the artistry and psychology of gaming


Reflections: BostonFIG 2014

Reflections: BostonFIG 2014

It’s hard to be an indie developer. Sure, it’s actually never been easier considering the surplus of distribution channels and business models across the industry, but with the old barriers to entry now removed, it’s getting harder and harder to sift through the floodgates as new releases push through. Jeff Vogel has already proposed it’s simple math; being a ratio of “X dollars [and] Y developers,” but arguably some changes in practice for media coverage and product exposure are still in order for their role in finding the games worth talking about, just as it’s still the developer’s responsibility to not sit idly by, waiting to be found.

Contextually, I’d say it’s been about 10 years since the current indie boom really began with releases like Studio Pixel’s Cave Story and Edmund McMillen’s Gish  first launching back in 2004. Year after year since, we’ve seen both the level of public interest and level of content available increase exponentially, with our ability to adequately filter content to satiate that interest failing to keep up. Content continues to rise each year, but interest may have reached its breaking point; it’s still there obviously (who wouldn’t want to play good games, after all), but struggles to scale further. Indie development is still a way to subvert the machine; harboring a rebel DIY community that anyone can belong to as long as they themselves feel they belong, but 10 years later, that labeling won’t generate the same impact as it once could. Being an indie game just isn’t buzzworthy anymore, meaning any further successes may need to be deeply rooted in the qualities of the games themselves and the developers behind them.

That’s why the Boston Festival of Indie Games is so important. Not only does it provide an accessible space for developers to allow hand’s on access for a willing audience of gamers, media, and peers, but also provides further education and outreach with some fantastic panels and lectures to make their games (and general practices) even better. It’s also a lot of fun!

This Saturday wrapped up the 3rd Annual BostonFIG, and having been in the past, I can easily say it’s bigger and better than ever. The show floors (digital and tabletop) were packed with indie development teams of all sizes, and the content presented offered a little something for everybody; varying in genre, release platform, business model, style, and even accommodating towards multiple non-standard target demos (games for people with disabilities, learning games for children, etc). Meanwhile, the classroom halls of MIT’s Stata Center were filled with some great discussions, from game engines and storytelling to how developers can approach gaming journalists. One lecture I thoroughly enjoyed was Heather Albano’s (Choice of GamesNarrative Design and Player Agency are Friends, which discussed the appropriation of player choices across a planned narrative, prioritizing meaningful outcomes and the journey in reaching them over the number of outcomes to be had. I bit my tongue when audience members started discussing The Walking Dead, but I greatly appreciated the acknowledgement that it’s not always about reaching a certain ending; especially when diverging paths can conclude with diverse reactions applied to a singular outcome.

But really, for me it all came down to the digital showcase and the games themselves. BostonFIG allowed me some early access to some great products in development; some I’d known about for a while, and some that took me completely by surprise. In the great indie search for the games worth talking about, here are ten of the games I’ll be looking forward to discussing more in the future:

Dash (Speedy Chalupa)






A student project out of Cornell, Dash features simple yet engaging gameplay tasking players to guide a bird in flight past obstacles and enemies. The level design and art style look solid, and the control mechanics show a real eye for anticipating player behavior. Speaking with a few of the Speedy Chalupa team, I asked what was in place to keep players from relying too heavily on the game’s slow motion feature that make the levels easier, and not only did they think of that prior, they answered two-fold, with meters and stats to rate for personal records, plus a zoomed in camera to disatvantage players from seeing too far ahead. While currently aiming for a PC release, the team is also planning for mobile (the dash mechanic being used has obvious relevance for touch screen devices), but they’re not rushing it, as some careful planning is needed to incorporate the slow motion feature in a way that feels right when used. At this point, I’m not only looking forward to Dash’s future release, but already looking forward to what this team does next.


Treasure Adventure World (Robot Studios)






Looking to be all-around updated experience to the wonderful Treasure Adventure Game that we reviewed back in early 2012, Treasure Adventure World is filling its role nicely. Chatting with Stephen Orlando was great, and he confirmed my suspicions that the walking speed was being increased for the remake (it used the same speed as the original, but early footage of World showed a comparatively slower-moving character; an illusion due to the move away from pixel art). We also can look forward to some better/increased uses for Whydah the parrot, and the demo also showed off a new boss fight somewhere in the sewers. Stephen also hinted at some prospective DLC to come in the future, including some texture packs for additional customization, but don’t worry; if the original pixel art of the freeware release becomes available as a download; it’ll be coming at no additional charge.


Gemini (Atlas Chen + Nick Zhang)






Another student project; this one out of NYU, Gemini offers a gorgeously artistic experience best described as a wordless journey of two stars. For a small world moment, I was already aware of the two programmers Atlas Chen and Nick Zhang, having recently seen an older game of theirs called Octavia, but Gemini is shaping up to be the far more accomplished project; both in terms of art design, and in overall concept. Gemini is one of those games where you’re best served going in blind; allowing your understanding of what’s going on to grow as you play, and it may have ended up being too immersive in my case. Headphones can obscure external volume, and when a little boy walked up to the booth innocently asking “how do you play?” I may or may not have quickly shouted back “IT’S BETTER IF YOU FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF!” before quickly apologizing to the boy and his father.


Mushroom 11 (Untame)






This game is already on the larger radar for its award-winning presence at GDC, IndieCage, SXSW, PAX and more, and with good reason; Mushroom 11‘s unique concept of shaping an maneuvering an amorphous mass across an environment is instantly transferable to the player’s comprehension, even though at times the game’s puzzling terrain may leave them guessing for what shapes they should take. It’s also a pretty rare case to find what is essentially a third person game featuring a “character” without a face, or even an implied sentience  (even The Ooze was a scientist before he became a puddle of goop), so it’ll be interesting to see just how players will end up relating to this blob as they push and stretch its properties once the game finally gets released.


Rain World (Joar Jakobsson)






A quick aside, I happened to catch a video of this game in action before learning more about it, to which my first reaction was “what is that thing, some kind of a slugcat?” Lo and behold, the furry creatures you control are indeed referred to as slugcats; a name programmer Joar Jakobsson took no credit for, but said it came from comments online after they were created (he originally called them “bears”). Rain World is a platforming game with some creative use of art and code behind it, with some clever ideas beyond the use of simple pixel animations. Animal tails come from procedural algorithms to make them appear more fluid without needing to draw individual frames for every possible motion, and hand drawn backgrounds recieve additional dimension, benefitting from applied shading and lighting filters. The result; the game looks great standing still, and even better in motion!


That Rock Paper Scissor Game (Philosoplay)

A rare winner of the coveted “My wife was willing to play this game with me” award, TRPSG offers a three-way game of tag with some additional powerups to help players along the way. It’s a simple game, but that’s part of its charm, and it’s quick and easy for just about anyone to pick up since the rules of Rock-Paper-Scissors are basically common knowledge. Here’s hoping for eventual “Steamshovel” DLC.


Brain and Brawn (Rohit Crasta)






Rohit Crasta is the Boston City Manager for The Games Forum, but he’s also working on a game of his own starring a pair of unlikely companions. In Brain and Brawn, players control two characters at once in a sliding puzzle game (only move in cardinal directions, must make contact with something to stop sliding, etc), and their individual abilities (such as Brawny’s strength and Brainy’s ability to use switches) play off each other nicely. There’s a demo of the game available on Casta’s website, but for FIG, I also got a try at how the game feels on an iPhone, and the touchscreen swipe and little vibrations when characters hit walls are both nice additions.


Bōru mo (Space Treasure)






Bōru mo isn’t much more than an entertaining multiplayer battle game with one main form of attack (picture a competitive version of Within a Deep Forest and you’re not far off), but its art style is clever in ways that its scope is not. Simple yet bold color choices with limited shading give off a stylistic illusion of depth so effective on screen that I had to ask developer Kyle McKernan if the game was actually 3D (it’s not). All the more impressive, considering the characters turn and pivot as though they were rendered objects, while careful animations for the background platform heads and snakes are lively, reacting to nearby players and looking about while imitating full roll, pitch, and yaw movements. Packaged around the experience are some comically relatable sound effects, and the gameplay is simple, intuitive, and with 4 players moving around, can become quite a scramble.


A Tofu Tale (Alchemedium)






Tofu absorbs whatever flavors it happens to touch. With that out of the way, A Tofu Tail places you in control of a man-turned-tofu, who must absorb the properties of the terrain around him to move across puzzling levels to reach the goal. While at first I had some concerns over what may ultimately be a sequence of linear solutions (Basically determining the right way to proceed through the maze of tiles), a few later mechanics seemed to ensure maps won’t always be so easily predictable, with thirsty kappas needing water and flying tengu that will kick you off course. Being a puzzle game at heart, it’s refreshing to see what could just as easily be dismissed as a whole bunch of nonsense still hold on to a theme rooted in Japanese folklore (and cooking!), offering a nice bit of tangental learning on the side.


Nest (Ken Amirit)






Nest is a multiplayer game where you capture and defend bases, not unlike most other games where you capture and defend bases, except for the way it looks. Nest uses stop motion photography with assembled wool and felt to create its cartoony characters and plushy backgrounds in place of sprites or renders, making this a game equal parts Arena PvP and something Michele Gondry dreamed about. Looking at this game in motion makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Inside! (Majora’s Mask typo reference). Just thinking about how long principal photography must’ve taken really speaks to Ken Amirit’s dedication to his craft.


Those were my personal highlights; additional games can be seen at BostonFig’s Digital Showcase online.  I’d like to thank my wife Danielle for stalking me through the halls with her camera to grab a few live shots, and thanks to BostonFIG for another great year!

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