With destructible elements each scenario can escalate into a manic free-for-all as characters are knocked-out, grab on to each other in awkward ways and stumble around like drunk Teletubbies. Safe-to-say this is fantastic.

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Nuclear Throne
We had the chance to have a chat with Rami Ismail about the current state of Nuclear Throne and, more specifically given our love of soundtracks at The Digital Fix, about the music contributed by Jukio "Kozilek" Kallio for the game. After the wildly-addictive LUFTRAUSERS, Nuclear Throne is an ode to pulp science-fiction, set in a post-apocalyptic world. You select a playable character from a band of mutants, each with their own perks. As you progress through each level you unlock mutations that new weapons, making for a fast-paced action blitz of a game. Vlambeer are very close to adding the majority of story elements to the game (including the ending - now added!) and Rami hinted to watch out for updates over the next few weeks. With regards to the music, eclectic fits the bill when describing its aural identity, featuring everything from rap to more traditional ‘action game’ music that suits its pixelated aesthetic. One stunning example of Kozilek’s work comes from an area later in the game – a lab that harbours both disastrous history and yet hope for the mutants. Tasked with this brief, Kozilek created a piece that quite literally starts with creeping, ominous atmosphere before flourishing into a hopeful guitar theme almost exactly halfway through the piece. It’s a wonderful example of how music can be used to reflect the story and shows how detail-oriented Vlambeer are approaching Nuclear Throne.

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Volume
After the surprise hit that was Thomas Was Alone (when can we expect the action figures?!) Mike Bithell returns with Volume, a stealth puzzler that follows in the footsteps of Metal Gear Solid’s VR missions, albeit with a British folk twist. Based on the tales of Robin Hood, Volume does away with any nod to combat – this is all about distraction. Visually Volume looks great, the crisp and clean approach to the environments offset by hazy bloom lighting. Mike has said that a lot of the similarities to Metal Gear Solid are simply because, after trial and error, it was those solutions that remain the best for gameplay. Indeed gameplay is solid, Locksley using various tactics to distract guards and avoid their all-seeing cones-of-vision. It’ll be interesting to see how close the game adheres to the Robin Hood source material, considering it’s a near-future retelling, but so far it looks to be another hit. Yes there are still bugs to iron out but the prospect of Mike’s writing combined with intelligent gameplay sounds great. We also saw a first glimpse of the level editor in motion – still needing some UI simplification but easy enough to understand that there are sure to be hundreds of levels post-launch. Cross-platform access to user-generated content wasn’t confirmed but Mike was hopeful. We look forward to seeing whether this one will go all the way to eleven.

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Tango Fiesta
Nostalgia for the 1980s is everywhere at the moment and why not? The music, trends and excess of the era looks so carefree in the harsh light of the present. Perhaps its greatest contribution to mankind lies in the action movies that have defined a generation – muscle-bound alpha males with big guns holding even bigger weapons. Tango Fiesta mines into that rich vein of culture and crafts a co-op arcade shooter from various winks and homages. Still in early form, the level on show saw players tasked with destroying beach huts all the while dispatching enemies. Doing so earns cash and with frenetic levels of screen-shake it soon descends into chaotic madness (the good kind!) Punching another player steals their hard-earned money, adding a cheeky competitive bite amidst the waves of enemies. It’s a testament to how easily parodying the 80s has become that Tango Fiesta treads a lot of the same ground as Mercenary Kings and Broforce yet still feels fresh, right down to the lovable spin on Robocop that is Bionic Cop (his armour made of bin-lids). It’s currently on Steam Early Access; I’d buy that for a dollar or ten!

These were the games we were lucky enough to try out at the marvellous Radius Festival. There were many, many more – from the 70s-inspired LA Cops to journalist Laura Kate Dale’s first foray into making games You Are The Reason – that deserve your attention as well. Luckily many of them appeared on the Radius livestream, their developers quizzed or, in the case of The Stanley Parable’s William Pugh, restrained. Finding such a celebration of individual expression and community in central London was a real pleasure. Here’s to next year!

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