Visiting the Fantastic Fest Arcade

I almost stumbled upon Fantastic Fest completely by accident. Even though I'm on the fabled Alamo Drafthouse newsletter, I somehow missed the fact that there was a big, dorky exhibition going on just down the street from me in late September. At first I assumed it was only a film festival, but then I heard about the Fantastic Fest Arcade: a small, free exhibition of indie games.

These weren't just obscure tech demos or proof-of-concept exhibits, although those would've been cool too. There were some big-name games and developers on-site, including Polytron's upcoming 3D-meets-2D platformer, Fez, and thatgamecompany's (Flow, Flower) upcoming experimental cooperative game, Journey. And a game called Octodad about a "loving father, devoted husband, [and] secret octopus."

So of course I had to go.

The event, hosted at the Highball, was split into two pretty clearly delineated spaces. The larger space near the entrance was dominated by Sony PR, which was showing off a number of its upcoming indie releases. I checked out Papo & Yo, a clever-looking puzzle-platformer, and a cool black-and-white puzzle game about controlling light sources – I can't remember the name for the life of me. It reminds me of an old Flash game I played on Newgrounds years ago, and if I had to guess, I'm pretty sure the same team is behind this one too.

There were about a dozen games on display, including Starhawk for some reason, but from my point of view, Journey stole the Sony show.

I didn't get a chance to play, unfortunately, but my friend Chris was able to sit down for a solid 20-minute session with the game. My observations echoed his experiences: It's a beautiful and abstract experience that manages to be compelling and not alienating. The art style, from the sharp lines of the player characters to the hypnotic, drifting sands of the wasteland, is distinct and instantly memorable. As for how it plays? It was hard to tell, but Chris seemed impressed with the simple, two-button design.

What excites me so much about Journey is that it's trying to deliver an authentic and rewarding cooperative experience, and it's doing so by cutting out all traditional means of communication. There's no IMing or voice chat to be found; instead, you have a button you can press to make your character sing, and depending on how you press it, your tone – and your message – will change. Like Flow and Flower, there's no text to be found in Journey. I consider Flower to have one of the most powerful messages of any game I've ever played, so I'm thrilled to see thatgamecompany continuing to pursue simple and potent experiences.

There's also a back area in the Highball where the indie arcade lives. It was a small, dark, dense and murky space with arcade cabinets clustered close together – just like the arcades of my youth. Custom-built cabinets housed each of the games on display. Some of the highlights include Haunted Temple Studios' clever tactical strategy game, Skulls of the Shogun, and Jesus vs. Dinosaurs, a bizarre Tetris-meets-Battlebots competitive game that pits Jesus against Charles Darwin as they race to build bizarre creatures of destruction.

It was weird.

I also was lucky enough to play through the demo for Fez. I don't know what I can possibly say about the game that isn't communicated in the panoramic screenshots [LINK] they've been releasing, but I was surprised just how many ambient details there are in that game. Its minimalist, pixelated world is brimming with personality. Each area is populated with expressive critters and detailed foliage. I can tell it's going to be one of those rare games where I'll want to savor every moment as I play through it.

Overall, there was just an inspiring amount of creativity on display, and seeing all those games presented with such care was wonderful. If anything, it rekindled my passion for game design in a big way. But there's one game in particular that stood out and delivered something totally unexpected: Deep Sea.

Deep Sea is a game unlike anything you've ever played.

You see that gas mask? It fits snugly over your face and blinds you. Noise-canceling headphones cover your ears, which means the only sense you're left with to play the game is sound.

You're deep under water and being stalked by an enemy, and you have to rely on sonar to detect your assailant before it's too late. And as if the sensory deprivation wasn't enough, there's another catch: microphones in the mask detect when you're breathing and pipe a very natural-sounding breathing noise into your headphones.

What that means is that the joystick you use to aim left and right is incidental. The real control – the key to winning the game – is to control your nerves and time your breathing in order to pick up on critical audio clues.

I don't know how long I stood there playing Deep Sea, but I've never had such a powerful escapist experience. The sensory deprivation effect was absolute.

It's unfortunate that I'll probably never get to play it again, but wow. Someone actually made this game – a game that delivers an experience unlike anything else in the world. If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.