On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.
This past weekend I spent an inordinate amount of time walking, reading subway maps and fiddling with my Pokéwalker. The first annual Penny Arcade Expo East was held in Boston and I was, of course, in attendance as I cannot manage to keep myself away from these things. And while on the show floor, I considered it my mission, my responsibility even, to play each and every independent game I could get my filthy mitts on while there.
And I so did. I managed to drag my tired body through the expo hall a great many times in order to play everything I possibly could. Before the article goes any further, I’d like to apologize to the creators of Miegakure. When I came past the booth, people were playing, the game was down or I was on my way to another appointment. I was unfortunately unable to play it so I feel like I somehow let the ball drop. But I did watch it for a good deal of time and feel like I got a grasp of what the game was about.
But even though I managed to miss Miegakure, I did find the time and energy to play (deep breath): Slam Bolt Scrappers, Dearth, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, Waker, Turba, Shank, Charlie Murder and The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. As well as a huge smattering of mainstream titles of which none will be discussed here.
But what kind of impression did all these games leave on me, in total? Well, it further cemented the idea in my head that indie games are necessarily quirky and their creators are, for the most part, human in nature. The product of the minds of a very small group of people tends to be more specifically unique than one that requires a bureaucratic entity to govern it and even indie developers want to play the next biggest game.
But those are all broad, general statements. The specifics are of far more interest to you, Constant Reader, so get to them I shall. The first annual PAX East was actually host to their very own Boston Indie Showcase, which collected a number of local indie developers together to show off their games. The first six in my list above, Slam Bolt Scrappers, Dearth, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, Waker, Turba and Mieagakure all sat together in a little circle near the edge of one of the halls. And, besides the previously mentioned Mieagakure, I played all of them over the course of the convention.
Of the six, the first I managed to get some time in with was AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! by Dejobaan Games. If you don’t already know what the game’s about, you’ve clearly not been kept up to snuff on indie game news. Sufficed to say, it’s been out for a bit and has garnered some positive reviews. If you haven’t played already, you really should.
In the game, you fling yourself from the top of a building of some sort and try to accomplish a number of tasks on the way down before gracefully landing in a predetermined zone. Hugs, kisses, flipping the bird and giving thumbs up to different sections of the level will net a varying amount of points depending on your timing. Like old-school arcade games, the point is to get as many as you possibly can. It’s fun, has huge replay value and one of the developers mentioned, off-hand, that he must have been drunk when coding one of the levels. I wasn’t actually sure if he was joking, but I like to think he wasn’t. It’s way more amusing that way.
After AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! came Dearth and then Waker. I lump the two together here as they were both developed by MIT Gambit Game Lab. If you can’t already tell, this means that both games have somewhat ulterior motives: academia. It’s all so ingrained, however, that you’d be hard-pressed to know that they were trying to gather data if they didn’t tell you so up front.
Dearth is full of sketched out Egyptian or Mayan imagery wherein you and a partner can control tiny fish people and run around in circles attempting to get the water beasts chasing you to crash into each other. You heard me. The express intent of the game is to reach the next level but the game is actually trying to gather data on how to make artificial intelligence. I’m not entirely certain how it works, but it does. And my playing through of a couple of levels with another human, dubbed Random Stranger #117, further proved to me that having two brains trying to solve one puzzle at the same time leads to confusion, hilarious confusion that has only bad consequences.
The second of the two MIT games, Waker, has two versions: one with and one without narrative. Otherwise, they’re exactly the same. The idea is to see if gaming narrative actually helps engage children and have them learn easier. The game follows a little black shadow of a thing with a tail as it tries to make it from one end of a stage to another. Imagine Braid but instead of time puzzles, it all depends on how fast your little creature is moving. The intent is to help kids learn about velocity and all that good stuff on a mostly observational level. See how it works, understand it better and therefore be able to use the concepts more easily later. You run, and drop the orb when you want to solidify the line you’ve created so you can traverse it to the next stage.
Turba by Keith Morgado was the second-to-last game I gave a go. It’s reminiscent of Bejeweled and a number of other puzzle games that have you match three but it has one little twist: the puzzle moves to the beat of whatever mp3 you happen to have available. Keith was luckily at the station as I began my play to Gorillaz, as I’m not exactly a puzzle game junkie, as he explained to me some of the more specific functions like clicking three of a couple different colors to knock them out at the same time and so on. I’ve never played a single one of them before so this was all new to me. After helping me to actually play the game, he admitted that he’d made the entire game in his room and that, due to using the player’s music, it avoided any copyright infringement. Either way, my time with Turba went entirely too quickly, but the timing just so happened to coincide with the line ceasing to exist in the booth right next door.
And that was rather fortuitous as the line had been going strong since the first day I’d put my eyes on it. Fire Hose Games had brought the best of the litter and the line to play proved it. They’d brought Slam Bolt Scrappers. The gameplay is an intoxicating mixture of a simple fighting game with a large dose of Tetris and some influences from the tower defense genre. You beat up enemies which then turn to a colored Tetris block, which you then drop on your team’s area in order to build up towers of the same color. Red makes rockets, purple makes lasers and blue makes some kind of shielding mechanism. The point of the game is to decimate your opponent’s tower and destroy their gold-rimmed blocks.
And goodness, did I destroy some blocks. I was teamed with an odd fellow who only spoke in broken English so we communicated almost entirely through yelps of joy and high-fives. The opposing team was composed of two middle-aged women. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Our first match started and me and my English-butchering partner won within three minutes. Our opponents had thought they were supposed to beat our two avatars up, not build a tower to beat our tower. The developers even let us play another round which wound up being pretty similar.
In the end, each game was quirky, imaginative, interesting, surprisingly addicting and just plain fun. After watching a good deal of Mieagakure, I can safely say the same of it as well. If these are the kinds of indie games we have to look forward to in the future, the future sure looks bright. Here’s to the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle at the end of the year and its, hopefully, equally amazing lineup of indie titles.