The emcee of the Experimental Gameplay Sessions, Jonathan Blow, said that there were 60 submissions this year, a new high. Between that and the unending crowds around the Independent Games Festival booths, it seems like the audience for different kinds of games has really taken off. (Now I just wish there was a label other than “indie games” or “art games” for this stuff, so that I could keep my eye-rolling reflex from kicking in whenever I talk about them.)

Here are the presentations I managed to see:

“Unfinished Swan:” A blank white space whose walls are exposed only by the black paint you splash on it with your paintball gun. The way the space is gradually revealed gives the game a great sense of instant mystery.

“Shadow Physics:” Your avatar is a 2D character, but the space you move through is determined by the shadows cast onto the wall by 3D objects. You can manipulate the light sources to change the way shadows are projected, creating platforms and paths for the shadowy avatar to run and jump across. It seems like one of those games that completely twists your perception of space, like Portal or Crush. The miracle of those games is how natural the mechanics seem once you recover from the initial shock; hopefully, “Shadow Physics” will be the same way.

“Meigakure:” Another perception-wrenching game, this time a “4D” platformer. Games like Crush and Fez squash three-dimensional spaces down to two, and inflate two to three. Meigakure inflates 3D space to some sort of crazy 4D hyperspace. You know what I just said about games immediately feeling natural and simple? I don’t get that impression from this one.

“Spy Party:” A vaguely Werewolf-ish asymmetric game. One player is a sniper, looking down into a room where a bunch of partiers are mingling; the sniper has to figure out which of the partiers is a spy that needs to be assassinated. The other player is the spy, trying to complete certain missions (talk to a contact, retrieve a secret item) while not exposing themselves amidst the other partiers (who are all AI).

Unfortunately, I had to bail out of the experimental session early, so I didn’t get to see any more games than those. (I hear “Achron” is one to keep an eye on.) Fortunately, I was ditching so that I could go see Nicole Lazzaro talk about some different kinds of gameplay, namely massively social games.

Lazzaro builds off of her hard/easy/social/serious typology of fun to explore the ways in which social games create rapidly spreading emotional value for their players. Much of the talk revolved around the need to create and expose affordances for players to get into a game, to play it, to interact with each other, to spread the word about it. This attitude of minimizing friction extends to the core game design, the distribution channels, and even the monetization models (there’s a reason free-to-play and freemium are so big right now).

One bit that really jumped out at me was a slide that said in bold type: “Friendship ≠ Money,” and below it: “why social capital must die.” Rather than seeing relationships as some sort of rational exchange that can be reduced to economic equations, and social bonds as contractual commitments, social games can play with other ways of building bonds between people. The free and asymmetric flow of social tokens (gifts, pokes, advice, etc.) can inspire greater reciprocity than the forced grouping and competition of more hardcore games, and lead to a gift culture in which social bonds are strengthened through open support rather than obligation. Like those experimental physics games, it’s another one of those ideas that messes with your preconceptions, but seems totally natural once you open yourself to it.