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Nous IGF.pngAwesome Shark Volcano brings identity-challenged artificial intelligence to life in its top-down arcade arena experience and IGF Student Showcase finalist Nous.

With the team's creation, they aim to bridge the gap between art-games and traditional titles. Nous is filled with reactive narrative, as the AI sorts its identity. The game also offers active play, where players bounce around the screen while racking up massive smash combos, and passive play, where players dodge and lead enemies to converters to make them allies.

Here producer/programmer Pohung Chen and game designer Brett Cutler speak about their freely downloadable title Nous. In particular, Cutler speaks of partly identifying as a "self-centered artist, full of himself but doubting his worth," and how this was channeled into the neuroses of the Nous itself.

What does Nous mean?

Brett Cutler, Game Designer: Nous (pronounced 'noose' or 'now-s') refers to a philosophical (Greek) term representing the ability of the mind to order and rationalize the world. Nous, the AI embodied in the game, can't decide what it is, and this drives the narrative - in each level, the AI proposes a purpose for itself and then rejects it, sometimes violently. You interact with Nous through your play style (you don't ever have to kill anything) and through dialogue trees.

So you, the player, by working through the game, build a model of Nous with your interactions and how you interpret it. Your experience of the game is the only place 'Nous' the character is ever alive. So your interpretation and ordering of this character literally defines it.

Now, the letters n-o-u-s are also the French word for 'you and I', or 'we'. Which makes Nous a poor title for internet searchability. But it also has a nice reflection of the themes of the game - you and the AI work together to build an experience.

In an industry where the biggest games have such clear identities and genres (Drake, Kratos, Mario, Sonic), how does a game with an ambiguous identity compete?

Brett: Short answer: poorly. Longer answer: fairly poorly. Obviously we have no grounds to complain about the reception our game has gotten, but I think we intended it to be more approachable than it is. I heard a fair amount of "Yeah, I've heard of it but I haven't played it." I don't think there's enough concrete material for potential players to latch onto - it's not a complicated game, but it doesn't have an aspect that slots easily into something players recognize. It's basically a top-down shooter, but because that's not obvious from pictures or video, and the story hook is hard to sell, we scare players off. Those first impressions are important, and I think we definitely stumbled on them.

On the other hand, if a player commits, I think we can give them a pretty deep cut. Nous is the type of game (personal, artistic, at times surprising) that can foster memories.

As a character, Nous isn't easy to sell. The AI doesn't have a face. It doesn't have a voice. It does, and it spits words. But it's not even consistent in its personality. What works, though, is that at the end players feel like they've gotten a personal experience. And when the pretence is dropped and we say, look, Nous is the farthest thing from a character, it's just bunch of words -- well, then players become more attached to it because they're all it has. The character feels real, but the world says it isn't - so the natural response is to cling harder, and treasure it more.

What served as inspiration for Nous?

Brett: The Coen Brothers' Barton Fink and Kanye West's My Beautfiul Dark Twisted Fantasy both occupied a lot of mind space at the time I was writing Nous. Both are about the self-centered artist, full of himself but doubting his worth - I identified with that. It helped me to put those fears and neuroses into the game and the character. It's messy but honest, I think.

There's a scene in Barton Fink where John Goodman runs down a hallway (the hallway is on fire), blasting away on a shotgun, shouting, "I"ll show you the life of the mind! I'll show YOU the life of the mind! I'll SHOW YOU the life of the mind!" That's what I want Nous to be.

Could you tell me about the team who worked on the game? Any notable previous game projects?

Pohung Chen: There were four of us who worked on Nous. I was a technical producer in charge of schedules, helping with playtest sessions, and making sure we ship on-time. I also wrote code for the game (mostly physics). Treb was our technical director, wrote the core engine, serialization, script binding and misc coding tasks. Brett was our game designer and gameplay programmer. He wrote most of our scripts and is in charge of the overall player experience. Jason was our graphics programmer and he made things pretty. We are all students at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA. Nous was our sophomore year project.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and tinkered with computers since I was a kid. Making games is cool because it is a product built by people from many different disciplines. There are so many unique challenges involved in shipping a game. I get to solve new and interesting problems everyday.

Brett: I grew up with a judgmental perspective and a desire to make things that were better than other things. I'm glad I'm making games, because it's almost as good as being an astronaut (Plan A). As a designer, I get to pretend I'm in charge. It's given me a great form of argument, the appeal to the game: "Guys, the game needs all these shaders. The game needs a completely different art style. The game is hungry, get me a sammich."

Pohung: And it is then my job to explain why we cannot do some of the crazy things Brett wants us to do, like getting him a sammich.

What development tools did you use? How long was the development cycle?

Pohung: We used Microsoft Visual Studio to manage and build our project. Most of our code is written in C++ with custom Lua binding as a scripting language to iterate on gameplay code. We're using DirectX 9 for graphics and FMOD for audio. Our engine is component-based and it deserializes composite game objects from XML files. We used Subversion for our source control. (We've gotten smarter since then and have all switched to Mercurial).

As for our production and development process, we had rigid milestones once a month as required by the DigiPen faculty. The instructors preached iteration for building great games. Unfortunately grades are due when they're due, so we are forced to build iterative processes within rigid, waterfall deadline structures. As much as we would like to go with the "we'll ship the game when it's done" approach, that option was not available to us.

We started on early ideas for our sophomore project and building our core engine technology early summer of 2010. We went through a bunch of vastly different ideas and mechanics hoping to stumble into something awesome. We didn't come up with the framing and theme of Nous until February of 2011. Once we did, we built early iterations of the game and the technology needed for it until the end of April. From there, three of us started moving onto new projects for our junior year. Brett continued to work on Nous and re-doing the writing and content for it until about October of 2011.

Brett: Caffeine. Sleep. Bravado.

Were there any notable advisors or external sources of help for the project?

Pohung: The environment at DigiPen is truly unique. We definitely could not have built Nous in isolation.

Playtesting was a big part of our process and we have a student-run organization that manages weekly playtesting for games being developed here at DigiPen. It was a really good avenue for seeing what people liked, what was stupid about what we built, and a conclusive decider on which ideas worked and which didn't. Playtesting is good for picking out ideas that work when the team is in conflict about which direction to go. You learn about implementation and execution as you build the game, but you have to watch real players interact with what you've built in order to have any validation that your game is engaging.

Our peers were also a great resource while building this game. Seeing other great games being built alongside us was incredibly energizing and encouraging. Watching some of the upperclassmen games being developed at the same time as Nous gave me a lot of insight on how other teams and games worked.

We have three instructors (Benjamin Ellinger, Chris Peters, Rachel Rutherford) that run all of the game projects classes at the sophomore and junior level. All three of them work tirelessly to make the structure of game class better and are often times helping out student teams late into the evenings. All three of them had a huge impact on the way we think about game design, technology, and team dynamics.

Brett: I'd like to thank everyone who sat down to play our game and told us it wasn't good enough. Because that's what drove us - it wasn't great, we were doing it wrong, we had to work harder. Eventually we exerted our way right into something kind of neat.

And don't stop telling us it's not good enough.

Why do you think your game deserves to win the Student Showcase?

Brett: Nous is clear and focused in its confusing messiness. It's an ultimatum to the player: Play Me, Or Maybe Don't, But I'd Prefer You Do. It's fun and sad. It asks the deep questions: do you like all these flashing lights?

Water cooler talk: why should the average gamer play your game?

Brett: Nous is an arty game, right, but it's not pretentious, and it tries to be a satisfying experience even to the player who skips past every piece of dialogue in the game (and there's a button to do that!). I don't want to see games with literary themes get shunted into their own ghetto - I want to see these messages get brought into a broader context. Nous is an experiment in bringing the goods while keeping the brains. A game is a game, in the end, and Nous works to keep that.

Play it. Marvel at the awesome graphics, make a lot of stuff blow up - it's pretty great! And when the screen goes dark, and you've got that time to think about what just happened, well, remember what Nous is.

What are some interesting things about your game that you haven't talked about before?

Brett: So the music in the game, the ambient rumbles and strings, were added literally the day we shipped. We had written several tracks in different styles across the iterations of the game, from when it was Dr. Gravity and the Invention of Gravity onwards, and the tracks weren't fitting completely with the Nous environment.

Then we remembered a program we had fiddled with months before, designed to get extremely slowed-down versions of sound files. Basically, the tool to make the music for Inception. It hadn't worked with our earlier concept but for Nous it was perfect - the menace, the fragments of almost-recognizable melody, the implication that time is slower within the world of the computer. We ran several classical music recordings through it and fragments of our old score and amazingly had found our soundtrack.

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In this video filmed during the 2011 Independent Games Festival, two finalists in the excellence in audio category relate their experiences attending the Game Developers Conference.

Danny Baranowsky was nominated for his music score for Super Meat Boy, and has since published the soundtrack to The Binding of Isaac. He will be joining a panel this year titled "The Indie Composer Speaks." Mattias Häggström Gerdt was selected as an IGF Awards finalist for the music of Cobalt, and has previously scored the Xbox Live Indie Game Kaleidoscope.

This year several indie summit talks on audio are scheduled to take place. They include The Dynamic Audio of Vessel" by Leonard J. Paul, "Build That Wall" by Darren Korb and "Music is Storytelling" by Austin Wintory. Further details can be found on the GDC schedule builder.

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The organizers of the 14th Annual Independent Games Festival -- the longest-running and largest festival relating to independent games worldwide -- are proud to announce another year of record entry numbers for IGF 2012's Main Competition.

In total, this year's Main Competition took in nearly 570 game entries from both leading indie developers and first-time entrants, a more than forty five percent jump over 2011's total entries. Entries for mobile hardware like the iPhone, iPad, DS, PSP and Android devices alone -- now fully integrated into the festival and eligible for their own unique Best Mobile Game award -- nearly doubled over the prior year, proving the platform's increasing importance for independent development.

Some of the titles entered in the IGF Main Competition this year include Ed Key and David Kanaga's Proteus, an adventure game that dynamically generates its ambient soundtrack as you explore, Waking Mars, the action-gardening game from former IGF Mobile winner Tiger Style, and Super T.I.M.E. Force, a time-twisting shooter from Critter Crunch, Clash of Heroes and Sword & Sworcery EP developer Capy.

In addition, a number of returning developers previously honored at the Independent Games Festival have entered new games including Prison Architect, a previously unannounced game from 2006 Seumas McNally Grand Prize winners Introversion, Jesus Vs Dinosaurs, an arcade game co-developed by Crayon Physics creator Petri Purho and two new games from the team behind 2007 Grand Prize winner Aquaria: Infinite Ammo's Alone and Spelunky, a revamped version of Mossmouth's cult favorite rogue-like platformer.

Other notable entries this year include ____ (Four Letter Word) from VVVVVV developer Terry Cavanagh, Storyteller, an experimental visual-narrative game from former Nuovo finalist Daniel Benmergui, and mobile debuts from a number of beloved indie regulars: Vlambeer's Ridiculous Fishing, Rockfish, from Cave Story creator Daisuke 'Pixel' Amaya, and English Country Tune from Stephen 'Increpare' Lavelle.

In-depth information and entrant-provided screenshots and videos are now available on IGF.com for careful perusal of all titles from entrants both established and those making their first appearance at the festival.

"The continued growth of both the Independent Games Festival and of independent games as a cultural force is incredibly heartening," said festival chairman Brandon Boyer. "The diversity -- and the plain overwhelming number -- of entries in the festival this year is proof positive that we're in the midst of a true renaissance in games history."

This year's IGF entries will be distributed to more than 150 notable industry judges for evaluation, and their highest recommendations passed on to a set of discipline-specific juries for each award, who will debate and vote on their favorites, before finalists are announced in January 2012.

In turn, winners will be awarded on stage during the IGF Awards ceremony during the Game Developers Conference 2012 in San Francisco next March, and all finalists in the Main Competition (including the art-centric Nuovo Award) and the Student Showcase (which is due for submission by October 31st) will be showcased in the IGF Pavilion on the GDC Expo Floor from March 7th-9th, immediately following the 5th Annual Independent Games Summit on March 5th and 6th.

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igfchina1.jpgThe Independent Games Festival China
has announced the Main Competition and Student finalists for its third
annual awards ceremony celebrating the most innovative indie and student
games from throughout the Pan-Pacific area.

This year, the finalists offer an extremely broad range of game types and genres, from action brawlers like Pixel May Cry to mobile arcade titles like Super Sheep Tap, with developers hailing from throughout China and its surrounding regions.

Drawing from a prize pool totaling 45,000 RMB (roughly $7,000), IGF
China's Main Competition will give away five distinguished awards,
covering Excellence in Audio, Technology, and Visual Arts, as well as
the Best Mobile Game and Best Game awards. In addition to the prestige
and prizes, winners will also receive two All-Access Passes for the upcoming GDC 2012 in San Francisco.

Alongside IGF China's Main Competition, the ceremony will also host
the Student Competition, which honors six of the top regional student
games, with teams hailing from DigiPen Singapore, the China Central
Academy of Fine Arts, and more.

This part of the competition includes two awards -- for Best Student
Game and Excellent Student Winners -- and offers roughly 13,000 RMB
(roughly $2,000) in cash prizes.

Winners in both competitions will be chosen by a panel of expert jurors including Kevin Li (CEO, TipCat Interactive), Monte Singman (CEO, Radiance Digital Entertainment), Xubo Yang (director of digital art lab and assistant professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University's School of Software), Haipeng Yu (producer, Tencent Shanghai), and jury chairman Simon Carless, IGF Chairman Emeritus and EVP of the GDC shows and Gamasutra.

This year's IGF China will take place on November 12, 2011 alongside
GDC China, which will be held at the Shanghai Convention Center in
Shanghai, China.

Here are the finalists for this year's IGF China:

Main Competition

Billy Makin Kid!, by SLAB Games, Indonesia [Website, Video]

Clay's Reverie, by SuperGlueStudio, China [Video]

FTL (Faster than Light), by Matthew Davis & Justin Ma, China [Website]

One Tap Hero, by Coconut Island Studio, China [Video]

Pixel May Cry, by Feng Li, China [Video]

Pocket Warriors, by WitOne Games, China [Website, Video]

Super Sheep Tap, by aBit Games, China [Website, Video]

The Line HD, by Ant Hive Games, China [Website, Video]

Student Competition

Nanobytes, by Singapore Polytechnic School of Design Splat Studios, Singapore [Video]

Pixi, by DigiPen Institute of Technology, Singapore [Website, Video]

Robotany, by Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, Singapore [Website]

Shadow Fight, by China Central Academy of Fine Arts, China [Video]

Terra: the Legend of the Geochine, by DigiPen Institute of Technology, Singapore [Website, Video]

Void, by DigiPen Institute of Technology, Singapore [Website, Video]

In addition to the awards ceremony, GDC China will also host its own dedicated Independent Games Summit, which offers a host of lectures
covering some of the most pertinent issues in independent development,
featuring speakers such as thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen, Supergiant
Games' Amir Rao, and more.

To attend either the IGF China awards ceremony or the Independent
Games Summit, interested parties can register for a GDC China pass on the event's official website -- see site for more details on deadlines and restrictions.

For more information on GDC China as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC China website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC China is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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Have you ever played one of those 'spot the differences' sort of games? Yeah, the kind where there are two screens and you must pick out the tiny variations in the image? VOID somehow reminds me of those things but, at the same time, not quite.

A student project from DigiPen, VOID is an unusual take on the puzzle genre. I'm not really sure how else to describe it. So, do yourself a favor and watch the trailer.

For those interested in the scant information available about the game, you can check it out here.

(P.S: If the developers or anyone who might know them see this, please do touch base with me!)

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[Every week GameSetWatch editor-in-chief Eric Caoili rounds up the latest news/media for obscure and offbeat games from Gamasutra's sister site and alternative video game blog.]

Over at our recently resdesigned alt video game blog GameSetWatch, we shared a number of curious stories during the past week, including highlights and incredible matches from last weekend's Evo2K11 tournaments, basketball players turned into King of Fighter characters, and more.

GameSetWatch's highlights from the last week:

Latif Wins SSFIV At Evo For America Without Actually Winning - Summing up the Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition results from last weekend's Evo2K11 tournament, GameSetWatch covers the intense competition from the finals, Daigo "The Beast" Umehara's downfall, and how the U.S. got its groove back.

Evo's MvC3 Highlight Matches: Crazy Upsets, 8-Year-Old Hulks Dudes' Faces Off - GameSetWatch collects videos for the biggest comebacks and craziest matches from Evo2K11's Mavel vs Capcom 3 tournament, including a couple matches from the 8-year-old gamer that managed to fight his way into the top 48 out of more than a thousand players.

The King Of Fighters: Basketballs On Fire - I'm not entirely sure what the story is here, but this project features a who's who of current NBA superstars, past legends, and assorted guests -- all mocked up as characters from King of Fighters and other fighting games. Larry Bird as Geese Howard! Shaq as Chang Koehan! "Beeonce" as Morrigan!

Atomic Bomberman Secretly Cusses Up a Storm - The 1997 PC game Atomic Bomberman, aside from being one of the very worst Bombermen in existence, happens to host a number of hidden and not-safe-for-work voice samples that would easily turn the KA-rated game into an M-for-Mature sort of affair, had the ESRB been notified.

Fan-Made Ouendan Sim Osu! Released for iOS - While precious few games were released in Nintendo's Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan series (including the localized sequel Elite Beat Agents), fans have taken it upon themselves to recreate the franchise's energetic rhythm gameplay in osu!, a free-to-play simulator for PCs. An iOS version, osu!stream, was released as a free download in the App Store this week.

The Kinect Driven Hyper(Reality) System - Graphic and interactive designer Maxence Paranche has created a device that explores theories pertaining to hyperrealism with the help of the Kinect. Called the Hyper(Reality) System, a person wears a helmet that has zero visibility. Instead, the outside world is seen though high definition video glasses. And all of its information comes from sensors attached to a glove, which is powered by the Kinect.

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cuboy.jpgCuboy Hot Pants is a simple and very silly game about charging down the side of an erupting volcano. As you pelt down the mountain, the path will be covered in dangerous lava, power-ups, combo-enhancers and more.

Each step you take requires you either press left, right or middle. Hence, the idea is to simply look ahead and work out where the path is clear. At first it's pretty easy, as you can just keep hitting left until you see lava on the left, then keep hitting right instead. But as more obstacles and dangers are added, it quickly becomes apparent that you'll need to slow it down and really think about where you're jumping.

Pretty amusing, and good for filling a spare 5-10 minutes. Cuboy Hot Pants can be played at AGame.com.

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