I make no bones about it: I go to PAX East for the indies, year after year. I specifically recall once speaking to Craig D. Adams of Capybara Games at a 2012 PAX. When I told him that I spent the entire weekend in indie alley, he responded with “bless your heart!” in surprised approval.
Indie games have come a long way from nearly unknown as an underground whisper to a remarkable nation-wide convention. In the upswing of comics being legitimized (at least, further legitimized) as a respectable art form, we have also witnessed indie games grow from an industry curiosity to a fiscal powerhouse, an organically persistent scene that is now impossible to ignore, and one that is often emulated, as its titles now dictate more and more elements of the grander gaming milieu.
In order to see this writ large, one needs turn no further than the burgeoning dimensions of the almighty Indie MegaBooth presence at each subsequent PAX East. This year, I played dozens of fascinating creations, often alongside the developers for valuable context. In this article, we’ll begin to unpack some of those; consider this a cheat sheet for the coming months and years, a handy guide for those who want to set aside a portion of their triple-A dollars for the more fascinating experiences coming down the line.
This is just a sampling of this year’s PAX East indie titles.
I don’t play real-time strategy games and haven’t enjoyed one since the Command & Conquer series (and I often wonder if I enjoyed the hilariously awful FMV scenes in the series more than the actual games). In the past 15 years, any time I’ve tried out an RTS I’ve immediately bounced off of it, except for this one.
Pocketwatch Games’ last release was the stealth/party-game hybrid Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine, a four-player arcade heist game with classic film and pop art aesthetics. With a romping piano score, dozens of levels, online multiplayer and scoreboards, and a wittily charming narrative, Monaco was one of the best games I previously played at PAX East 2011, but this new upcoming title is an entirely different beast – pun intended.
Tooth and Tail is an action-RTS with stunning pixel animations and character designs, styled primarily with an anthropomorphic animal steampunk fantasy veneer. Plain and simple: it looks gorgeous, visually reminiscent of Watership Down and Mouse Guard, with furry four-legged militarist imagery and dramatically painted portraits. In the game, 1-4 players each take control of a banner-waving leader, who then fortifies a base with farms and military units before rallying soldiers together to bring the battle to their opponent. The action plays out something like Nintendo’s Pikmin, but it’s quite fast and limber, with individual units playing out their rock-paper-scissors strengths and weaknesses through strategic placement and quick-thinking.
It’s an action game as well as a war game, but fairly focused, with 1v1 and 2v2 matches playing out speedily. I would not expect prolonged battles in most cases, and many skirmishes take about 5-10 minutes, encouraging continuous play. This alludes to another thing that usually scares me off from RTSs, and Monopoly, for that matter; I want to play through a strategic skirmish to the end as fast as possible, with the option to try new strategies on the next run. This game seems to suit this preference better than most any RTS I’ve encountered.
Tooth and Tail does not yet have a release date, but it will be coming out on PC, Mac, and Linux.
Who else played a lot of Power Stone? The console-defining 4-player brawler for the Dreamcast was a system-seller, and the sequel persists as one of my top five favorite games of all time. But what’s happened to the game since then?
For those who didn’t play it, imagine Smash Bros on a 3D plane, complete with scores of limited-use items and destructible environments. Four players thrash against each other, grab randomized items, and contend with the level geometry and their opponents in equal measure.
While Last Fight, based on a French comic of the same name, does not contain evolving levels (the developers state that they might save this for a sequel), it does reproduce the Power Stone 2 trappings in every other way. Large, loud character designs, power-ups, weapons a-plenty, and tide-turning player transformations.
On the PAX East floor the Last Fight booth was usually filled with participants yelling in joy during each match. There is simply no other fighter game that I’m looking forward to this year as much as this one so I recommend you secure four controllers and a couch of friends soon, even if this genre is usually not your cup of tea.
I’d love Last Fight to enter the major competitive fighter scene and we hopefully will not have to wait too long for a release – outlets have been quiet about its development, but it’s apparently making its debut on PC/Steam next month.
Cyberpunk has been having a bit of a resurgence in the gaming space, with Shadowrun’s extremely successful Kickstarter a possible reason for several new titles taking on this genre, albeit with varying results. At worst, it’s used as a skin for unremarkable games, but at its best it conjures compelling, distinct universes rich with references, showcasing satisfyingly dystopic environments and morally dubious characters.
I had not been remotely aware of Ruiner, but the demo at PAX was extremely intriguing. In an isometric viewpoint, you play a mysterious cyber-enhanced combatant combing through the city of Rengkok. Expect a familiar, Bladerunner-esque backdrop with seedy bars, gleaming weaponry, drugs, and violent criminal organizations. While the story is hard to make out at this stage, the aesthetics are razor-sharp, with a brilliant level of atmospheric detail.
The action plays out a little bit like Diablo or Torchlight, but there is an emphasis on movement and dodging that makes it far more interesting than your typical dungeonhack. Using combinations of abilities including firearms, energy shields, and dash maneuvers, your character is able to dynamically stun and counter a variety of enemies amidst environmental hazards.
Take a look at the media-rich homepage to find out more, and look out for more info on Ruiner’s release date. Though nothing is yet stated, it will be coming on PC, Mac, and Linux.
We Are Chicago / Culture Shock Games
What if you attempted to introduce someone to the point of view of a young Black teenager in the south side of Chicago? Would that introduction be a harsh disassociating welcome or a method to promote guided understanding? Is this the kind of experience anyone could interpret as a form of narrative entertainment?
Culture Shock might be looking to answer these questions with their ambitious, politically relevant, and fascinating upcoming game. In We Are Chicago, many talented individuals have come together to attempt something earnestly empowering and unique using this medium. Although the game is years into development, there are so many interesting moving parts at play, including interactive fiction dialogue elements and even general mechanics of movements as detailed as setting the place for dinner.
Fairly late into its development, Culture Shock even decided to code VR compatibility to further involve the player in the verisimilitude of its environment. This VR setup was present at the PAX East demo and may be a valuable tool in shaping the intent of the narrative as the game continues development this year.
It appears that with We Are Chicago, a group of Chicagoan creators – including emcee Solo Xquisit/Sean Young and writer Tony Thornton – are looking to raise the bar for the potential of what games might hope to accomplish and how they may evolve the national political conversation of stereotypes and race. I won’t say much more about this title now, as BlackGirlNerds will be featuring an upcoming interview which will speak to the project’s goals and challenges in greater detail, so look out for that soon.
Leonardo Faierman is ¼ of the #BlackComicsChat podcast, writer/co-creator of the comic “Snow Daze”, and a Jewish Latino caught at the intersection of white privilege and “What ARE you exactly?”