Game On!

Italian indie developers in the limelight

In recent years, PC gaming has become more and more accessible, not only due to the pricing policies applied by the main digital retailer, Steam by Valve, but also thanks to the increase in power of low-end and mid-range computers.

This improved accessibility is obvious for final users, but the same can be said for creators too: Developing a video game for PC is now simpler than ever and requires a lot less technical investment than in years gone by. Walking around gaming exhibitions or indie (independent) developer gatherings, it’s always easy to find young people demonstrating their own games on a simple laptop, and often not the usual giants that we are used to seeing in the gaming sector. We’re no longer talking about the overused 2D puzzle platform with black silhouettes (without taking anything away from the unforgettable Limbo). Now many games are being rolled out with polygonal graphics, exploiting the technology afforded by the software houses that develop graphics engines, such as Epic Games with its Unreal Engine 4 or Unity Technologies with its namesake engine Unity.

Such a substantial development led AESVI, the association for Italian video game developers, to add a subdivision to its annual award, creating four categories grouped together under the name Drago D’Oro Italiano (Italian golden dragon). By scanning the nominees and winners, you can quickly get an idea of the situation in Italy and what developments might arise in the next few years.

Starting with the award for “Best Italian Video Game”, we see the 34BigThing team from Turin with the trophy in their hands for their game “Redout” — a game with a distinct resemblance to classics such as F-Zero and Wipeout, both of which have been hiding away with their respective consoles for far too long. In any case, we are talking about a game that has resonated with gamers worldwide, both for its heart-pounding gameplay and its particularly impressive graphics. Thanks to Unreal Engine and the work of the designers, Redout brings stunning scenery to the screen, guaranteeing both maximum fluidity and increased resolution, all without the need for the latest hardware. As if that weren’t enough, it’s also possible to play Redout while wearing virtual reality headsets compatible with SteamVR.

The winner of the award for “Best Technical Realization”, another category in the Drago D’Oro Italiano, was Valentino Rossi — no, not the man himself, but “Valentino Rossi: The Game”. The development house in this case is the far more well-known Milestone, who over the years has stood out from the crowd by choosing to develop high-budget video games without the support of a publisher. This is an important choice that on the one hand forces the company from Milan to reinvest a large part of its income in other products that offer guaranteed results, such as this MotoGP 16 game dedicated to Valentino Rossi and his story; but on the other hand, it allows Milestone to breathe life into new IPs that are born and grow internally, without being affected by outside factors.

Here, we’re talking about the two Ride games, characterized by the fact that they give players a free approach — something that we haven’t seen since Polyphony Digital’s Tourist Trophy. In addition, Milestone recently unveiled plans for Gravel, a game that will be the first large project to transition from their current internally-developed graphics engine to a personalised version of Unreal Engine.

During the awards ceremony held on March 16 at the Let’s Play video games festival in Rome, Fabiola Allegrone and Piero Dotti, founders and developers at Elf Games Works took to the stage to collect the award in the “Best Game Design” category for their game, Little Briar Rose. The game, inspired by the tale of Sleeping Beauty, received recognition for its classic adventure-style gameplay that also uses so-called roguelike mechanics, making the negative endings an integral part of the gameplay. But what stands out the most is the unique graphic style chosen: each element, whether in the background or one of the moving characters, is represented as a stained glass mosaic. Little Briar Rose is the sole award winner to use manually drawn, two-dimensional graphics — something that gives it a truly unique style that has never been seen before in the video games sector.

The final award, for “Best Artistic Realization”, went to LKA, a studio based in Florence. Their award-winning game, The Town of Light, impressed gamers around the world with its reproduction of a psychiatric hospital in Volterra. A relatively unknown Tuscan town until a few years ago, Volterra gained notoriety as a location in the Twilight series as well as becoming the set of the film sequel inspired by the Fullmetal Alchemist manga series.

The work done by LKA goes beyond the games which The Town of Light was to compared before its release, including games such as Dear Esther, Outlast and Sanitarium. It explores mental illness and insanity in a more profound, narrative way, without detracting from the horror-like atmosphere of the game. However, the award was received for the work done with the Unity engine to recreate a real setting within the gaming world, with continuous jumps between the present day and fascist Italy of the 1930s. It was painstaking work that in the past would have been difficult to achieve with a relatively small development team, like many of the teams that exist in Italy today.

The year 2017 started with a bang thanks to the release of the much-anticipated forma.8 from MixedBag. Completely drawn by hand, this two-dimensional action-adventure game is a unique take on the Metroidvania genre of the Super Nintendo era. Following on from Gemini_X and Futuridium EP Deluxe, the development team from Turin received great praise from the public and critics alike.

Another shining example of a game that looks to creatively exploit polygonal graphics, contrary to the trend of photorealism, is The Way of Life, which was born during the 2014 Global Game Jam with the theme “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” In this game, the player is faced with the same life experiences from three different points of view: a child’s, an adult’s and an old man’s. These three categories not only modify the narrative structure of the game, but also how the player identifies with the game, through modifications to the graphics and gameplay. The release of the complete version is expected around the end of this year, but you can take a sneak peek at the free version on Steam to get an idea of how the final game might look.

Another ambitious project being developed in Italy is Voodoo, from Turin-based developers Brain in the Box. They have created a seemingly strange mix that could be described as a combination of DayZ and Shadow of the Colossus with an African tribe. Set on the arid, sun-baked savanna, players have to fashion their own weapons to hunt animals and other players in a way that isn’t dissimilar to Bohemia Interactive’s DayZ, a game that has come to prominence in recent years. However, in Voodoo, there is a strong emphasis placed on creating a community, one that can come together if faced with an attack by other players, or to hunt giant enemies that have to be climbed in order to hit the weak point, just as Fumito Ueda intended in Shadow of the Colossus. It’s an important project not only in terms of the gameplay, but also from a technical perspective, given that it requires the presence of a server.

The list of contenders for the prizes awarded at the 2017 Drago D’Oro Italiano is becoming longer and longer, not only counting the titles mentioned above, but also taking into consideration as yet unreleased works from the ever-present development team from Rome, Storm in a Teacup, and the recently revealed Alaloth from Gamera Interactive, developed under the supervision of Chris Avallone. The number of projects that are primarily destined for the PC platform are once more highlighting how the world of video games is gradually moving away from consoles.

by Tommaso Valentini

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