Amid all the giant booths and AAA titles demanding our attention at PAX Prime, it’s easy to miss the smaller, indie titles nestled away in the corners and nooks and crannies of the expo hall… which is a shame, as some of the best and brightest people are doing amazing work! Luckily, PAX does do its best to celebrate these unsung heroes; thus the PAX 10, a yearly collection of some of the best indie titles in development and release. I interviewed many of this year’s developers about their games, and on top of the usual long-form questions, I asked them each to describe their game in exactly ten words. Of course, now none of them will ever speak to me again, so in penance, I’ve given my own 10 word opinion as well as an indepth coverage of the full interview. There was some incredible stuff this year, so let’s get started!
Like Worms or Scorched Earth? So did Peter Angstadt, and he’s made a clever marriage of RTS and 2D action strategy with his game, Cannon Brawl. “RTS is fun, games with destructible terrain are fun, so why not make a game with them?” he said by way of explaining his inspiration. The format feels familiar – build towers and units and blow the living crap out of your opponent – but Angstadt turns it up a notch by making the whole thing real-time instead of turn based, resulting in a much more frenetic pace. You control an airship floating over the battlefield which drops buildings to fortify your position and smash your opponent; while there is currently no airship-to-airship combat, there are plenty of devilish fortifications that do anything from fire cannonballs to erect shield arcs that can withstand enemy barrage. Once the game really gets going, the battlefield can look like swiss cheese with shields arching everywhere and projectiles sailing through the air.
The UI is incredibly user friendly and has a cheerful, open feeling to it that makes it easy for new players to dive right in without feeling put off by SERIOUS RTS BUSINESS. The storyline is currently in a very funny and cute iteration and involves a princess trying to save her brother from their evil uncle (no, seriously, the brother yells, “It’s our evil uncle!”) The writing is super simple and “on the nose” but it completely works with the silly and colorful tone of the game. Angstadt promises that the campaign mode will ease newbies into the bluster of realtime (and it certainly seemed straightforward when I played). There’s a local multiplayer mode, with potential online multiplayer coming later.
Cannon Brawl is slated to come out in approximately four to five months for Xbox and PC. If adorable 2D buildings blowing the ever living heck out of each other sounds right up your alley, definitely check it out.
Peter’s 10 Words: 2D Action Strategy with destructible terrain. Command airships, shoot cannons!
M’s 10 Words: Sample line of dialogue: “It’s our evil uncle!” SO AWESOME!
The next game on the list also has its share of frenetic pace, albeit of a different kind. Catch-22 was created by Roel Bartstra, Marlon Etheredge and Guus Hoeve at a 2 day European Game Jam (a fourth team member, Sander Brattinga, left after the Game Jam was complete). The theme was Ouroborous, the serpent that eats its own tail; “we wanted something that bites you in the ass,” Guus and Marlon said with a laugh. The game concept is extremely simple. You control one of two small orbs circling a larger sphere, not unlike an electron floating around an atom’s nucleus. Once you collect all of the golden tokens, you switch to the other orb to do the same thing… only this time, you must avoid the “ghost” of your previous orb as it repeats the same path you took. Crash into each other, and game over!
It may be simple, but it’s certainly compelling; I had trouble putting it down. It’s also interesting to see how deep a theme it really became. A game made in 48 hours in a rush has now gained a meta-narrative about avoiding yourself and eventually being confronted with your own mistakes (why oh why did I jump five times in a row?). Guus said, “After Game Jam, we realized such a simple game had so many layers.” Luckily, the game is still remarkably soothing with a sweet pink and purple color scheme and soft, gentle piano serenading you as you slam face first into yourself. “Nothing in the game to frustrate the player,” Marlon explained, “only the player frustrates themselves.”
Catch-22 will be available for free on Facebook at the beginning of September, iOS in 2 weeks, and Android some time near October.
Their 10 Words: In this game, YOU suck. That’s enough. And that’s it.
M’s 10 Words: Lovely soothing experience hiding a devilish mechanic.
“Oh no,” I hear you say, “not ANOTHER zombie game.” Zombies certainly seem to be the rage, but there isn’t really a zombie game quite like Containment. In a sort of weird mix of Night of the Living Dead meets Bejeweled, players must confront grids full of zombies and various zombie-killing human – policemen, army men, scientists and punks – and switch those humans around (via clicking or tapping) so as to surround the zombies with the same type of human. As art and animation lead Mat Staltman explained, the original inspiration was to make a game similar to Go in terms of mechanics; “the zombies came later,” he joked. Still, it’s an incredibly compelling integration of the concept thanks to the interactive environments and unique powerups. As your humans manage to surround and kill zombies, you receive various booster items such as a sniper rifle (perfect for one zombie kills) or Molotov cocktails (for wreaking firey havoc on multiple targets). The campaign mode actually has a storyline delivered cleverly via white text floating above the cityscape as the camera pans from puzzle to puzzle, and the effect is more cinematic than you’d expect. One really interesting element is how the player can use or blow up set parts of the landscape in order to clear large swaths of the board; for example, in the demo, I brought down the overpass and not only crushed a large number of zombies but a fair number of humans as well. Is this some sort of clever commentary on the cheapness of human life and the reduction of people into mere tools via the usually benign elimination effects of a puzzle game? “Not really,” Mat said. “It was just a fun game mechanic.”
Containment can currently be purchased for iPad or PC.
Mat’s 10 Words: Containment the zombie puzzler: the puzzle game that bites back.
M’s 10 Words: A zombie game I actually want to play. Who knew?
Deity is a student project from an 8 person team at Digipen; Ryan Chew and Caroline Sugianto were on hand to show off their work. Heavily influenced by Arkham Asylum as well as Assassin’s Creed, Diablo and Torchlight, Deity is an isometric stealth game which revolves around a teleporting demon and only uses the mouse. According to Ryan, “We wanted to try and streamline the controls and make it easy.” They certainly succeeded; while the first few minutes are spent in confusion, the teleporting mechanics soon feel like second nature and you’re BAMFing around the stage like a pro. The hero of Deity, a nameless demonic creature, has the ability to shift into things such as torches, gargoyles, and even people. He’s harmed by light, however, and the mysterious forces patrolling the stage all have glowing shields! The player has to move intelligently from place to place without attracting the attention of the guards, then finish them off by teleporting into them from behind.
Deity may not boast the same graphic quality as some of the other titles on display – it clearly wears its “student project” badge with pride – but the aesthetics are really compelling, even more so because there is clearly a rich world here but very little narrative to go with it. Ryan said that the team spent more time making the game fun rather than concentrating on the story, but they still developed it enough between them to slip in tantalizing hints and to come up with a very strong vision of angels, demons, templars and temples. It was a hard road – the game idea changed constantly and there were inevitable team conflicts – but the results were really interesting. Mind you, I might just be too easily amused by BAMFing from a brazier into a guard’s chest.
Deity can be downloaded for free at their website.
Their 10 Words: Deity just might be the best stealth action game. Woohoo!
M’s 10 Words: Once you get the idea, it’s fast, smooth, and satisfying.
This little gem by Douglas Wilson has really gotten a lot of attention from the indie circuit. The concept is very similar to the sorts of games we played in the schoolyard as kids, games like Freeze Tag. The players all hold a Playstation Move controller in a steady, vertical position. The other players will attempt to jostle or move your controller, knocking you out of the game with some cute explosion sound effects. To add another level to the game, the controllers all play a sample of the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach; when the music plays slowly, the players must be cautious as the slightest movement can trigger their controller to fail, whereas when the music plays at high speed, it becomes a free-for-all as people dash around to try and knock each other out of play.
Why Bach, though? Douglas explained, “I’m a Bach fan. It’s a nice change from the usual video game music.” He also added that the “high-class” music manages to bring out a level of baroque performance in players, and it’s true; I witnessed more than one bowing to their opponents with a flourish, and everyone usually had some sort of dramatic duelling pose while they circled each other. Douglas also mused on the difference between the “video” game that he’s created and the idea of more traditional “toys” that could potentially offer the same experience. “I like using the term ‘video game’ really broadly,” he explains, adding that broadening the scope allows for bringing in plenty of creative people on the fringes – artists, musicians, and other designers. He also noted that a lot of the “video game” identification comes from the fact that, well, he’s a part of the video game developer community. Of course, the idea of manufacturing a dedicated toy is something he’d love to happen, but at the moment, he’s just pleased that his game is finally getting an official release in the near future (No date set yet).
Douglas’ 10 Words: An experimental, digitally mediated playground game played without a screen.
M’s 10 Words: This is the most fun you’ll have looking epically silly.
“I grew up with the Super Nintendo,” Kyle Pulver said in his interview. “That was, like, the golden age of gaming for me.” And it shows in his latest work, Offspring Fling, a quirky 16-bit puzzle game with adorable fuzzy bunnies and what can only be described as the most adorable child abuse ever. Originally inspired by a Game Jam (expect to hear those words a lot) with the theme of ‘motherhood’, Offspring Fling stars an adorable woodland creature mother whose children have been scattered throughout the world. The player must enter small puzzle-based levels and reach the exit along with any offspring found along the way. Mother Bunny can stack her babies on her head, but her jumping will suffer, and she’ll have trouble squeezing through narrow passages; in any event, a large number of puzzles involve her hurling her adorable babies through the air in order to trigger switches, depress plates, or just keep them out of the way. With over 100 levels and a level editor for players to try their own hand at it, there’s plenty to keep you going. Kyle aimed to capture that same vibe of the old Super Nintendo with his design approach, and his use of shorter levels rather than sprawling ones keeps things manageable, addictive, and authentic to those roots.
What really sets this game apart is, of all things, the marketing. Kyle has gone all out with creating a line of flyers and even a fake Super Nintendo cartridge and system (the Super Pretendo) as if the game was really an old-school platformer. Better yet, he worked with Kurt Gardner, a veteran at indie game trailers, to create the oldest of old school commercials. The results should be seen to be believed!
Even if Offspring is about motherhood, in the end, it boils down to a love letter… to the Super Nintendo. “Deep down, I just want to make a really awesome Super Nintendo game,” Kyle confessed. Between this and last year’s superb Snapshot, I’d say he’s doing just fine on that front.
Offspring Fling is available at the website or on Steam and Desura.
Kyle’s 10 Words: Action puzzle platformer about motherhood, family values, and tough love.
M’s 10 Words: This is Super Nintendo nostalgia in a cute, fuzzy shell.
Ah, Puzzlejuice; probably the number one reason I was not nearly as productive on my first day as I should have been. The brainchild of Asher Vollmer, Puzzlejuice is some unholy concoction of addictive gameplay and sleek, appealing visuals. It combines three puzzle types – block puzzles, color matching puzzles, word puzzles – into one. At first glance, it’s very like Tetris; blocks of varying color fall from the top and you have to arrange them. However, when you complete a line, the blocks switch to letters; more importantly, you can also switch any 3 or more same-color blocks to letters by tapping or hitting the Enter key. Once these letters appear, you can use the mouse or your finger to connect letters together to form words, blowing up the blocks around them.
It’s an intensely neat little package, but a lot of thought went into the design. For example, I asked Asher Vollmer why the player had to trigger the color-to-letter switch manually rather than just having it be automatic every time those colors got matched together. “I wanted to make sure that the game scales up for all difficulty levels. As you get more advanced, score is important, and timing of letters adds to that.” He also added that it was less confusing to control the letter switching rather than have it suddenly pop up randomly.
Another point of note is that the music is done by Jimmy Hinson, one of the composers for Mass Effect 2. I expected some epic tale of how he was brought on board, but if anything, it’s a nice lesson in just asking politely; Asher heard a track by Jimmy on the Indie Music Bundle, thought it was perfect for Puzzlejuice, contacted him through his website, asked nicely, and voila! Let that be a lesson to indie developers; it never hurts to ask!
Puzzlejuice is available on iOS devices.
Asher’s 10 Words: Puzzlejuice: Come for the puzzle, stay for the juice. Yes!
M’s 10 Words: Just one more minute. Where did all my time go?
Of all the PAX 10 games, Splice was probably the most puzzling (HA HA). It was created by the same people who made the fiendishly addictive and aurally beautiful Auditorium, so it has great music by default, but the gameplay takes a bit of getting used to. Each “level” consists of a cluster of microbes with branching patterns; within a certain number of moves, the player must reconstruct the cluster so that it’s balanced with the same number of microbes each side. The confusion comes from how the other microbes react when you remove one; they rebalance automatically, so taking one side of a Y formation off will suddenly cause the other side to revert to an I formation. I don’t feel I quite did the system justice on the show floor, but I suspect that, with time, it will become much easier to judge how the microbes behave.
The inspiration was rather amusing; “I had a fever at Indiecade,” Dain Saint, their designer and piano player, admitted. He came up with the idea in a bit of a fog, wanting the feeling of being thrown into a Petri dish. When asked about the music, Dain commented, “In order to do music for games, you have to limit yourself. In Auditorium, my challenge was no percussion. Here, it was to write a soundscape with just piano.” The beautiful, zen-like music counteracts the frustration caused by the game itself with some of the later, harder puzzles. After all, the team points out, they may be making a brain teaser, but they don’t want people to rage quit, do they?
Splice is available on iOS and on Steam.
Dain Saint and Andrei Marks’ 10 Words: It’s kinda like science class, but without any real science.
M’s 10 Words: It’s challenging to determine how microbes behave. But hey, piano!
Holy tamoles, this is a beautiful looking game. From the very moment your character spawns in a series of line drawings and sketches, The Bridge perfectly captures the style of an M. C. Escher lithograph; in fact, the entire game is informed and inspired by M. C. Escher and his impossible architecture. Created by Ty Taylor with art by Mario Castaneda, the game revolves around the manipulation of gravity. Your character wakes beneath a significant looking apple tree to discover that he can now rotate the center of gravity, causing the entire room to shift around the nameless hero. While the initial level or two are still vaguely within the bounds of “normality”, the player quickly encounters architecture that literally cannot exist, with perspective tricks and shadows bending the concept of reality. Along the way, the storyline is revealed in snatches of mysterious floating text, hinting at a larger theme to be uncovered.
If this game seems a little reminiscent of Braid, that’s not entirely unintentional. “Braid is a huge inspiration of mine; it’s one of my favorite games,” Ty Taylor said. “I borrowed a lot of… I want to say the formatting […] The game just starts, it’s organized into levels , each one with its own distinct concept,, and basically cuts out all of the unnecessary fluff that you see in games.” He hastened to add, however, that the base mechanics were still vastly different from Braid; while the latter is based on time, the former is based on gravity manipulation. This led to some very interesting puzzles and unusual challenges in prototyping; Ty even drew levels on pieces of paper then rotated them around and upside down!
The Bridge currently has no release date; it’s currently planned for PC. The art style alone makes this game worth keeping an eye on, but the interesting puzzle structure makes it a definite standout title. Don’t miss this one!
Ty’s 10 Words: If M. C. Escher and Isaac Newton made a game…
M’s 10 Words: Like Braid, but with gravity vs. time. That’s GREAT praise.
The Swapper, by Facepalm Games
The last game of PAX 10 was, in many ways, the most intriguing, both in its visual style and its gameplay mechanics. The Swapper is a puzzle platformer where the player explores an abandoned space station and attempts to discover exactly what happened. The biggest discovery is a gun which can create clones of the wielder as well as transfer their actual soul (or something else) into them. This leads to some truly ingenious puzzle solutions; for example, having to ascend through open air by spawning clones high above before jumping your essence into them, or using the way they slavishly follow your movements to get them to step onto the right switch.
While, on the surface, this may just seem like a cool mechanic, it becomes a major metaphysical issue over the course of the game. If you transfer your essence into a clone and then your original body dies, are you still alive, or dead? Realizing that his game had some weighty issues to deal with, lead designer Olli Harjola contacted Tom Jubert, a freelance narrative designer, to help with the game. Usually narrative designers are brought in earlier on the project, but Tom has still been able to help immensely. “Since [coming on board], I’ve been involved in planning out the look of the areas and making sense of the space station,” referring to the organic layout of the ship.
The other thing that deserves special note is the fact that the art style has a surreal Claymation look to it. Olli used a combination of sculpted clay models and found objects and took photographs of them in order to scan them into the game. Hundreds of photos were taken, and as many models made; the results are constructed within game as backgrounds, foregrounds etc. The result is extremely effective, with the game looking more like something real and tangible as opposed to just pixels. What inspired this brilliant art motif? “It sounds real lame, but there wasn’t really inspiration. It’s more along the lines of I’m horrible at 3D modeling,” Olli admitted sheepishly.
The Swapper has no current scheduled release date or confirmed platforms, but is still worth keeping an eye on.
Olli and Tom’s 10 Words: Use clones to solve puzzles, real and metaphysical. Clay art!
M’s 10 Words: A Tool video meets ingenious clone mechanics. Watch this one.
If you attended PAX, did you see the PAX 10? What were your favorites? Which ones didn’t grab you?