PAX Aus 2017: Five Indie highlights
Posted on November 27, 2017
As in previous years, my top gaming highlight of PAX was the independent developer showcase. While a lot of attention is paid towards the big shiny games at PAX and elsewhere (i.e. I spend a lot of time talking about Doom and Overwatch), there is a lot to recommend Indie games. They are hands down more interesting, creative, unique and surprising than almost anything in the triple-A space, and when you support indie developers you are often supporting a small business owner in Australia or elsewhere. It’s also the main place that Aussie developers are kicking goals.
So here are a few that immediately caught my eye, in no particular order:
The Invisible Hand
Now here’s a type of video game you don’t hear about often: a stock-trading simulator. Seriously. The title, The Invisible Hand, is taken directly from Adam Smith, one of the main free-market philosophers of the nineteenth century. You walk around an office and sit at computers, and then access information you can use to buy and sell stocks. That’s it, or it appears to be – although it remains to be seen whether the game’s system really allow you to trade in weapons, landmines, and fossil fuels with apparently unlimited social benefit.
Now this seems to be based on an old-school educational game, Virtual Trading or The Stock Market Game – this has been done for years to help students at school learn about business, finance, and numeracy, so it makes sense to build this into a video game. After a few minutes playing I discovered that I have an enormous amount to learn, and discovering your lack of knowledge is the first step to learning. In short it looks like this is another game to add to the long list of games that can be adapted for use in the classroom by the right kind of creative and innovative teacher. It may not make millions in sales but it’s certainly very interesting.
Some games just take your breath away with their visual design and incredible creativity. Projection is based on the wayang kulit, the Indonesian (actually Javanese) shadow-puppet play that tells the story of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata over the course of a whole night. I once wrote an academic article on how this play was used extensively in Christoper Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously (and its film adaptation starring Mel Gibson), so the usage of this art form grabbed my interest straight away.I won’t comment on whether or not this is a form of artistic appropriation…
It plays like a platform puzzler (think Mario Brothers meets Tetris) but brings a unique angle to the genre. Apart from the beautiful visual design you can see below, the idea of light and shadow is built into the gameplay, so for example you can control light sources to change the platforms you walk across. Although it was hard to tell at PAX, I am hoping that it also brings a unique storytelling style to the classic that may be known to many in international audiences (especially Hindus and Indians) but may not be well known to westerners. This is one to watch, for sure.
Now here’s a retro throwback with a new twist. If you’re like me you would remember Breakout, the 2D arcade brick breaker. There have been many clones of it over the years, but not so many that do something genuinely new and different. Ultra Break stays true to the core mechanics of the originals but has many new features that bring some real originality to the game. For example, you are able to ‘aim’ your shots to get the ball up the top for the best number of hits; you can gather and use special ‘weapons'; and you can create your own levels for friends or other players online. This game shows that incredible creativity can come from building on well-known classic games; it also has great music, a level of polish, and fantastic spectacle which makes it one of the indies I am really looking forward to playing.
The Gardens Between
Here is another testament to the power of video games to tell stories in entirely unique ways. The Gardens Between explores the memories of best friends Arina and Frendt and they find themselves in a garden of surreal three-dimensional islands and explore their memories of childhood, friendship and growing up. Obviously this is the kind of story that has been told many times before, in fiction and film, but gaming as a medium brings a completely new perspective. As the player you don’t control events directly; rather, the left and right controls on the joystick control time, and you make the two characters move forwards and backwards in time to solve puzzles and progress the narrative. It’s hard to explain and I was sceptical until I tried it on the show floor, but it really works as a way of conveying a narrative in a unique way. It may not appeal to those who like plenty of action gameplay (here’s looking at you, mirror), but it’s an example of how gaming as a medium is really maturing and diversifying, and becoming more appealing to a wider variety of players.
The developer of these two titles, New Blood Games, saw me coming. They seem to have riffed straight off the retro-shooter mechanics of Doom (2016) and the newest Wolfenstein reboots so they hit me right on the gameplay buttons. Both games have a pixellated art style, heavy metal-inmpired music, and low-resolution graphics that seem to just work. Dusk is a wave-based first-person shooter, meaning that you simply run around a small map shooting enemies (don’t worry, they’re evil). It’s pretty simple but the controls are incredibly smooth and engaging – I just wanted to play it more and more. Amid Evil seems to have more of a storyline and campaign progression as well as a fantasy-type setting, but to be honest, both of them got me really excited. They are almost certainly not good for younger kids, but I found myself returning to them on the show floor for yet another round.
So that’s a few of the games that caught my attention on the indie show floor at Penny Arcade Expo Australia in 2017. I can’t say that they are the best, or even my favourites, because there was just so much on offer and time was limited. But they show some of the incredible talent that is coming out of independent game development in Australia and elsewhere, and also the creativity and originality that is becoming standard in this part of the sector. Keep an eye out for games that you might not have heard of but really open your mind to what gaming has to offer!
What did you find the most surprising, interesting, or exciting among these offerings? Comment below!