There are a good number of huge gaming shows every year that soak up all the attention, but it’s always worth keeping an eye out on smaller ones too. For one thing, it’s much easier to talk with developers and friends when the background volume is at human-compatible levels, but it’s also fun to get to play strange and unexpected new games when the crowd pressure isn’t quite so intense. E3, PAX and the other major events are packed to the walls with a noisy throng of humanity but shows like the Boston Festival of Indie Games tend to be much more down-to-earth. As an added bonus you get a chance to see experimental games that can get lost in the background of the bigger shows. This year’s Boston FIG was a great combination of bigger indies, college projects and even some wonderfully different hardware. Every year I write up everything I play no matter its size and give everything a full paragraph over the course of three articles. This is part 1, with two more coming after, so let’s get started.
Everyone has played a marble game of one kind or another. Tilt the controller to move the marble in the direction you want and then argue with the game’s physics to get to the goal. Some games play the concept straight, others stick monkeys in balls, but at heart they all mine the same ideas. It’s a solid and well-tested gameplay hook that’s been refined over decades, but what if instead of using a controller or trackball you used your body instead? Roll Control uses a platform with a space cut out for a cell phone to go and the tilt sensor inside determines the ball’s movement. A squishy pillow-thing allowed the board to tilt when shifting weight and a handy chair turned backwards gave players something to hold on to. The level on display started out simple, letting the player roll past a few gates, but soon there were cactuses and gaps in the floor to send the player off the track if not careful. Avoiding them would be simple with a controller, but when shifting body weight through the feet, it got tricky fairly quickly. It didn’t help that the course was slowly collapsing behind, so taking time to collect a coin meant letting failure creep that much closer. Roll Control is available in demo at itch.io, and you can use standard gamepad controls or pair your phone with the PC and download an app to use that instead. Getting a big wooden foot-wobbly-thing may be a little more troublesome at the moment.
Pixel Puzzle Makeout League
This is what happens when you combine superheroes, dating games and picross into a single oddball fusion of competing genres. Pixel Girl is a superhero who fights crime by day with her picross powers but her personal life needs a bit of work. Joining the Puzzle League should help nicely with all aspects of her life, giving Pixel Girl multiple dating options while adding four more types of puzzles to the mix. Her teammates all have puzzle-based powers, of course, in the form of jigsaw, crossword, chess and sudoku, and an overarching supernatural plot moves the story along as she goes from one date to another. The floor demo was a good combination of story scenes and picross puzzles, with the first few auto-solved to get things moving before letting the player work a series of 5×5 and 10×10 grids. The bigger puzzles are saved for later, when people won’t be obsessing on the show floor, but it was enough to leave a solid impression that there should be a nice balance between story and game. Even if it gets a bit talky, the exceptionally nice art makes every scene worth seeing.
Where Shadows Slumber
Mobile-only puzzle game about an old man who finds a magic lantern. The world has gone dark and reality is malleable, changing constantly as light and shadow play over its surfaces. A bridge may be broken one moment and whole the next, but only after being plunged into pitch-black shadows and then reemerging into the light. The initial trick is to figure out how to use the shadows cast by the lantern to change the world as necessary to progress. Certain pathways can be rotated, lifted or dropped, and they frequently come with their own shadows as well. Add in people wandering the paths, activating switches as they go and the levels quickly get filled with puzzling options. Where Shadows Slumber came out for iOS/Android last year and the entire thing is available in a single purchase without a microtransation to be found.
A ball of light illuminates everything it touches, floating through a darkened world that’s a ruin of its former glory. The light not only brightens but brings life to everything it lands on, whether that be sprouting grass and trees, antique murals or the ancient relics sending beams of energy to power old but still functioning machines. While it’s technically possible to zip from one area to another looking for the important parts, it’s hard to resist taking detours to completely paint in an area and chase the darkness away. With the amount of scurrying across the landscape required that’s not all that hard to end up doing, filling in the corners and a bit against the wall on the way back down the mountain, or poking down a branching path to find another hidden rune. It’s a beautiful thing with a painterly style and right on the verge of release. The old demo that was available in the game’s Kickstarter days may be gone but the full version of Sole comes out on October 11.
Life at the top is actually pretty nice, except for all those people wanting to be just like you. They copy and pose every move, no matter how terrible an idea it may be, but as obnoxious as they are their lack of originality will be their downfall. Lucky Me is a super-stylish puzzle-shooter where the darkly-clad posers mimic every move of the player in yellow and the object is to be the last one standing. If there are four guys around you in a square formation with their sights all pointed at your head then it’s a simple matter to rotate 45 degrees and shoot. They’ll all rotate as you do then fire as one when you pull the trigger, solving the problem with a single shot. In the early levels it felt like the aim was to clear the board with a single bullet despite having a full clip, but later levels required multiple shots and being careful with the ammo. Or maneuvering the copycats near exploding barrels, walking them into spikes or figuring out how to use walls to break out of a suicidal pattern. It’s a clever little thing with an irresistible art style and soundtrack to match, and hopefully will have dozens and dozens of escalating death-puzzles to solve.
Absolutely adorable two-player space platformer. While technically it’s possible to play single player, switching from one astronaut to the next, the real joy in this planet-hopper is trying to coordinate with a friend. Two astronauts are tethered together and need to collect enough stars to open the exit. When one astronaut hops from the planet it’s a good idea for the other to stay put, anchoring them in place to either swing around on the tether or get yanked back quickly if something is about to go wrong. Anchor points in space let an astronaut latch on, and as the levels go by more and more, they require a series of hops between anchors with one holding on while the other jumps off at just the right angle to collect all the stars on the arc. Thankfully if the astronaut misses a star the tether collects it anyway, unless the star is on the outside of the arc. Space-fish and spiky barriers roam the skies, and while hazards are a problem, there’s also an issue of sometimes needing to launch both players at the next planet without accidentally flying into deep space. Still, if everything does go wrong one of the great joys of co-op is blaming it on your partner. Check it out over at Game Jolt.
And that’s the first third of this year’s offerings. The series won’t come close to covering everything, of course, because there were dozens of games there, but the goal is to show off a good cross-section whether it be top-tier professional indie or simply a college project. It was a fantastically diverse selection of creativity on display, and this doesn’t even touch on there being another room equally as big as the video game one packed full of tabletop gaming.