New England has long been a videogame powerhouse, but if you only read the headlines the scene seems to be in turmoil. Two of the biggest New England-based videogame studios, Irrational Games and 38 Studios, folded in spectacular, public fashion within the past few years. Outside of New England, there are questions of how strong the indie scene is at all.
When you walk around the annual Boston Festival of Indie Games, you’ll see games that range from completed releases to prototypes still trying to get funds on Kickstarter. The common denominator is that they’re almost all being made by small studios. All of the developers are running around the floor, handing out flyers with a sense of desperation, and taking a hands-on approach to drumming up attention for their games. Boston FIG is only one day and it only gets bigger every year. The competition between the studios is only heightened by the awards show that caps out the day, with some of the categories based on audience votes. It’s a quick rush to just get your game noticed. Boston’s indie scene is small but fruitful, and the five games listed below stood out among their peers, but the overall picture shows a close-knit, determined, and ever-growing community that is always experimenting and creating.
Despite being in the very back of the room, Albino Lullaby’s booth was one of the most noticeable. Banners with long, teeth-gritting heads stretched towards the ceiling, and a monitor flashed quotes from outlets such as Polygon. Ape Law’s game was arguably one of the most well-known there and throughout the show, had one of the longest lines. Whether it was the grim setup or word spreading around the hall about the game is unclear, but its gimmick excited some of the people on line. It promised horror without jump scares or gore (founder Justin Pappas said that this might have contributed to its original "E for everyone" rating), and the people waiting to play it expressed that this was a refreshing take. In the first few minutes, the game is able to establish an atmosphere and put you on edge, exposing details about its semi-sentient mansion that leave you guessing. If that’s any indication, the studio reached its goal.
Fun Ghost’s Haunted Fun Factory evokes images of fun, easy-going spooky games, so it’s surprising that its addition to Boston FIG was Mile-Age, a casual driving game that puts the player in the center of a Max Max-style road chase for fuel and supplies. By just dragging your finger across the bottom of the mobile device, you can make your vehicle swerve around toxic sludge spills and lead your enemies into poles and other obstacles. It’s a challenging and simple take on the mobile racing genre that even children can try and conquer. I just kind of hope that their next game has to do with happy ghosts.
The next game from Neocolonialism developer Subaltern Games;, maker of subversive social commentaries, is more of the same, but this time tackling the education system. No Pineapple Left Behind is a resource management game about running the most profitable school. In order to maximize production, you need to turn children into pineapples. Children have complexities, according to developer Seth Alter, and pineapples are easier to control and teach. But in the end, it becomes less about teaching and more about a more sinister goal. The fun of Alter’s games is that, despite having overtly questionable elements, you still get sucked in. Just ask the girl who stood next to me for about 10 minutes shouting strategic tips through my headphones. She had some ideas about which children to emotionally crush.
The anticipation behind virtual reality includes looking forward to how games will differ from their controller-based counterparts, but for many, it exists outside of pure play. Archean Worldbuilder explores the development capabilities of working in a VR interface, allowing the user to experiment with creating environments by placing objects and building gardens. The representative expressed a multitude of uses for a program like Worldbuilder, including using it for developers who want to create their own virtual worlds and for people who might just want to build a space to relax in. It’s a reminder of the potential of VR beyond just “immersion."
During her mandatory two years in the Israeli army Yifat Shaik learned that, in order to survive, you needed to keep your head down and keep a low profile. You couldn’t interact fully with your colleagues and you couldn’t take breaks. In order to go home, you had to give in to a ridiculous hierarchy. Real Army Simulator, created through the recent TOjam, is a "satirical" take on these experiences. The game is still in its early stages and only has one story currently, but Shaik said she is looking forward to including other people’s experiences and more diverse stories to complete an amusing take on a military culture.
Carli Velocci is a freelance writer in the Boston area. Besides working on her webzine Postmortem Mag, she can also be seen ranting at Paste, Kill Screen and more. You can follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.