PAX Indie Showcase

Nestled in the center of PAX East’s enormous expo floor, between AAA game demos and hardware booths, were two low rows of tables crowded with widescreen monitors and laptops. This was the Boston Indie Showcase, a collection of six games from Boston-area independent developers, selected from a pile of submissions. Their prize was exhibition space, and our prize was the chance to see these games, one of them—Fire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers—for the first time.

While Showcase winners Waker, Dearth, and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!– A Reckless Disregard for Gravity have all been available for some time, Meigakure and Slam Bolt Scrappers are still in production. Meanwhile, Turba was available for only hard-copy purchase during the show, but had its online release on Saturday, April 4th. These games run quite a gamut of genres and styles—Dearth and Waker are incredibly slick student flash games from the MIT Gambit Labs, while Turba, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Aaaaa! were developed by small production teams. Meigakure, on the other hand, is the result of Marc Ten Bosch’s individual labor. It was also an Excellence in Design finalist at the IGF this year.

The crowds were thick and the lines were long, so we split up to focus on different games and get the closest possible look at each. I focused on Meigakure, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Waker, while Laura tackled Dearth, Aaaaa!, and Turba. Here’s what we found…

Miegakure, Marc Ten Bosch

The PAX-East show floor is filled with bodies.  I huddle over an unfamiliar keyboard.  My head hurts, my stomach aches, and I do not know how to get the little man on the screen to the glowing Japanese gate.  I feel stupid and I glance around to see if anyone is watching me, judging me.  I have to fight the urge to stand up and leave—to move on to the next game so that no one discovers my intellectual ineptitude.  And then suddenly I know what to do—my forehead lifts with a flash of insight.  I shift some cubes around, I change dimensions and I’ve solved it!  Three hops and I am Rocky at the top of the stairs, I am Kasparov whispering ‘check mate’ to Deep Junior.  My imaginary onlookers mutter in awe.

If the mark of a good puzzle game is a headache followed by cathartic victory, then this is a damned good puzzle game.

Miegakure is a 4-D puzzle platformer.  Trying to explain the game’s mechanics makes me feel like Flatland’s A. Square struggling to describe the third dimension to the baffled 2-D King.  Suffice it to say, you solve puzzles by moving yourself and other objects through different worlds and spaces where several worlds coexist.  It makes you feel like you’re using a muscle you didn’t know that you had.  You don’t fight against the game so much as you struggle against your own mental limitations.

Mark Ten Bosch says that he’s at least a year from shipping.  I think I’ll preorder.

Slam Bolt Scrappers, Fire Hose Games

Tetris is fun and everything, but I’ve always thought that what it really needs is punching.  Fortunately, Firehose Games shares this line of thought: Slam Bolt Scrappers is a team Tetris brawler.    You play as a burly little guy with a funny hat and giant fists.  He uses these fists to punch miniature chubby Cthulhus with aviator hats, an action that is logically rewarded by the acquisition of colorful tetris blocks.  You then use these blocks to build a fort with shields and weapons—you have to destroy the other team’s structures while protecting your own.

Laura and I are the best people in the world at Slam Bolt Scrappers.  I know this because we beat a team that had one of the game designers on it, who was in no way going easy on us, ok?  The game started off really confusing, but as we figured out what was going on it started to be a lot of fun.  It’s fast paced and frenetic, but that fits with the game’s overall absurdity.  The part of our brain that we use to solve spatial puzzles is very different from the part that we use to punch people who are trying to solve spatial puzzles; frequently switching between these two activities leads to a unique and enjoyable experience.

Slam Bolt Scrappers has a lot of personality, but it unfortunately also has its faults.  For one thing, the four characters look so similar that it’s easy to lose track of which one you’re controlling and which ones you’re supposed to be punching.  The screen is so crammed with color, movement and explosions that your eye never knows what to focus on.  The backgrounds are way too sharp and saturated, so they only add to the clutter.

Still, though. Tetris. With punching.

Waker, MIT Gambit

Back in September everyone was talking about an interesting gaming experiment: the MIT GAMBIT lab had created the same game twice—once as a set of abstract actions, and once with a story layered over these actions.  The idea was to see how the presence of narrative affected the player’s experience of the game.

Five months later at PAX East, GAMBIT has removed the story-infused game, Waker, from the context of its abstract companion piece, Woosh.  This lack of context didn’t do Waker any favors, though, because Waker’s story feels like it was pasted over a finished game.

It begins with a long voiceover that tells me I have to save a little girl from being trapped in her dream.   I then proceed to the actual game and it has no relationship to this plot whatsoever.  The platforming is competent and sometimes even clever, but what does hopping around on little platforms have to do with saving a sleeping girl?  Why does it say “Wisp obtained!” whenever I clear a stage?  After each level I’m fed a little piece of voiceover, but I can skip even these by just walking off of the screen.

As an experiment, Waker and Woosh were intriguing.  On its own, though, Waker is just another decent platformer with a poorly implemented story.

Dearth, MIT Gambit

Dearth is unusual. Set in a desert landscape inhabited by tribal beings with fish for heads, its play focuses on enemy creatures which look uncomfortably like hairy water-balloons filled with sweat. They’ll chase you and your AI (or human) partner, and if you stop moving for even a moment with one of these animals on your tail, it will start to kill you. Your job is to keep moving, maneuvering into positions where you can smash your creatures into your partner’s, destroying them. It’s a game about movement, constant movement, but it’s also the kind of enjoyably frustrating puzzle that makes you want to take your hands off the controls and go find some scratch paper. If you do that, however, you’ll die: the game wants you to keep thinking on your feet and compensating for your mistakes on the fly.

In the loud and distracting PAX environment I found it extremely confusing, as did the strangers who played with me. Once I figured out the rules, though, the single-player game became too easy. The two-player game, with its crazily complex maps and the added human variable, is much more interesting. After PAX, I showed this game to some friends in a public space, and as we tried to figure out some of the tougher two-player stages we attracted quite a number of spectators. For a while they crowded around us, calling suggestions over our heads and laughing at our frequent mistakes. When a puzzle game can inspire that kind of moment-by-moment excitement, I’m impressed.

I’d recommend completing the single-player levels quickly, to get an idea of the strategy involved, then quickly finding someone to play with. It’s interesting but unsurprising to me that although Dearth was designed specifically to show off a slick AI implementation, it only really shines when you get another human’s hand on the keyboard with yours, and start solving the puzzles together.

Turba, Binary Takeover

Turba is a rhythm puzzle that uses a grid full of colored blocks. Like many other games based around a block grid, it challenges players to empty the grid by removing groups of like-colored blocks before the screen fills. Unlike other, similar games, it allows players to set the challenge with their own music. The beat of the chosen song controls the rate at which the blocks are added, and clicking with the beat will award more points. A faster song means faster blocks and, thus, higher difficulty.

It’s not a simple clear-contiguous-colors game, though. The one mode I was able to see rewarded the most points only if a player was able to clear groups from each of the four colors simultaneously. Because the player has the ability to swap columns, and because there’s an incentive to hold off cashing in the points until you’ve got a group from all four colors, there’s an interesting risk-reward struggle apparent in each moment of play—should I clear the blocks now, or wait to make a bigger combo? I failed songs several times because the screen filled while I was too busy swapping columns to notice. It’s much faster and more frantic than many other, similar games, and the developers have obviously been thinking about new ways to break puzzle-game tropes and make their game unique.

Perplexingly, the Turba devs were only selling hard copies of their game at PAX. Since then, however, they’ve had their online release, and are now selling downloads from their site, and have made a demo available. They’re also working on moving it to digital distribution hubs like Direct2Drive and Steam.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!—A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, Dejobaan Games

This game has been out for quite a while, and anyone interested in indie games has almost certainly heard about it before. Though Dejobaan won’t release sales numbers for it, it’s obviously been incredibly successful: it hit the top five Steam sales during its first week after release.

Kent and I attended a PAX panel titled ‘Indies Will Shoot You in the Knees: Why We Don’t Play Fair’ at which Dejobaan’s winningly enthusiastic Ichiro Lambe asserted, several times, that the game’s success stems from the sheer quantity of personal character that the developers crammed into it. He is absolutely right: as an expression of joyous individuality, it’s a masterpiece. After playing it for the first time, when the alpha came out last year, I felt as though I’d run into an insane genius at a crowded party and enjoyed a fleeting, absurd conversation before losing him in a crowd. Watching Ichiro talk at PAX was a similar experience.

It’s not a game to play alone, really. Play it by yourself, of course, but for every minute you huddle alone with it, promise yourself that you’ll spend another minute showing it to friends, or to your family, or to random strangers on the street. Not only will they think it’s incredible, but they’ll love you to death and assume you’re awesome for liking it. And you will be awesome. The entire game is about celebrating what an awesome, sassy person you are—at any rate, about celebrating the kind of person you become once you start leaping off of floating skyscrapers in a crazy world of neon lights and hilarious graffiti. It’s marvelous.

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