The third annual Play By Play International Games Festival is spilling out across Wellington this week. Adam Goodall played all 16 contenders for awards at the festival… for 16 minutes each.
If you’re a gamer who lives in Wellington it’s been hard to miss this week’s Play By Play events – a full-day conference of ideas and practice, game development workshops for children, a Overcooked tournament that’s for the real gamerz only – but the jewel in the festival’s crown is Saturday night’s Awards Night at Mac’s Brewbar. Ten contestable awards are up for grabs, and there are 16 competitors in the mix. They run the gamut from idle clickers to text-heavy town-builders – so it seemed only right to give all of them a hoon. I also asked each dev team: what’s one small thing about their game that they’re proud of, but that most people probably won’t notice?
Sixteen games, sixteen minutes each. 16 Games 16 Furious.
What is it: A series of comic-strip vignettes about Florence, a young Melbournite who falls into a relationship with a handsome cellist.
Who’s it by: Mountains (Australia).
What’s it like: Eerily familiar. Florence is specific to Florence, a 25 year old Asian-Australian woman stuck in a dead-end clerical job, but Florence highlights, and coaxes you to interact with, some pretty universal beats: remembering your dreams, finding what to say on the first date, crashing a bike in the big city. Each little chapter uses an interactive metaphor to unlock the sensation of falling for someone, instead of just the representation of it.
How far did I get: I just finished Act Three and I’m confident nothing bad’s going to happen to Florence.
One small thing: In the chapter ‘Exploration’, you have to shake polaroids to reveal the picture in them. However, Ken Wong, creative director at Mountains, points out that, “Instead of moving the polaroid on the screen, you can shake your device!”
39 DAYS TO MARS
What is it: A line-drawn co-operative puzzle game, like a tea-stained Snipperclips, about a gentleman and his cat flying to Mars in a steampunk spaceship.
Who’s it by: It’s Anecdotal (NZ).
What’s it like: The first screen recommends that you play it with a friend and boy, they’re not wrong. In single-player, you play both the gentleman and his cat Brothers-style. It’s murder on the wrists, especially because it’s not easy, even at the beginning. These are puzzles you need to sit and think on, work together with someone else on. 39 Days has a quaint charm to make up for that difficulty, though; there’s a decorum to its line-drawn design, like a story sketched in the margins of an English schoolboy’s textbook.
How far did I get: Didn’t even leave the ground.
One small thing: “One thing I’m very proud of is how the game adapts to your progress and helps you along,” developer Philip Buchanan says, “through a system of hints, subtle adjustments, and mostly-invisible changes to the puzzles that change the difficulty depend on whether you’re finding them too easy or too difficult. If this works the way it’s designed,” Buchanan says, “most players won’t even notice it while playing, but it should give everyone from expert puzzlers to first-time players an enjoyable experience.”
What is it: Bears driving dodgems on ice.
Who’s it by: Afterglow Games (NZ).
What’s it like: It’s a prototype at the moment and so it’s pretty barebones. Scoring is haphazard, it splits the screen vertically for two players and the options menu is a screen with the word ‘OPTIONS’ written in big text. But – and this is a huge but – the core game is stupidly fun. It’s multiplayer ice-dodgems with depressed donut bears behind the wheel, and its clumsy steering is part of the joy. It feels like you have to throw your whole body behind these low-powered chunks of metal. It’s perfectly faithful to the bumper car experience.
How far did I get: We played sixteen minutes of old fashioned bear dodgem. I won some rounds.
What is it: Your world’s under attack from a giant ant-ship and you need to go underground in this Dig Dug/Galaga hybrid with light base-building.
Who’s it by: New North Road (NZ).
What’s it like: Caves has a solid core – you fly around the core of your planet-under-siege shooting your own path through the crystalline rock, collecting gems and gold and avoiding bombs and worms. You can build power plants and chargers anywhere to keep you alive, which opens up a classic risk-reward structure – do you keep going and try to get back to the surface, or do you set up camp and live here now? Sixteen minutes in, though, Caves feels like a game that’s still playing nice; a game that isn’t as exacting, as unforgiving as it wants to be.
How far did I get: A giant praying mantis asked me to find his friend, the robobird.
One small thing: “I’m quite proud of the water,” says developer Matthew Gatland. “It’s made out of triangles, which is unusual, but I figured out some simple physics rules that make it feel like a natural part of the world.” It does look very good.
What is it: An incremental clicker game (think Candy Box or AdVenture Capitalist) in which you run a series of dungeons and make too much money.
Who’s it by: PikPok (NZ).
What’s it like: It’s colourful and loud and knows how to pull your attention away from other things. With player versus player raids and invasions and light role-playing stat-work, it’s more demanding than it is fun, but it is deeply satisfying to absolutely wreck shop on a dungeon set up by someone halfway around the world.
How far did I get: I had an old game on the cloud so I got to the third ‘level’.
One small thing: Little talking goblins are in each room of each dungeon, PikPok tells me – tap on them and splutter out little snippets of dialogue. “Many people don’t realise that as a room is upgraded, more goblins appear in the room,” PikPok says, meaning “there are so many hidden voices and expressions for the players to discover.”
What is it: Running away from a fire simulator for the NZ Fire Service.
Who’s it by: InGame (NZ).
What’s it like: Clumsy. The eight year old you have to steer around schools and malls and family homes handles like a four wheel drive. You’re not on rails, either – this isn’t a Temple Rush clone, which is refreshing – which means you’re constantly getting caught on stools and backpacks that are a little bigger or closer than they look. It’s very forgiving, though, and absolutely sells its number one message: if there’s a fire where you are, get the fuck out.
How far did I get: Nine deathtraps down.
One small thing: In one school level, there’s a cute pet cat that you might try and rescue. However, that cat’s out for your blood – it wastes your time and puts you at risk of dying in the fire. InGame Managing Director Stephen Knightly says the team’s really proud of these ‘behavioural economics’. “When we tested the game in schools, it didn’t take long before the students said out loud to not pick anything up and just get straight out,” Knightly told me. “We didn’t have to include a preach tutorial – the kids figured it out for themselves.”
What is it: Travel into the rainforest, photograph butterflies and make friends with a capybara.
Who’s it by: Runaway Play (NZ).
What’s it like: The Google Daydream VR headset hurts. It’s heavy up front and pulls down on your head in a way I’ve never experienced with other headsets. Flutter VR is almost worth it, though. It’s cute and easy to get around and its towering cartoon rainforest makes you feel like you’re really drinking in a natural space, but it’s also small and bright enough that it doesn’t feel intimidating, like you’re lost or against the elements. This is a rainforest that wants you to be here.
How far did I get: Discovered the first set of three butterflies and met the capybara.
One small thing: In pursuit of an experience that encouraged people to respect nature, Runaway programmer Beric Holt “dreamed up some complex maths for programmatic mesh deformation to allow for the bending of leaves and shaking trees in the environment,” community manager Lisa Blakie tells me. “In virtual reality, often the joy comes from manipulating and changing your environment but we wanted to do the opposite of this,” she told me over email, “…Using a camera and their vision to enjoy the environment rather than a machete.”
GOBLINS OF ELDERSTONE
What is it: Warcraft-style town-builder with cute goblins instead of gross orcs.
Who’s it by: Lost Goblin (NZ).
What’s it like: My cute tribe of Vapelordz had only just started taking advantage of the world around them, cutting down trees and building halls to worship their pantheon of gods, when my 16 minutes were up. That core set of actions is sturdy and the architecture of these little goblin towns is rustic and adorable, elevated wooden paths stretching between buildings as you plan them out. But it’s still in alpha, which means there are a lot of signs of things to yet to come: early choices about your pantheon don’t seem to matter much, and there’s a lot of placeholder text and art.
How far did I get: I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
One small thing: “Something people only realize deeper into the game is that some goblins are rare and blessed by the gods to be better at either War, Trade or Faith and this is represented in the colour of the goblins,” says Lost Goblin Chief Gustav Seymore. “So red goblins are much better at war, yellow goblins better at trade and white goblins better at faith. Having a goblin of one particular colour as King will perpetuate that gene more frequently through the tribe so you can have more of a type you are looking to play as to match your style.”
INTO THE DEAD 2
What is it: On-the-rails mobile shooter about a sad dad in a zombie apocalypse who has to run cross-country to get to his daughter and wife.
Who’s it by: PikPok (NZ).
What’s it like: The story is almost the perfect distillation of this moment in video games: zombies, guns, heartbreaking drama about dads and their families. It’s cookie-cutter in a way that almost tells on the industry, especially because you’re not here for that. What you are here for, the shooting, is solid, but the real beauty’s in the reloading. Reloads are forced on you and take longer in this game than in most; combined with your constant forward movement, they’re sickening, surprising you and screwing up your run better than any zombie you’ve spotted in front of you.
How far did I get: Finished the fourth run.
One small thing: The ItD2 team “wrote three different endings to the game” that they’re deeply proud of, PikPok tells me, “despite knowing full well that only a small number of players would ever experience all 3.”
What is it: Thomas Was Alone with space-bending puzzles and Geometry Wars flourishes.
Who’s it by: Glitch Crab Studios (Australia).
What’s it like: Level Squared wears its influences on its sleeve, but it’s an absolute blast to play. You play a square who can ‘project’ other yellow squares – the further away you move from the square in one direction, the further its projection moves in the other direction, like a mirror image. You solve simple puzzles by projecting yourself around, but Level Squared makes that simplicity fun as hell through its energising electronic score and a space made up of modules, each one built to fit that stage of the puzzle and nothing else. You slot right in.
How far did I get: Finished the five-level demo available on itch.io.
One small thing: “There are small animations we call ‘bleeps’ buzzing around in the background of each level that our animator had to put into place individually,” lead designer Stephen Scoglio tells me. “They’re just part of the scenery but without them the levels lose something, they look less alive. We had no simple way of reproducing them so each is its own individual animation, painstakingly put in place. We love our bleeps.”
What is it: Pixelated puzzle-platformer about a woman with amnesia trapped on a strange planet.
Who’s it by: ENDESGA (NZ).
What’s it like: It holds incredible promise. It has a real weight to it; it hints at an epic scope, but the ceilings all make sense and the screen never swallows up Keu, the amnesiac hero we’re playing. Keu feels like a person, too, athletic but fragile. She sticks to the ground, scavenging bags for medicine and parts. Her jumps have weight: she drops fast and picks up momentum slow. It feels great and looks beautiful. Keu talks to herself a lot, though, in that way a lot of video game protagonists do when they’re alone, a stream-of-consciousness commentary on the world and their own headspace. It’s weirdly insecure, written to fill the space rather than to do anything in particular.
How far did I get: A three-number code-breaking puzzle that I couldn’t break.
One small thing: “The alien language in NYKRA is probably one of my favourite and biggest accomplishments,” says developer Seth Groom. “It’s unfortunately overlooked a little, but I hope once the game is out (and if a Wiki is made), people will pick it up and look into it (or even learn it!)”
What is it: Earthbound set on an island ‘loosely’ inspired by the story of Maui fishing up New Zealand.
Who’s it by: Rainbite (NZ).
What’s it like: A sweet throwback to old NES and Gameboy RPGs like Earthbound and Link to the Past. It’s also dripping with nostalgia for Aotearoa and growing up in it. The tino rangatiratanga flag flies proud over Toromi Island’s village centre and spirits apparate as koruru; meanwhile, a young lad on the beach down the road talks about how he can’t wear his togs in town because “then they’ll just be undies”. The dungeon-crawling is specific in a different way – another faithful and nostalgic note, albeit a more familiar one on a handheld console.
How far did I get: Finished the Basement dungeon.
One small thing: Rainbite co-founder Tom Butler says there’s one bit of lore no-one’s picked up on yet that they’re pretty stoked with. It’s to do with the colour purple and how important it is to Tai and his family: “It’s not shown often,” Butler says, “but the purple on Tai’s hat is also seen in a hidden crypt found in Butlers Cay, which happens to be Tai’s father’s grave.”
What is it: You’re a robot vacuum and you have to clean a house.
Who’s it by: Robot House (Australia).
What’s it like: Funny! The relationship between the robot vacuum Rumu and his ‘boss’, house AI Sabrina, is far from subtle. Rumu’s pre-programmed, overpowering love for the world around them clashes predictably with Sabrina’s growing existential despair, but their dynamic is sweet and loaded with surprise. What works best about Rumu, though, is how well it plays on your instinct to complete the obvious objective – that is, cleaning spills in a modernist smart home – and ignore the signs of grim mystery around you.
How far did I get: I got shut in a closet with a cat.
One small thing: “Our characters David and Cecily (Rumu’s owners and creators) are huge science fiction nerds like us,” says Robot House Gamerunner Ally McLean, “so we loved filling their home with homages to our favourite sci-fi and AI-related media. One of the best things post-release has been watching Twitch streamers uncover Easter eggs alluding to their favourite books or games within our little house.”
What is it: Puzzler about a young boy trying to escape a shadow dimension by building paths from A to B, both here and in his reflection.
Who’s it by: Marker Games (NZ).
What’s it like: I actually reviewed it earlier this year.
How far did I get: I completed it, but it took a lot longer than 16 minutes.
One small thing: There are a number of small easter eggs in Samsara, Head of Studio Alex Humphries points out to me, including protagonist Zee’s background abduction by aliens in the suburbs, and his shadow version’s casual trip on the fairground’s Ghost Train.
THAT BOY IS A MONSTR
What is it: Interactive fiction about a trans boy trying to get back into dating.
Who’s it by: Sav Ferguson (NZ).
What’s it like: Moment to moment, it can be big-hearted and deeply anxious and painful to play. Ferguson makes you feel like a passenger in Sam’s head as he navigates the transphobia and ignorance of so many in the queer male dating scene, witness to microaggressions and outright aggressions and awful misunderstandings. But you’re also there for moments of warm connection and bittersweet reconciliation, and Monstr balances those shades well in its short, half-hour runtime.
How far did I get: I broke my own rule and finished it because I really wanted to see how it played out.
One small thing: “I think my favourite thing that often got overlooked in playtests was the pictures on the dating profiles of my two main character,” Ferguson tells me over email. “There’s also a lot of little characterisation and little sweet moments if you choose to explore all the options when getting ready for the date. There’s also a lot of chances for kissing, but the game doesn’t punish you if you don’t which I found really important for the asexual and people who just don’t like touching crowd.”
THE GARDENS BETWEEN
What is it: Time-bending puzzle game about a boy and a girl trapped in an alternate dimension by a storm.
Who’s it by: The Voxel Agents (NZ).
What’s it like: A magical series of puzzle-boxes that can get surprisingly complicated. Your only input is through the left thumbstick – you can move time forward by pushing right, or reverse it by pushing left – and The Voxel Agents find a lot of room within that to complicate your interaction with these small, detailed figurine-spaces. They’re satisfying to crack, even if each puzzle only takes a few minutes.
How far did I get: Completed the demo puzzles and an optional ‘Hard’ puzzle.
One small thing: “Our game is full of tiny moments that we’re proud of so it’s hard to pick just one thing,” Technical Director Matthew Clark told me over email. One thing is that the characters’ hair disobeying the laws of time: “It feels better for it to bob around naturally instead of being bound to the strict forwards-backwards flow of time.” Another, Clark says, is that he wanted to make a game his mum could play. “I think she will be able to.”
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