Last week, I visited sunny, penguin-infested Melbourne to attend the PAX Australia gaming convention. I've already covered it somewhat, but I haven’t really written about any of the games I played, which seems negligent. So here they are: my favourite indie games of PAX 2014. Keep in mind I only played between five and twenty minutes of each, so for all I know these games could actually murder their players, but what I've seen makes me want to see more.
In most cases, I chatted to the developers about where the games were and where they were going, partially in order to understand the games better, but mostly because we're all in a conspiracy to destroy video games and we have to collude somehow.
Certainly the weirdest game on show from a production process standpoint, #IDARB (It Draws A Red Box) began when creators Other Ocean drew a red box and asked Twitter what to do with it. Suggestions, requests and surely trolling poured in, transforming that little red box into a fast-paced and psychotic quasi-eSports title. The basic gameplay involves getting a ball into the other team’s goal; how you get there is a bizarre blend of platform-jumping, passing and catching, jetpacks, rocket launchers, robots and more. There are so many game mechanics involved in #IDARB it’s impossible to get a handle on all of them at once; God only knows how many are buried within alternate game modes or powerups.
Local multiplayer games are making a big resurgence this year, and I’m glad. Online multiplayer has made us forget the joys of playing games in person, with real people. I hope you’re into that, because at PAX there was plenty more where that came from.
New Zealand-based developers Frogshark didn’t set out to make a party game - it just came together from bits of projects each of its three staff wanted to make. Swordy is a colourful, gleefully dumb physics brawler where you swing enormous weapons at each other. That's it. Its swords, clubs, morning stars and shields are so unwieldy, they can effectively only be swung like an Olympic hammer. Momentum and placement are important in Swordy - you must constantly think a step ahead if you’re to avoid becoming a shower of pixelated neon gibs.
Frogshark have an ambitious roadmap for Swordy, set to launch some time in 2015. They’ll hone the arena combat, adding new arenas and weapons, and add extra game modes, including a horde mode, which frankly sounds like fucking chaos. They’re so bullish they’re even contemplating a single-player and co-op campaign mode, to be released separately to and after the multiplayer component. But multiplayer is the core of Swordy: frenetic and hilarious, it’s another entry in the ridiculous party-battle genre that stands proudly alongside titles like Gang Beasts and Starwhal: Just The Tip.
If you harbour fond memories of staying up late playing four-player splitscreen GoldenEye on the N64, you've got something in common with the developers of Screencheat. Its central conceit is an idea that seems so obvious, it’s amazing it hasn’t been done before: a splitscreen (local and online) multiplayer shooter where everyone is invisible, so screencheating (looking at other players’ screens to see where they are) becomes mandatory in order to win. The boldness of taking such an integral, if reviled, element of gaming and turning it into a core gameplay mechanic is just delectable.
In practice, Screencheat is a combination of keen-eyed precision and flailing panic. Despite level design that clearly delineates distinct areas using colour and texture, often you’ll end up firing your silly, silly weaponry into nothingness, hoping to hit your opponents by chance. With more experience, though, you become more surgical with your screencheating and pull off satisfyingly cheap kills. It takes a while to unlearn the etiquette of split-screen multiplayer in the way this game requires, but it’s a lot of stupid fun once you do.
Sandbox-style games like Minecraft have demonstrated comprehensively that people like building stuff. I get that. But there’s also a burgeoning desire, I feel - certainly from me - to use your constructions as levels in a game of their own. Gunscape scratches that itch - you build a level with blocks, ramps and doors of varying textures, then either populate it with AI to play single-player or play against your friends in multiplayer deathmatches. (Horde mode is planned for the future, but has not been implemented yet.)
I didn’t get to play the “build” mode, but by design, anyone familiar with Minecraft should feel comfortable with its voxel-based construction system. The “play” mode is reminiscent of Doom or Quake, and not just because of the blocky graphics. Movement and weapon handling is fast and over-the-top; death comes swiftly in the corridors of Gunscape. Focusing on old-school gameplay like this is not just a creative decision - it’s a practical one, validating and complementing the visual design. I for one am not an enormous fan of that style of shooter - I appreciate its appeal, but I feel like many cling to its nostalgia a little too much - but I am a fan of making things. So I guess I’ll make some things.
I’ve been quietly following Never Alone since its announcement. It’s a single-player and co-op puzzle platformer based on indigenous Alaskan stories handed down through the oral tradition over centuries. In fact, the game was made with assistance from the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and is itself a legitimate continuation of one of those stories - the voice of video games joining all the voices who have told it before. That alone is a fascinating premise, and the enthusiasm with which the Council and developers alike have approached the project brings warm feelings to my heart.
In gameplay, Never Alone brings its native Alaskan heritage to the fore. The theme of interdependence between humanity and nature is illustrated through its central relationship between a girl and a fox; they can’t get through the harsh Alaskan environment without each other. The spirit world is a constant presence and a gameplay mechanic. And as you progress, you unlock short documentaries filling in the blanks between the game and its roots - not compulsive watching, but fitting to the project and its gentle pace. Never Alone releases this week, so I’ll probably have a fuller review in due course. My ten-minute play session made me cry, though, so the full game has a high bar to clear.
All I'll say is: that fox had better be pattable. Stay tuned.