One of the most important things about gaming getting bigger over the years is that the barriers to entry for creating new things get smaller all the time. Engines like Unity, GameMaker, Unreal, and all the rest are available either free or at least relatively cheaply, and that means almost any determined person or group can build a fair approximation of anything. Limits like time and talent are the same whether you’re talking AAA big-studio development or a single person working nights and weekends, and while game creation will never be easy it’s at least accessible. That means that any big town is likely to have a local gaming scene filled with people making whatever they can, and the Boston Festival of Indie Games is a showcase for the Northeast (and surrounding areas) to demonstrate what it’s been up to.
The festival is a one-day event that took place on Saturday, September 23, and like last year it was divided between two floors of the MIT Johnson Athletic Center. Downstairs was for physical gaming, including board games, cards, etc, while upstairs was reserved for videogaming. The second floor is actually a bit more room than necessary so it also housed the artists row plus physical-gaming freeplay, with a fair amount of unused space left over, but the bulk of the area was taken up by displays for several dozen indie games in various states of release. Big-name indies like Perception and Underworld Ascendant sat side-by-side with student projects and titles in Early Access, and almost everything had a waiting line. This feature is Part 1 of a three-part look at everything I got to play while there, in no particular order, and including a few things that I didn’t get to experience on the show floor but had demos available online. Turns out there are only so many hours available in the day and time passes far more quickly than one might hope for. On the plus side, that means you get to see almost as much as I did thanks to a surprisingly-large percentage of everything being available online in some form.
DropMix- While Harmonix wasn’t at Boston FIG in an official capacity, a member of the team did drop by the free-play area to set up DropMix. DropMix is a music game played with real cards containing an RFID chip, set on a long plastic board that knows what you’ve played. An iOS or Android device sits in the dock at the head of the board, pumping out music and giving instructions when necessary, and players lay down cards that contain pieces of different songs that get mixed on the fly into a unique track. Layering guitars from one song, vocals from another, and drums from a third seems like it would create musical chaos but instead it works surprisingly well, and a big part of the game isn’t so much competing to be the first to clear your hand but rather finding out what kind of unexpected mix you create while playing. I only got to watch a match rather than play it myself due to time constraints, but the party-game potential was huge.
Gravestuck- Twin-stick shooter that says right up front that its primary influence is Bangai-O. Fly around and shoot a stream of bullets, either bouncy lasers or homing shots right now with another six guns being added later, survive the bullet-hell attacks while destroying everything in your path, and take on a giant dinosaur skull at the end of the maze. Shooting enemies and gravestones leaves an energy orb behind, and you can collect them to power up a mega-shot that fills the screen with retaliatory firepower. Gravestuck leans less towards the risk/reward setup of Bangai-O, being more straight offense, but you can set a whole lot of bullets flying every which way so it works out fine. As for the variation in art quality, that’s a work in progress. Gravestuck has a demo at itch.io, and it’s the same build I got to play on the show floor.
Be aware that all I got was a black screen when I tried to run it, though. Turns out this is a bug in GameMaker, not Gravestuck. Setting compatibility to Win8 fixes the problem on any GameMaker game that may be doing this.
Yesterday- Super-cute puzzler about twisting the level like a Rubik’s Cube so the girl can meet the boy. You control the girl, walking along one face of a jumble of cubes, and the axis of rotation is always centered on whichever cube the girl is standing on. It’s a fairly simple mechanic that leads to complicated results, and you can scramble the board fairly easily if you’re not careful. Each of the five chapters introduces a new mechanic, because the course of love rarely runs smoothly and the entire set of puzzles is one giant metaphor for bridging the gap between a separated couple. While the game is released on iOS and Android, the Steam version is currently Early Access.
Shrug Island- This is probably best categorized as a 2D point & click adventure game, but it’s also definitely an oddball. You switch between two characters exploring a sleeping island, using their musical capabilities to shake it out of its slumber, and a puzzle solved by one character will open up a path for the other. You’ll need to figure out how their abilities interact with the environment to open it up, switching between the characters’ forms to use the right talent for the job. The girl can fly between spots and her spirit form sees hidden items that can be reassembled to form the key to advancement. The boy just walks around, unless he turns into a fish for swimming, and his spirit form is an oddly angular thing that plays musical notes to effect different parts of the environment. The game is being created by an animator and musician duo, and while its a wonderful thing it’s also got a problem communicating information to the player, such as when a puzzle is solved and it’s time to move on. That’s what convention showings are for, though, so with any luck this will be cleared up as things progress. The world of Shrug actually has a fairly detailed history, kicking around in different media since 2009, so take a peek at how it’s evolved right over here.
Stereo Aereo- Musical shooter that’s like driving up a Rock Band track, with the notes being cars you need to avoid as you move into a clear lane. As a music game, though, you need to switch lanes to the beat, and it doesn’t take long before the police show up and try to take you out, meaning you need to shoot their bullets to the beat as well. You can just move and shoot whenever you’d like without getting knocked back, but that tanks the score and it’s hard to resist trying to get a chain of Perfects. I’ve got to admit that it was a bit loud on the show floor to properly hear the music, so I can’t really say how the movements and the beat combine, and for a while I was having trouble with the targeting indicator until I figured out that moving when the line of traffic enters the first bar, rather than the center one, is what pulls in the Perfects. Stereo Aereo has been out on Steam since last December, and the developer came all the way from El Salvador for a Boston show.
Stardrift Nomads- Twin-stick space shooter with a bit of tower defense mixed in. You’ve got a space station in the middle of the map being assaulted from all sides by incoming pirates plus drifting asteroids and need to shoot down everything to afford the defense costs. You can spend your cash on defenses or boost your ship and take out everything yourself, but it gets hectic pretty quickly so you won’t be able to ignore your station for too long before needing to zip back and repair things. You’ll always need to keep expenses in the back of your head because upgrades, healing, and defense all cost money and there’s never going to be enough for everything. Stardrift Nomads has been out on Steam since April.
Sole- You’re a ball of light in a darkened world bringing illumination with you wherever you go. While technically it plays like a third-person action game, all you can really do is move around, lighting up the world as you go. Once you’ve touched an area it stays lit up permanently, which not only looks nice but also acts a helpful guide to show you where you’ve been. The trick is to not look at a lit up passage and blow it off as explored when there are actually three or more different sub-sections waiting to come to life again branching off from it. The game is very light on narrative, leaving it up to you to figure out what you are, what you’re doing here, and how this world got into its current state, but you can find murals with hints painted on them if you keep your eyes open and illuminate them. Sole has a single-level demo over at itch.io (page down a bit below the pre-purchase option) and it’s well worth giving it a play-through.
And that’s the first third of what I got to see at Boston FIG. There’s plenty more on the way, and it’s a good mix of high-end indie, intriguing student projects, and plenty of ground in between.