Melbourne International Games Week lives up to the festival the name evokes, bringing together a welter of gaming events, and two major regional conferences into close proximity. Amidst the cicada chirps of the city’s crosswalk signals there were jangling lanyards, brightly colored hairdos, and geeky conversation interspersed with fun cosplay. It’s come a long way from a few years ago when the city wouldn’t even rate PAX highly enough to put extra trams on the tracks during the week.
During my time in this southern star a few games stood out to me, which deserve special mention.
I had to be cajoled into trying this one. I normally beg off VR experiences at conferences, as my delicate stomach means that popping on a headset is a one way ticket to cold sweats and nausea. But Vee Pendergrast, the managing director of Perth-based Stirfire Studios, promised me that she too was sensitive to motion sickness and had extensively tested the game to ensure it suited the more fragile-bodied among us. Charmed, I tried on the HTC Vive headset and didn’t regret it.
You find yourself on a lift heading to the top of a tower amidst a Martian landscape of oxidized mountains and lifeless skies. At the summit, you arrive at an ancient machine and a helpful robot aide eagerly feeding you tools.
You’re told to plant a seed in a pot of soil; from then on the fun begins. Using a variety of mirrors and splitters, you use a single beam of light to activate the eponymous machine, which controls the weather on the planet. A series of puzzles takes you step by step on a journey that brings a dead world back to life.
It’s a placid and meditative game that nevertheless exercises your mind. Though I required direction from one of the developers at first--something I assume will be ironed out by a proper in-game tutorial and visual cues later in development--everything became intuitive. I enjoyed crouching down and fiddling with my tools to get the beams to arc just right; it lent itself to a variety of possible solutions and a wide range of motility. It felt realistic enough too. As I rode to the top of the platform, looking over the edge of the lift produced a slight sense of vertigo. I’ll put things plainly: I never loved a VR game until I played Symphony of the Machine.
Team Armadillo are a trio of fresh-faced Sydneysider game dev students whose freshman effort bears no trace of their relative youth. Baroviet--which was on display at both Game Connect Asia-Pacific and PAX Aus--is a spooky puzzle platformer where you play a young woman running (for her life?) through a silhouetted forest, accompanied by a will o’ the wisp who offers to aid her.
The wisp can open “lenses,” one into the spirit world, and one into a world of shadow. Each reveals hidden aides, whether in the form of ghostly tree limbs that allow you to cross obstacles, or translating arcane runes. Its design is a near flawless slope that gradually eases the player into ever more complicated applications of the lenses to solve platforming puzzles. Baroviet’s shrouded palette also merits special praise. Like the game itself, it’s gorgeously expressive, equal parts beguiling and chilling.
It’s not a savagely difficult game, by any means, and it feels like one of those rare titles that can be played by adolescents without either condescending to them or overwhelming them with issues beyond their ken. It’s worth a look, if only to see how they managed to get the tone just right, with each mechanic clicking into place like a tumbler lock.
Keep an eye on that armadillo.
I picked the most appropriate possible time to play this game: on the long flight back from Melbourne to New York. Somewhere between Taiwan and Japan I played Gritfish’s social media simulator. You play a person killing time aboard a faster-than-light passenger starship en route to another solar system. However, per the laws of relativity, time slows down while you’re in flight. What feels like a half hour to you will be decades on Earth--which you watch unfold via the social media network you remain plugged into, seeing your friends and the society you left behind grow and change in mere minutes. Refreshing the page sees their lives advance by months or years, all from the comfort of your seat aboard the space plane.
It felt appropriate to play on a 16 hour flight with no wifi, disconnected from the fast moving world beneath me while I had nothing but time.
Killing Time tells an interesting--if unevenly written--story about how the advent of cybernetic implants changes the society you left behind. You have access to a number of news articles throughout your journey, which were crowdsourced by Gritfish. The result is an compelling mosaic--sometimes the social commentary is a little too on the nose, or the worldbuilding is inconsistent, other times the stories are downright eerie or amusing. The heart of the game, however, lies in the Twitter-like chat stream you navigate, liking and responding to tweets from a menu of pre-written choices. How you interact with your friends in those crucial moments can shape their futures.
It’s Gibson with genderqueer robots.
I wrote about this “modempunk” spacefaring game in my PAX East roundup from this year, but it deserves another highlight for its strong showing in its native country. You fly a beat up space freighter across the galaxy using your instruments and screens to navigate.
This is no one’s easy game. From Newtonian physics to occasionally unforgiving space combat, you’re given a clear sense of how hard it might be to ply the spacelanes of a dangerous galaxy. You have to do your own sensor readings, for instance, looking carefully at the frequencies of your radar returns to see if a strange signal hiding out in a nebula is a space pirate. The complexity extends to the game’s trading system as well, which I got a small preview of at PAX Aus. You cannot simply dump tons of ore onto a space station, for example; the merchants will demand bulk discounts. In addition, different space stations will pay very different prices for certain materials, compelling you to shop around. Often, the most profitable thing to do is pick up shipping contracts to shuffle cargo between stations as you do so--failing to honor a contract might lead to mercenaries coming after you.
For now, the space stations are bare bones but designer Leigh Harris promises that they’ll be populated with life in the final version--from space denizens milling about to news wires with updates on the politics of each star system. What is there, however, gets to the heart of what “modempunk” seems to be: the game looks like how a dial-up modem sounds. Text-based interfaces with mechanical keyboards abound in this universe, and as you navigate by instrument, you get the sense this might be Oregon Trail to the stars.
A New Life for Jerry - Tomato. Simulator. Enough said. Well, not quite enough: this is a relatively straightforward and all-too-brief student project made in Unity. It’s a fun little five minute experience that you make your own meaning from.
Element - “The Enemy is purple and must be destroyed,” declares this game’s tutorial. This fast paced space strategy game is pared down to the genre’s most, dare I say, elemental bits. You must harvest resources on various planets while outwitting your purple opponent. It’s decidedly short on story (what did Purple ever do to you?) but its polygonal aesthetics are gorgeous and its gameplay is surprisingly addictive.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.
Travel and accommodations paid for in part via the Victorian government's Visiting Journalist Program.