All photography by James Ledue

To a tourist, a good town feels a little bit like home. Sure, it’s exciting and overwhelming, novel and unexplored, but a good town has an innate sense of familiarity and homeliness. I was a tourist this past weekend, but not in the way you might think.

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Crowds at the M.I.T. Stratton Student Center

On Saturday, September 14th, the Boston Festival of Indie Games (BFIG) was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Stratton Student Center. A bit of a personal background: I don’t play indie games a whole lot, save for those that garner a hefty amount of notoriety—games like Fez, Journey, and the excellent Battleblock Theater. Not fully knowing what to expect, I walked around BFIG in awe, excited and overwhelmed at all of the novel games there were to explore.

 

Some developers took it upon themselves to take classic titles and update them for a modern audience.

Risen Games had a game that was clearly a riff off Asteroids, gameplay-wise, but it doubled as a tower defense game. In addition, Adrift—that’s the name of the game—is also a cooperative, class-based shooter. Up to five people at a time can choose from one of three classes: pilot (the standard), scavenger (fast and resourceful, but a bit weaker), or mechanic (great at building towers). After a short period of time, you unlock a Blink ability, and, really, every game should have that. They’ve got a Kickstarter, if that sounds like your thing—trust me when I say it does.

The guys at Cairn4 redid Pong—but with zombies. How’s that work, you ask? Well, the gameplay is exactly like the classic video game, only optimized for touchscreens; you move your paddle up and down the screen, bouncing a puck back-and-forth with the other player, in hopes to score a goal and get the most points. Only, in Pombie Zong, there are zombies on the field. And the puck is not a puck—it’s a saw. What results is a hectic and zany competitive-cooperative game, where you’re trying desperately both to stay alive and snag the highest score. At the moment, it’s only available for Android, though an iOS version has not yet been ruled out.

Some developers had downright entertaining contributions to recently established genres.

Parkourasaur, a freerunning game that puts you, the player, in the character of a dinosaur, doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it’s fucking awesome. Harking back to Nanosaur, the ridiculous ’90s game, you’ve lost your eggs, and now you have to collect them! Each level hosts three eggs, and you must collect them to advance to the next one. The levels are fast-paced, even for a runner, and are sure to entertain—through hilarity or invigoration—for hours. “We’re a small studio with a big heart,” says John Groh, one of the developers. Uranium Squid is a studio about as small as you can get—only two people—but they know their game more intimately than any AAA developer I’ve met. “We want to go back to what games used to be,” says John. “When you buy our game, you get the whole game.” It’s only $0.99 for Android, but a playable beta can be found in your browser.

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Gradient Studios’ booth illuminated what is possible in a browser-based game.

Bümbardia is an infinite scroller, done entirely in-house by the five-person team that is 80HD Games. It’s cartoony but gorgeous and graphically evocative of Nintendo titles, only with a lot more—as the name implies—explosives. The game features a team of infantrymen, advancing on very far-off position. You’re the “eyes in the sky,” dropping bombs to help them get as far down the path as possible. There are different types of bombs (some fall fast, but don’t blow up all that much; some snake their way down, but blow up a lot; etc.) and different types of terrain (urban, jungle, tundra, etc.). Basically, you blow stuff up and have a great time.

Candlelight is a game “about exploring and learning to explore; trying to figure out where you are,” says Solomon Lutze, head of Idle Action Studios. Perhaps the most atmospheric game at BFIG, Candlelight is a two-dimensional puzzle-platformer. Don’t groan! I know, we’ve had more than plenty of those over the past forever, but this one is truly unique. Graphically, it’s stylized a bit like Limbo—all shadows and dark shapes in the foreground, all white ambience in the background—but you control two characters at the same: a boy and a girl. The boy is about environmental manipulation, while the girl is about personal prowess. She can jump higher and has the ability to pull levers, granting access to the next area. He, on the other hand, is surrounded by a mystical aura that alters the level by removing an obstacle or revealing a hidden platform. Within minutes, I was scratching my head. The game will be released for Windows, Mac, and Linux. An open beta is currently available, but only if you say “please.”

Some developers set out to educate and inspire, as well as entertain.

High Class Kitsch showed off Pandora: Purge of Pride. In it, you play as Pandora—you know, the famous one? The Seven Deadly Sins have invaded your house, and you’re tasked with solving puzzles to eliminate them. As you progress past each area, you gain a power in the form of one of the Sins—Greed, Lust, etc. I only got to Greed, which allows you to pull certain objects towards you—greedy bastard—but the game, at that point, was already complex and mentally straining in all the right ways. The art and assets, mostly rendered by Jill Sauer, are impressively beautiful. To top it off, it’s available now. Go get it. What are you doing? Really, go.

I may be presumptuous by saying this, but I think it’s rare to say that someone with a Ph.D. in anthropology would quit teaching—at NYU, for that matter!—to found an independent games studio. But that’s what Karen Wehner did. “I grew tired of teaching bored undergrads,” she says, “so now I am doing this.” Currently, she is the founder and C.E.O. of ThunderSnow Media. Their first game, The Time Tribe, is an episodic, free-to-play, educational title—and when I say “free-to-play,” it is truly free to play. Karen is all about “[fostering] the global citizenship,” and that is exactly what this game does. From Roman Britain in 122 C.E. to the Silk Road in 887 C.E. to Inca Peru in 1533 C.E., this game is sure to teach children and adults. Due to her extensive educational résumé, everything in the game is unbiased and historically accurate. Does that make it bland? No. “You don’t have to break history to make it interesting, you know,” she says.

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The ladies of Choice of Games.

The ladies at the Choice of Games booth, Heather and Tucker, presented an interactive novel. Choice of Romance, unlike the majority of self-published work, is held up to a style of editorial excellence. No typos, here. Each story is put through a rigorous editing process and, when it comes out the other end—on your phone or tablet—what you get is an evocative, emotional, interactive piece of fiction. It bears similarities to the text-adventures of times long gone, only much, much better.

Some games were really weird—but in a good way!

Devin Wilson, a self-titled “Interdependent Game Designer,” brought his “computer game that’s not a video game,” Spooky Thumb Wrestling at a Distance. No graphics, no high-concept control scheme, no screens, even—just PlayStation Move controllers and a nonsensical light show. Each player’s controller has a plastic lightbulb attached to its end. After all players are synced, the light turns on, and you mash buttons until one light turns green (that’s the winner) and the other turn red (they’re the losers). Holding true to the title, spooky music runs throughout. I played a few rounds, and never really understood what was going on, but it sure felt damn satisfying to win.

“There’s not really an objective,” Crystal Ngai explains of upcoming title Apsis. Ngai is a student at Cornell University, and she and her colleagues—also all Cornell students—have created this almost entirely premise-free game. But it was still one of the more immersive experiences at BFIG. You control a flock of birds. You touch the screen to get birds into your flock. You are not rewarded for having more birds, nor are you granted skills or levels or placements on rating boards. But the environment is beautiful, the music serene. In the words of a fellow bystander, “If I was tripping, this would be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”

I also saw the “world’s most advanced soda drinking simulator.” I’m still perplexed, even in recollection, but apparently Will Brierly—Soda Drinker Pro’s creator—was very, very thirsty. SDP makes some serious headway into the first-person soda (FPS) genre; headway that needs to be made in the undersaturated world of FPSs. Huh. Well, it has over 250,000 downloads so far. Are you one of them?

Multilytheus, a “difficult abstract first-person puzzle game,” is exactly what the tagline promotes. Astro Assembly have created a game that is disorienting, infuriating, and mind-numbing, yes, but it is also wildly entertaining. You have your standard game mechanics—run, jump, world interaction, etc.—but you’re placed in an odd, odd world. Colors blend together, patterns infuse with other patterns, rooms start looking the same. It is, for all intents and purposes, like playing through a piece of abstract art. If that’s your thing, then this game is your thing; it launches next week.

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Karen Wehner, Ph.D., and her daughter.

Some games defined what can truly come out of independent game studios.

Collide is, impressively—you’ll understand in a minute—built entirely in JavaScript. It’s a customizable, physics-based, battle-arena game, where you control not warriors, but spaceships. You build your own ships, Lego-style, head into the arena, then smash and speed and shoot your way to victory. Gradient Studios has explicitly tailored and calibrated the physics engine for this game; for example, if you crash into someone’s wing, their wing will fall off, as opposed to, say, some arbitrary part. Consistent with the customizable theme, you can upload ship schematics online, allowing for easy sharing between players—or, if you’re not quite as generous, they can simply copy you through reverse-engineering. As of this writing, arenas are not customizable, but they will be. Give it a go!

Government in Action—which has been likened to House of Cards—is a government simulator. Snore? Nope. The game has a depth and level of intellect that more games should strive for; so much so, in fact, that the developers, Muzzy Lane Interactive, have partnered with McGraw-Hill, the education industry giant. In Government in Action, you play a senator. Your goal is to get reelected. To do so, you must debase your rivals, sleep with interns, and plot secret murders pass appropriate bills, raise funds, and place advertisements. It sounds like boring stuff, but due to an interesting, turn-based approach—and the fact that you’re actually learning something—the game is a gem.

Crystal Brawl is, after playing only a few short rounds, the game I look forward to most. We need more games like this, and Studio Mercato, the brains behind this local two-v.-two “battle-sport” game, delivers. It is, essentially, capture-the-flag but with fantasy tropes. Instead of starting on opposite ends, like traditional CTF, both teams start on the same end. They dash to the other end of the field to grab a—you guessed it—crystal ball and bring it back to their respective goals. Boasting unique classes, interesting abilities, and malleable—yes, in the destructive sense—environments, the game is uproarious fun. Since couch–co-op games have been oddly absent, as of late, this game is very welcome. Unfortunately, no systems have been announced yet.

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Uranium Squid, with their palm trees, gave the festival a tropical punch!

Needless to say, the event was a blast.

I mean, with a giant room literally full of games, how could it not be? Considering the fact that the majority of these games were done by a handful of people—as opposed to teams of dozens of hundreds—with minimal budgets and design engines to boot, I left impressed and enlightened. The majority of developers I spoke to said their games were developed in Unity, an engine not particularly renowned for its rendering power, and they still looked remarkably beautiful. Here’s the kicker: Unity is coming to Sony consoles which, considering how great so many of these lo-fi games are, opens many doors. It gives me hope for gaming—hope that the industry will grow more diverse, more elaborate, less childish, less repetitive, and less dry.

Lecturing aside, what was the best part of BFIG? Most every game was available to play on the floor. So, for someone like me—someone with a lot of experience playing video games, but not that much with indies—it felt a little bit like home.

And that’s the most a tourist can ask for.

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