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Boston Festival of Indie Games

MIT Johnson Athletic Center

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The 4th annual Boston Festival of Indie Games (FIG) took place this past Saturday at the MIT Johnson Athletic Center, where more than 100 independent game developers, studios, artists, and animators gathered to showcase their work. The celebration attracted thousands of visitors who ranged from casual gaming enthusiasts to video game scholars.

Exhibitors came to the Boston FIG in hopes of winning “Figgies.” Judging panels awarded five Figgies to tabletop (non-digital) games and seven to digital games for their superior craftsmanship. A few awards are “Most Innovative,” “Stunning Sound,” “Awesome Aesthetic,” and “The Laser Kitten Award” (for best technical quality). An “Audience Choice Award” Figgie is awarded to the most popular digital game and to the most popular non-digital game.

For digital games, the people’s favorite was Ultimate Chicken Horse, a 2D design-your-own platformer. Players select farm animal characters and take turns building levels of an obstacle course. Once the course is built, players dodge spikes, saws, and other dangerous elements while racing each other to the finish line. The game’s juxtaposition of cute farm animals and cartoon animation with horrifying death cries and perilous situations make for morbidly hilarious gameplay.

Lay Waste Games’ Dragoon, a two-to-four-player action strategy board game, took the Audience Choice Award for tabletop games. To win, players must fill their cave with gold, which can be stolen or gathered from burning villages. Dragoon began as a Kickstarter effort, and, in only 34 days, the project had over 1,200 backers and raised over $88,000. The bright, bold artwork and straightforward rules attracted and sustained a large crowd throughout the festival.

Other notable exhibits included the Vive, which is HTC’s unreleased virtual reality headgear; Palindrome, a minimalist Bejeweled-esque puzzle app featured in the App Store; and Mushroom 11, an innovative puzzle platformer which won multiple accolades, including the PAX East Best in Show in 2014 and the SXSW 2014 Gamer’s Voice Finalist.

HTC allowed festival participants to experience the Vive in an early preview. We were led into a small, sequestered square composed of white screens and motion-sensing equipment. After being outfitted with headgear, headphones, and two handheld controllers, we entered virtual reality. We drew in 3D with Google’s TiltBrush, explored the deep sea with WEVR’s theBlu, made soup with OwlChemy’s Job Simulator, and got the pink slip from GLaDOS, Portal’s snarky head robot, in Valve’s Aperture.

Established and up-and-coming game companies alike invented their own alternate realities. After three-and-a-half years of development, the four-person team of Untame Studios is aiming to release Mushroom 11 in October. Users direct a slime blob through a beautifully illustrated, post-apocalyptic world with maze-like levels by erasing and regrowing blob sections while avoiding lava. Luminescent green tendrils bloom through an intricate, industrial environment, and tricky multi-step challenges compel players to think on their feet. In this adventure, a polished aesthetic complements intuitive gameplay.

Several new and upcoming games like Paper Shadows, Emily is Away, and Anamorphine also piqued our interest.

The monochrome art of Paper Shadows is a beautiful homage to shadow puppetry. Players navigate the game world with two characters that illuminate the surrounding forests and tunnels. Each character is able to see only certain sections of the path, so players must strategize their movements. The soft, gentle music coupled with the elegant art design made for a dreamlike experience.

Emily is Away, a piece of interactive fiction, puts narrative into the hands of players. Set within a character’s AIM account, the game consists of choosing messages to send to Emily, the player’s best friend. Once a player has selected an option, they type on the keyboard and see the typing pattern of their character — including deletions that may reveal the character’s true thoughts. It explores relationship dynamics in an organic way, relaying the story through a beloved communication platform of the 1990s and early 2000s. The game will be released in October and will be free for download.

Anamorphine is a first-person game documenting the psyche of a man forced to come to terms with his traumatic past. The player traverses tunnels, deserts, and even structures composed of glass bottles, slowly recovering past memories with each new environment. Houses shatter before the player’s eyes, and walls twist and turn to form endless rooms. The detailed animations and textures work in concert with bizarre imagery to give the impression of walking through a Dali or Magritte painting.

Following the game exhibitions, Susan Gold, a game design professor at Northeastern, gave a keynote address in which she emphasized the legitimacy of game design as a creative industry. Initially reluctant to participate in the game design community, she became increasingly involved with games after seeing their potential as an artistic narrative medium. The warmth, innovation, and diversity of game creators inspired her to become a key player in a number of gaming development initiatives such as the Global Game Jam, a worldwide event where participants create a game in 48 hours.

Gold finds that the people who work with games — who live and breathe games for a living — are like a tribe of people in the desert. Even though the game creation community may occasionally be isolated, its environment is far from desolate. It houses passionate, welcoming people who are eager to share their creations.