When one steps into MIT Building 34 on Saturday, I suppose they could be amazed by the sheer amount of people crammed into just a few small classrooms, and all just to try out some free video games. Around 1,600 people had registered, and it definitely felt that cramped.
The second annual Boston Festival for Indie Games (Boston FIG) brings together local independent game developers and enthusiasts for a free day of self-promotion, friendly competition, and the nerdiest of all activities—all to celebrate the budding, innovative gaming industry that seems to be taking root in Boston.
Out of 100 submissions, 30 finalists got the chance to display their creations in the digital showcase, a setup in two small classrooms packed to the brim with developers and players alike. One might be reminded of PAX East in terms of enthusiasm, but it existed on a more compressed scale. The games are less well known, and the booths are less flashy, but the quality is in no way diminished. Some of these games might be the next Braid, the next big indie hit. Some will fall into obscurity or may never get fully made. But all are artistic visions of a person who grew up with a controller in his or her hand.
That is why they all gather here at MIT, when they could be wasting the perfect weather playing games inside their rooms.
Each of the attendees got five stickers upon picking up their badges. These were their voting powers, deeming which games in the showcase would win in five different categories: Game design, technical quality, visual art, audio design, and narrative. Each of the winners received software prizes from Adobe and Unity and a small trophy, but those were nowhere near as rewarding as receiving the recognition from fans and peers.
Walking into the showcase, you can feel the electricity from the surge protectors and you are surrounded by noise. People are talking to developers, yelling in frustration, and laughing. Overall, a typical game gathering.
The games cover all of the bases. There are multiplayer games, mobile games, tablets, puzzlers, platformers, first person shooters, and everything in between. There is something for everybody here, but there are a few that are universal. These are the games that will become big sellers or will get the backing they will need to go public.
While I did not get to sample every game—the game design and technical award winners seemed to slip my mind, much to my chagrin—many of the ones that caught my eye were worth the crowds. Some games seemed to take old ideas, tweak them, and create new mechanics that brought in the players.
As an indie game, you need a hook—something to create interest and make the game worthwhile. Indie players want something different in their games besides the typical first person shooter.
These games are intellectual, sophisticated, and artistic. Here are some of my highlights.
The point and click adventure game is a dying genre, saved only for Windows 98 and nostalgia, but sometimes the strategy involved is compelling. In Resonance, created by Wadjet Eye Games over the course of five years, the point and click aspects only work to enhance the thrills. The game is about a science experiment gone horribly wrong, and the four people that can stop it have a lot to battle. The level available at Boston FIG was a child’s nightmare, where the player had to figure out the puzzle in order to escape from the monster. The levels are suspenseful and the puzzles take a lot of strategy, adding to the chaotic nature of the game. Players responded to this title, which was given the narrative award at the end of the night.
This title had the fortune of being displayed at the start of the showcase, and right across from Fieldrunners 2, arguably one of the most popular games at the festival. At first glance, the game, created by Owlchemy Labs, seems like a Fruit Ninja clone, but it reveals itself to be so much more. The game feature a lumberjack whose granny has been killed by a tree, so now he’s out for revenge. He uses his supernatural lumberjacking powers to chop up all of the trees. Never has an anti-environmental message been so amusing. This game won points all around, but ended up winning the audio design award.
Girls Like Robots
At a small table in the back, PopCannibal had their cross platform, seating arrangement game up, astounding those that played it with its unique art style. A game about seating arrangements sounds as torturous as making actual seating arrangements, but here, you get to cheer up the girls with robots, and the nerds with girls, and piss off the girls with nerds, and everything else that doesn’t make any sense. Are we in space? Yeah? So what? You make a good point, Popcannibal.
While the game was still in its planning stages during the demonstration at Boston FIG, Candelight, created by Idle Action Studios, was immediately unique thanks to its art style. The Victorian setting was shadowed in silhouette and the two characters were romantic and enchanting, and this is all in a 2-D puzzle platformer. There were a few bugs common to unfinished games, but the beauty and the idea of controlling two characters at once were very appealing.
For eight hours, a classroom on the second floor was almost completely silent, minus the tapping of keyboards. The Adobe Game Jam took seven teams, gave them the theme of “independence,” and set them loose to create an almost complete game. If you took off of work for a day, what could you do in that time? This was its inspiration. The games were then presented at the awards ceremony where the developers judged them with applause and other sounds of approval.
The games were rough and clearly unfinished, but the basis was still there, and some of the ideas were on par with some of the bigger games in the showcase.
One game utilized Kinect-style controls on a computer webcam to swipe at black boxes. Another game (soon to be up on Newgrounds.com, according to the creators), visualized the all-too-real situation of trying to create a game at a nine-to-five corporate job. One team created a card game; another was created with dice. Considering the theme, the entries were surprisingly different.
Whatever comes of these games, the eight-hour time span makes them all impressive, showing that ideas need not be so complicated when the idea is there.
The Game Jam participants did not receive any prizes for their submissions, but the reception and the challenge was what kept them going. Plus some free lunch. That was stressed.
Five different documentaries played during the festival, each covering a different aspect of gaming culture. The feature Going Cardboard covered the recent resurgence of board games, many of which were available in the tabletop gaming rooms. Darkon followed a group of LARPers in Baltimore.
The highlight, however, was arguably Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary following three indie game artists in their quest to understand their profession and their creations. The designers behind Super Meat Boy worry about getting their game out on time. Phil Fish, the leader behind FEZ, examines why the game took so long to be released, and the amount of pressure it puts on a designer. Jonathan Blow, the face behind Braid, tries to understand his game and what it did for his psyche. The film was almost shaped like a narrative, as the audience grew to learn the motivations behind the creators and became invested when they either succeed or fail.
It is an impeccably crafted film, and could appeal to a much larger audience besides indie gamers, maybe even make them understand the industry that seems to be taking over the gaming world.
Despite all of the action and suspense (maybe), the festival had to end, and it seemed to end too soon. There is so much more potential in what Boston FIG can do for the industry and what it could do for Boston. Our city has already become an epicenter for gaming studios, and who’s to say that it can’t become something bigger?
There were so many games here with immense potential, and with the support, they can become classics in their own right.
Looking forward to next year, although hopefully there will be more room … and more games.