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The PAX East show floor is so crowded it becomes a faux pas to stop and think for even a moment; the slightest disruption to movement becomes the seed of a traffic jam scores deep; turning your head for a second too long recklessly courts bumped shoulders and elbows in one’s face. Yet amidst the unmanaged traffic and ineffectually-taped-off chaos, it remains unaccountably possible to grasp glimpses of games and even manage the miracle of touching a controller or keyboard.
I also risked enough head-turns at the Indie MegaBooth this year to note twin themes rising from the colorful booths: lady detectives and outer space. Sadly, no lady detectives in space. But in a variety of offerings from Juggernaut Games’ laser-y space roguelike Star Crawlers, to Mografi’s gorgeously spooky Jenny LeClue, to the soft glow of distant suns in System Era’s base-building Astroneer, you were either looking earthward through a magnifying glass or to the stars down the scope of a rifle or a surveyor’s theodolite.
Here’s a brief look at what I managed to get my hands on amidst the claustrophobic din.
You could play chain-smoking FBI Special Agent Ray in her hunt for the secrets of Thimbleweed Park, for instance, in a game that continues indie games’ love affair with the pixel.
Its somewhat frustrating control scheme failed to dim the fun for me, however; there is an underlying silliness to this game that is just plain endearing. It doesn’t take itself entirely too seriously and thus its weirdness makes its flirtations with darkness all the more appealing and original. The game begins with a dead body that, you’re told, is “pixellating” at an alarming rate (rather than decaying). Its pixels are diegetic rather than a pure nostalgia trip, and that put a smile on my face.
What had me grinning ear to ear like a loon, however, was an indie game from Down Under featured at the PAX Rising pavilion, a special indie showcase meant to highlight new developers. Flat Earth Games’ Objects in Space--from its very name to the shape of the Ceres-class ship you fly therein--is a "modempunk" loveletter to the spirit of Firefly.
The game is a low-res spaceflight simulator that sees you in charge of a small freighter making runs throughout the galaxy on your own schedule, with a fully functional cockpit and a bewildering array of controls--which the devs proudly tout contains “no handholding”--it’s a rough game with little margin for error, and thus I felt really damn proud when I shot down a pirate’s homing missile with one of my own.
The game, with its openness, less than forgiving simulation of space, and pixels of stars in an infinite night, recalls Star Control right down to some of the physics of flight. What is all the more intriguing is the fact that Flat Earth has crowdsourced writing for the game, allowing you to read in-universe news reports written by over a dozen different hands, sketching in the raucous politics and culture of Objects in Space’s vast galaxy.
This is a game about spaceflight that promises not to skimp on the worldbuilding--and thank the heavens for that.
But a special shout-out must be given to the display they built for the game at PAX East. Physical Controller Designer Jennifer Scheurle and Lead Programmer Elissa Harris built an actual mockup of the ship’s control console, with status lights, buttons, and switches aplenty (firing a torpedo never felt so real or satisfying).
They’ve made the console design open-source and, frankly, fan-cockpits are some of the most exciting videogame fanart I can think of.
In addition, Kitfox Games’ Moon Hunters deserves special mention. I had caught a glimpse of it on display at Different Games this year but hadn’t gotten a chance to sink my teeth into it until the last day of PAX East just before my train ride home.
Its slogan was, originally, “build your own mythology” but, as writer and creative director Tanya Short explained to me, they needed to distil the concept of the game into something more specific that befit both its focus on character development and its relatively brief length (roughly two to three hours, ten hours to get 100% completion): “a co-op personality test.”
I played Roa, a Minstrel who ran around lute in hand like an Order of the Stick character, singing her way through battle. Her attacks and buffs were represented as button combos on a musical scale, an equal parts challenging and rewarding way to play, allowing you to mix and match ‘notes’ for different effects--a really powerful attack, or a mixed attack and mana/power regeneration spell, for instance.
You travel through a mystical world of forest tribes as you try to discover why the Moon has apparently disappeared. The game has a lot of grindy and sometimes annoyingly repetitive and uninteresting combat, but the narrative aspects are highly appealing. Dialogue choices, when engaged in by a whole group, are decided by a vote.
But no matter the outcome, your individual choice affects the shape of your character--presumably this is part of the “personality” test; at the end of the saga, you are matched to one of the great constellations based on the person you became on your adventure.
Combat is more interesting with boss battles and it is here that the unique abilities of each class come into their own. I had a grand old time strategically resurrecting and empowering my comrades as they whittled away at a boss--it, perhaps, reminded me a bit too much of my days as a Holy Priest in WoW, healing and buffing away. But I liked that, frankly.
It’s the story that interests me most here and where my moon hunt will eventually lead me, though--and the game left much to entice me on that score.
A conference floor didn’t feel like the best place to take in the leisurely pace of exploration the game seems to demand. Our frenetic, electron-like pinging in the game seemed to mirror the milling of the hundreds of people swarming around us in the expo hall. But what I saw of the story and dialogue, as well as the beautiful artwork, left me enchanted by a moonless world and the promise of a meaningful night sky with my character somewhere in the firmament.
One last note: The Quantum Astrophysicist’s Guild’s puzzle game Tumblestone is a shockingly fun multiplayer game. From a distance, the vaguely Tetris-like game, which requires you to clear a channel of blocks by breaking three identically colored blocks in a row, seems like just another colorful puzzle game competing for real estate on your smart phone screen.
Up close, its simple premise makes for a surprisingly economical whirlwind of fun. Three friends of mine and I played a round together, each competing to see who could clear our blocks first. It was surprisingly intense. Tumblestone is one of those games that works on a very basic level to efficiently use simple game design principles to create an immersive, involving experience.
There’s a lesson in minimalism here, to be sure. I wanted to play against my friends all day.
The corporatist crush of PAX and its enormous crowds are a touch daunting for an autistic lady like me who gets a bit cringey at loud incoherent noises and constant touching, but there was a reason I darted to the Indie Megabooth at 9AM on the first day for the special press-only hour. It remains an incubator of exciting and original efforts in the gaming world and I look forward to it every year. But, hopefully, we’ll see some some lady space detectives next year.