The lesser-known games that won my heart at E3

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    E3 is quite possibly gaming’s biggest annual event, and this year’s E3 was very different. There were no in-person demos, conferences or media coverage, but the virtual events were impressive nonetheless. It’s no surprise that Nintendo’s E3 Direct was full of exciting announcements nor is it all that shocking that the joint Xbox-Bethesda conference was jam-packed. But what truly won me over this year was the mountain of indie games. The second annual Wholesome Direct, dedicated to cheerful indie games, was incredible, and there were some fresh faces in larger conferences as well. Fortunately for me, many of these games had demos available on Steam and other platforms. Some I got to play, some I didn’t, but here are the games that impressed me the most:

    Teacup

    “Teacup” is the first game from developers Smarto Club, whose tagline is “developer of friendly games.” Based on the demo, this game will certainly live up to that promise. “Teacup” is a non-linear adventure game about a tea-loving frog gathering ingredients for a tea party. Gameplay consists of a variety of minigames with lots of dialogue in between each roundgame. The demo was relaxing and filled with calming music, charming characters and a gorgeous storybook art style. The game releases at a currently unknown date later this year, and when that date comes I look forward to exploring more of Teacup the frog’s uniquely-styled world. Perhaps it’s time for less Mario Party and more froggy tea party. 

    Arietta of Spirits

    “Arietta of Spirits” is an adventure game with a retro art style reminiscent of “Stardew Valley,” featuring a highly emotional narrative, great music and gameplay similar to early entries in the Legend of Zelda series. Sure the game isn’t exactly anything we haven’t seen before, but the art style is crisp and fluid and wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. The game is equal parts cozy and mysterious, and the demo’s cliffhanger ending left me even more excited to get the game on release day. 

    Tunic

    Speaking of the Legend of Zelda series, Andrew Shouldice’s “Tunic” is a minimalist “Link’s Awakening” in which you play as a fox. Combat is simple to grasp, and the toy-like graphics are sleek, but what is most satisfying is the game’s sense of discovery. I was driven to explore every nook and cranny possible in the demo in order to find weapons, defeat varied enemies and search a range of settings for useful items.

    Bear and Breakfast

    Oh, to be a bear wandering through the woods, free of responsibilities — except for reviving a long gone resort. This game is a charming, cozy management simulation in which you (as Hank the bear) help an old woman named Barbara rebuild the forest resort you stumble upon with your woodland friends. The demo was adorable and very easy to play. If the lack of “Animal Crossing” updates is getting to you, or your Sims addiction has lessened, “Bear and Breakfast” appears to be on track to scratch that wholesome designer itch. 

    Play as a grape named Concord in ‘Garden Story.’ This image is from the official website of Rosecity Games.

    Garden Story

    Releasing later this summer, “Garden Story” is an adventure game about a young grape, Concord, bringing together their community to defend against the threatening force Rot. Although I was unable to play it, a demo released last year received glowing reviews from multiple outlets, and developer Picogram has been putting even more detail into the social interactions between characters since.  The day I’m able to hop on my Switch to be a jolly little grape playing the flute and saving their friends will truly be a day of peak joy, and I encourage everyone to share in this joy with me.

    Beacon Pines

    In this narrative adventure, you play as both the main character, a young deer named Luka, and the reader of the storybook in which Luka’s journey unfolds. The demo showed off the game’s beautiful hand-drawn style and its unique choose-your-own-adventure gameplay. Key decisions in the story can be changed by inserting different words into the storybook; however, you must collect those words (known as charms) while playing as Luka to use them. Being a huge fan of visual novels, “Beacon Pines” immediately piqued my interest, because I’m not just playing the novel — I’m writing it.

    Yokai Inn

    Despite still being in the early stages of development, I perked up immediately when this game was showcased. “Yokai Inn” is a life sim inspired by the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing series, and similar to many other games above it has a retro art style. This game looks like a peaceful autumn escape with adorable side characters and plenty of items to craft and buy. The atmosphere of the trailer feels like cozying up with a blanket and having a cup of tea with friendly magical beings, so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for development updates.

    Hoa

    This 2D puzzle-platformer caught my attention not only due to the range of beautiful settings in the game trailer but also because the magical bug-like creatures inhabiting each setting instilled a sense of childhood wonder. Based on the trailer, “Hoa” appears to be a slower-paced “Ori and the Blind Forest.” However, unlike “Ori” — the combat of which led to an inordinate amount of frustrating deaths during my playthrough — this game is specifically designed to be a “breezy and meditative experience,” according to developers Skrollcat Studio. Although there was not a demo for “Hoa,” its August 24th release date is quickly approaching, and I’m planning on being there on day one to finally experience this emotional story of a fairy regaining her memories.

    It’s refreshing to see indies being given the same spotlight at conventions as the major players like Xbox and Nintendo. Indie developers are putting out innovative and experimental games that might not have a chance at a large studio, but as showcased by the handful of games above, they clearly deserve the spotlight for their out-of-the-box ideas and buckets of charm. The biggest draw toward these games is the clear love and joy that was put into them, which shows through their unique stories and styles. All but one of the above games was made by less than five people, and I want to support that level of passion as much as I can. Not only are these games full of passion, but they’re also very accessible. These are games designed with everyone in mind, not just hardcore gamers. Of course, not every indie game is a feel-good experience, but after a stressful, uncertain year and a half, it’s heartwarming to see so many games born out of happiness.

    Daily Arts writer Harper Klotz can be reached at hkklotz@umich.edu.

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