On September 14, MIT hosted the second annual Boston Festival of Indie Games, or BostonFIG. The event, free and open to the public, had more than doubled in size since its 2012 debut, when all exhibitors were crammed into a few small classrooms. This year, over 5,000 attendees crowded an entire sports arena where dozens of local developers showcased the latest and upcoming diversions, proving you don't need massive funding or big-name publishers to make a splash.
Revolution 60 (Giant Spacekat)
This iOS game, releasing in March 2014, charges a team of femme fatales with infiltrating an enemy compound to destroy an orbital weapons platform. Revolution 60 is described as a cross between console games Heavy Rain and Mass Effect, meaning it has quick-time events and dialogue trees.
In the first ten minutes of the game, both features are introduced slowly. The story-driven experience stops when a character attempts a significant physical feat, such as ambushing a guard or leaping atop a hostile jet, requiring the player to trace a line or circle on the tablet screen. I didn't grasp the connection between drawing a circle and what came next, but later stages offer more complex tasks. Likewise, early dialogue trees asked simply, "Do you wish to respond professionally or sarcastically?", with no real impact on the narrative — it wouldn't be fair for more significant decisions to appear so early in the game. Occasionally, the railroading is broken up with tile-based battles that have you tapping squares to move your heroine, charge her special move, and take down soldiers.
The striking visual style for its special ops team — imagine a cross between Bratz and Fembots — and full voice acting were impressive; with a pair of headsets, I was able to enjoy the presentation, despite the bustle of the show floor. But Revolution 60 is a game that requires more investment to get to the good parts than most of BostonFIG's more immediate experiences offered.
Synthesis (Hart Laboratories)
Winner of multiple "Best of Show" awards, Synthesis attracted me to its booth with its old-school vector graphics. I couldn't penetrate the crowd that was not deterred by the game's complex synopsis: "Abstract molecular dynamics simulator played by programming cellular automata." The developer said that the nodes and relationships Synthesis simulates can be so complex, the game is still several years from release.
Get Water (Decode Global)
Decode Global believes that games can have a social impact, and Get Water is their evidence. Get Water is an endless runner in which players trace paths for Maya to follow (think Marvel's Iceman) to collect water without breaking the pot. It's modeled after the real-life daily routine of children in India, which seems an odd concept for entertainment — but in-app purchases benefit the non-profit charity: water.
This action-adventure game plays similarly to the 1995 game Secret of Evermore, a top-down view with real-time battles, RPG-like mechanics, and a story that begins with you chasing your runaway pet. High Strangeness's unique mechanic is the ability to switch between 8-bit and 16-bit graphics and sound — think the difference between the Atari 2600 and Super Nintendo. I didn't get far enough into the game to see how this mechanic affects gameplay, but it's an intriguing concept for this "12-bit" game, with a chiptune soundtrack by Rich Vreeland of Fez fame.
Watch for High Strangeness as a download for the Xbox 360's XBLA platform in 2014.
Blocks of Explosive Dismemberment (Barbaric Games)
No game prompted more diverse reactions in me than Blocks of Explosive Dismemberment. At first I thought it a Tetris variation where you control a character trying to avoid being crushed by falling blocks, which sounded reminiscent of Structris. I watched an attendee maneuver Tetris piece across the playing field and was struck by the red-and-black color palette, reminiscent of Nintendo's Virtual Boy.
Nearby, another gamer played a seemingly unrelated 3D over-the-shoulder platform game. My jaw dropped when I realized he was playing against the first gamer, controlling the small figure in the Tetris well.
At first, this asymmetrical gameplay, where two players have completely different perspectives on the same experience, seemed brilliant. But when I got my hands on it, it seemed confusing. Controlling the trapped man, I didn't have a good view of where the blocks were raining or the best places to avoid them. Although my playfield was tall and wide, it was only one Tetris block deep, making it difficult to turn around. A poorly placed piece could create an overhang under which I could hide, diminishing the tension of the game.
Even when I was controlling the blocks, I was frustrated by both their irregular shapes and the seeming inability to drop them quickly. I could never tell if I was playing a game of action or strategy.
Still, I can't dismiss my first impression of brilliance at seeing this game in action, and other gamers I spoke with were impressed by it. Maybe with more time — in either the developers' hands, or mine — it'll prove a polished experience. Watch for it on PC and Mac.
Ragtime Ruffian (Alec Thomson Games)
Last year, Alec off Conway's Inferno, a game about killing innocents. This year, he came to BostonFIG with Ragtime Ruffian, a game about killing innocents. Using an almost identical interface and aesthetic, Ragtime Ruffian puts players in charge of a moustache-twirling villain who ties hostages to the train tracks. Your job is to use limited resources to reroute the train and ensure the deed is done.
Free for Windows, Mac, and Linux, the game is $1.99 for iPad. Thomson promises his next game won't involve wanton slaughter.
Apsis (Nylon Box Games)
A fellow BostonFIG attendee pointed me to Apsis, telling me, "It's the most relaxing game here." That wasn't completely accurate: Apsis is less a game and more a thoughtful, contemplative experience. You control a flock of birds as they... fly. That's it. The flock can grow, and obstacles can drive them apart, but it's a game that's impossible to lose. Feel free to fly wherever you like, watching the ground scroll beneath your wings and the gentle music play. If you like, you can follow the jet stream to the end of the level, advancing to the next experience and a new emotion. But if you don't, that's okay, too.
Apsis releases soon for Android only.
Bümbardia (80HD Games)
Back with their sophomore outing, 80HD returned to BostonFIG with their second game: Bümbardia. In tower defense games, you protect your turf from the oncoming hordes. In Bümbardia, it's the oncoming hordes you're protecting. As they advance on enemy positions, you command airstrikes to defeat enemy troops. Some weapons are devastating but take longer to recharge. A "surprise" weapon was evocative of Worms: you may just drop an anvil on a soldier's head.
Outlast (Red Barrels)
My favorite part of the survival-horror game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was the lack of combat: your best hope to survive the living nightmares was to run. Outlast takes this premise and makes an entire game of it, casting you as a journalist with only a camcorder to document his escape from an asylum stocked with the lethally insane. Outlast's production values will make one question what it means to be an indie; unfortunately, in my test, the gamma values were such that I could hardly see anything, blurring the line between terrifying and frustrating.
Outlast is available now for Windows and is coming this fall to PlayStation 4.