indie

Outer Wilds and Millenial Dread by Caleb Sawyer

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Playing Outer Wilds prompted a mental reaction I have never had before. 

Somewhere in the space between planets, as I sought out the clues to solve this rapidly decaying universe, I found the answer to a question I never asked. 

I have as much trouble describing the mental distress Outer Wilds caused as I do just describing the game itself. There is nothing quite like the first reveal, the slow burn of you realizing what it means, all followed by the slow and meticulous uncovering of hints and clues. It all plays out like this very intimate mystery, despite its clear implications for the universe the game takes place in. 

I remember the first time I saw my uncle play Metal Gear Solid and fight Psycho Mantis. I often think about the implications that a game could encourage the player to do something physical, in the real world, to interact with it. I am even often disappointed by the fact that very few games actually prompt such interactions. 

Outer Wilds never asks you to do something in the physical world to complete it. Nothing I saw. But what I did encounter was a strange and deep urge to disengage with the game entirely.

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The impending doom of Outer Wilds, and its 22 minute time-loops, triggered a particularly millennial, frighteningly familiar fear: You will never have enough time to get to everything done that needs to be done. Every time a new loop starts, you head into your ship and read through your discoveries from the last loop. As the game progresses, each time you repeat this process the questions become more vague at the same time they become more precise. Putting together the mystery you are tasked with solving does not, innately make the game less obtuse. In fact, there are several moments where learning something scrambles the assumptions you previously had, leaving you staring at a bowl of plot spaghetti rather than the network of info highways you thought you had. It is through this process of misdirection and partial learning the game gets you to keep saying, “one more loop.” 

However, there was a moment about twenty hours into my playthrough, when I realized I had never ventured to Giant’s Deep. Here I was hours and hours into trying to solve this mystery, and I had left an entire fucking planet out of the equation. 

I remember sitting in my office, staring at the screen thinking, “But, I felt so close…”, and then turning my xbox off. I didn’t return for an entire week. It was crippling. 

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When I came back, aside from kicking myself for such a strange lapse in memory, I began to panic. I scrambled to Giant’s Deep hoping to earn some kind of reward for showing up and found absolutely nothing. Of course, the result I should have expected. Outer Wilds is adept at making players take their time, despite their being a constant invisible timer. You will want to rush while playing this game. Don’t. The music denoting the end of the loop began to play, I stared at a room I couldn’t access, realized how to get there in the same moment I realized my time had run out, and I just waited for the supernova to wash over me.

It was this strange battle I fought with myself over time which led to a lot of my stresses playing Outer Wilds. Each new loop, I wanted to break through in some way, find another clue, discover something new. The strange and cryptic messages left behind by the Nomai would feed me just enough information. Without failure, the loop would end just as I realized something else and I would have to wait for time the pass in the next loop for the conditions to be just right to access the info my revelation 22 minutes earlier had clued me in to.  

All of this led to a vicious love/hate relationship with the title. I loved finding clues and I despised running out of time. I loved the feeling of discovery and hated the overwhelming feelingI would never have enough time to discover it all. 

Then I got to the end. 

This entire game was offset, oddly enough, by the release of an album I latched onto in a way I have never experienced. Thank You Scientist’s album Terraformer came out on June 14th, a little over two weeks after Outer Wilds’ release and almost exactly when I found the time to start playing. The album is incredible, which I realize is subjective, but I couldn’t help but hear the songs as I thought of the game. Track Everyday Ghosts breaks into a chorus which says, “Sometimes I feel so ordinary / Sometimes I struggle with who I am.” I felt this in most every moment of Outer Wilds. I felt overwhelmingly normal, tasked with solving a mystery so far beyond me. 

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The album rests firmly in the Progressive genre, and I found a great deal of pleasure figuring out when and how the many time changes would play out. Without going into laborious detail on the album’s lyrical choices, suffice it to say I felt the words of each song spoke on some level to a facet of the game. No song better than Geronimo, a track devoted to helping its listener learn the best way through life is to understand there are some things that are just outside of your control. The end of Outer Wilds drove this home tenfold. 

When you finally piece together the final parts of the mystery Outer Wilds sends you on one last trip. And boy is it a trip. As I pieced together the last moments of the game I was hit by this unavoidable wave of relief, accomplishment, and oddly enough, reassurance. The game is full of heartbreaking discoveries. As you traverse the solar system you encounter the remains of Nomai scientists who have been trying to solve the same mystery as you, and who have obviously failed. You see their jubilant cheers when they make a breakthrough. You see their somber replies when they hit walls. 

But then you figure it out.

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I found myself trekking the pine needled earth of a forest, a single light source ahead of me, and infinite night sky overhead. The stars tumbling in the infinite black. As I followed the prompts I found instruments playing in the dark. I brought them back to the fire. As I brought each instrument back, their musician would appear, sitting around the crackling wood and flickering light. I assembled them all and then went to speak to them. “Should I start playing?” They would each ask this question. One by one I said yes and each instrument began to hum, strum, and drum. Each added a stream of smoke above the fire pit. When I went to speak to each of the players again they said something I’m not quite sure I was ready for. 

“Even if it’s over now, I had a great time learning.”

“The past is past, now, but that’s…you know, that’s ok! It’s never really got completely. The future is always built on the past, even if we don’t get to see it.”

“I tell you what, this has been really fun. And I got to help make something pretty cool, so I’ve got no complaints.”

Each statement an admission that, “I didn’t get everything done, but that’s ok!” It was a prescription to a sickness I didn’t want to admit I had. All of this fear I would never have time to get it all done began to wash away. I saw the face of my grandfather, smiling, happy that, while his chapter was over, he was given the opportunity to play a part. All at once I was made to realize, it’s not about doing it all in one go. It’s about playing your part to the best of your ability, lending to the next crescendo, contributing to the confluence. 

As I internalized this I stepped into the smoke above the fire, detonated existence, and set the ground work for a new universe to come. The futility of my endeavor to stop the end of existence was replaced by the satisfaction that some things simply must happen, and it is our responsibility to make sure when they do, even before they do, we just do our best. 

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All the time I spent with this game was fraught with tension and trepidation until I knew what I was meant to do; A lesson with surprising connections to one’s journey through life. One which hopes to help you find pleasure in trying to figure it all out. 

~Caleb
@LubWub

Outer Wilds Website

Thank You Scientist

Bouncing Off: Why it's Okay by Caleb Sawyer

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When I was a kid, in fact, when most of us were kids, our options for games to play were limited. I still remember planning out what game or two I would have for summer break. Final Fantasy VII, XIII (the amazing title from Ubisoft), Final Fantasy VIII. The list was small, always. My gaming as a kid was almost entirely dictated by the money my parents were willing to siphon into my recreational habits, and baseball was expensive. Occasionally a lent disc.

Between the years 2003 and 2004 three online marketplaces for games launched: XBLA, PSN, Steam. Between September 12th, 2003 and December 4th, 2004, those three platforms revolutionized game distribution. Small companies no longer needed to fund physical releases. Instead, they could publish their titles on multiple digital networks. Instant visibility. Instant access. Over the next 15 years the game industry would swing more and more towards digital distribution as a primary means of distribution.

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The surge of indie titles over this period was LARGE, and while I have had a hard time tracking down hard data, it isn’t hard to assume in the following years, the number of small market games able to self-publish to these marketplaces skyrocketed. On Steam alone, just 7 games were released in 2004, in 2018 the number sat at 9,050. A nearly 1300% increase in 14 years.

But why am I saying all of this?

When I finally got an Xbox 360, in 2009, there were a lot of titles available. Over the last 10 years, I have learned how to find the games I like. Specifically me. This ability to find content, and tailor your gaming experience based on your preferences, has led to a multitude of diverse and hyper-specialized experiences. You like first-person puzzlers and explorers? Grab Talos Principle, The Witness, Q.U.B.E., or Portal. You prefer retro-style side scrollers or dungeon crawlers? Snatch up Hyperlight Drifter, Below, Katana Zero, or Dead Cells. And those aren’t even the hyper-specific games. Like the retro-RPG feel, music, and XCOM-style strategy games? Try Wargroove. Third-person, focused linear story, cover-based shooters, with a more open world? Try on Spec-Ops: The Line or the Uncharted Series. Love dungeon crawlers and pinball/breakout mechanics? Look no further than Creature in the Well. 

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Honestly, the categorization and customization of your personal playlist is nearly infinitely wide and unfathomably deep. There is something for everyone out there, it just takes the know how of how to find it. 

This abundance isn’t without its setbacks though. As one would assume, the highly specific nature of many games, and the ability to hone specific likes and interests leaves more ample space for disappointment or, what industry professionals and gamers like to call “bouncing off” of a game. As I have developed my tastes I have become very familiar with this feeling. 

In 2018, Rare released Sea of Thieves, and open world, sea faring, pirate game giving its players the freedom to do just about anything they wanted. Sail the seas looking for treasure on age-worn maps? Do it. Challenge ancient evils and defeat hordes of Skellys (skeletons) to unlock the vault on the island? Sharpen your blades. Hunt other players down in true buccaneer fashion and sink their ships, making off with their hard earned treasures? Avast! But I had grown more accustomed to being told more story along with my gameplay and Sea of Thieves, when it launched, just didn’t offer what I wanted. I played Sea of Thieves for about 12 hours before I just couldn’t play anymore. My enamor in staring at the beautiful water and unique sailing mechanics just wore off. Instead, traversal between points of interest became dull busywork, and I legitimately began catching myself falling asleep while playing, only to wake right up when I switched to Rocket League.

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I ran into the same issue with Elite Dangerous, a space sim which falls into very similar categories as Sea of Thieves. You can do anything, be anything, so long as you take the time to find out how to do it. I needed more. I wanted a few story missions to hold my hand through the core processes and functions, even if just a little. I wanted to be introduced to the games ecosystem and universe. Not to just be dumped into a sandbox with a pile of tools and no instructions. I bounced off of those games hard. I have returned as they have added additional features, sure, but they didn’t become career games like Battlefield or Rocket League did.

I have a long standing feud with my family over Warframe. My uncle and grandmother absolutely love the game, and for good reason. Digital Extremes is unrivaled in their community interaction, feature addition, and bare knuckled persistence. Warframe is deep, and shows no signs of showing down. There is just one problem: I just can’t force myself to like it. The introduction, specifically the portion of the game you have to play before the story really “gets good” takes close to 30 hours. Your time before said moment is spent digging through a series of relatively unremarkable levels, recycling mission objectives, and frequently plowing through enemies like some kind of space Dynasty Warriors game. It is pretty, smooth, and mechanically sound in every way. I just don’t particularly care for the gameplay loop. Give me more substantial rewards. Give me more story. Give me more unique objectives. Give me enemies with consequence. 

I don’t want people to see this as a piece solely devoted to bashing Warframe, because it isn’t. What I am trying to point out is, I have tailored my tastes around a few key genres with a more diverse subset of sub-genres mixed in. No matter how hard I try, Warframe just doesn’t click enough of those boxes. Sea of Thieves didn’t originally tick those boxes. Hell, I bounced off of Doom 2016. Something about the speed of player movement and the specific setting didn’t jive with my desired gameplay or sensibilities at the time and I ricocheted hard. Like…I played 4 hours. Tops.

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The hardest part, in all of this; the hardest part about bouncing off of a game, in today’s gaming environment, is dealing with the feeling of guilt you get when it happens. Often times for me it is a self inflicted guilt, but the guilt is easily compounded when you have friends who do like the thing you can’t get into. My family’s Warframe feud has largely subsided, but when it was at its peak, I genuinely felt like I had failed them, not being able to get into something they loved so much. 

I wanted to speak to those who have found themselves bouncing off of games everyone around them seems to love. It’s ok! Really. There is so much out there to play, so many things to discover, you should never feel like you have to like something. It’s ok if you picked up Red Dead Redemption 2 and just couldn’t stick with the sluggish controls. It’s ok if you tried to dive into Monster Hunter World and just couldn’t fall in love with the hunt (I didn’t either!). 

Instead, keep your head up and keep looking. Austin Walker, on Waypoint, said in a podcast recently, “someone out there is making my favorite game.” Maybe its already out there. Keep looking. And don’t feel bad if you bounce off of a game a lot of your friends love (I’m looking at you Destiny). Games are rarely closed books the day they come out. Most of them will continue to add content, and a lot of the content they add is made to bring more people in or win them back. Stick out the bouncy ones for as long as you can, come back if you are intrigued with new content, and in the spaces between those events keep looking for your favorite game. It’s out there somewhere.

~Caleb
@LubWub

Far: Lone Sails - Learning to Cope by Caleb Sawyer

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Almost a year ago, my grandfather died. It has been hard to escape feeling like a hack because I keep bringing that up. The reality is, I haven’t written much since that day and what I have written has been punctuated by a tone that overflows with grief that I’m still not sure how to deal with. Nevertheless, here I am, attempting to write again. This time though, I am not going to steer away from that well. Part of that is self-motivated. The other part is Far: Lone Sails.

I watched the trailer for Far: Lone Sails one night while perusing the upcoming games in the Xbox Store. The music, the art, the tone, instantly hooked me. I am partial to games that have a system based in upkeep. I love building cities in City Skylines. I love managing my base, personnel, and resources in XCOM. Maintaining the mechanics of this land ship, traveling across a wasteland was an easy pre-order. 

The first moments of this title froze me. My character sat in front of what I can only assume is the grave of their father. A picture lays propped against a tree. The music is soft and sweeping. The environment monochromatic. Grays and whites punctuated by the red coat and hat of the player. 

If there is one thing that stands out immediately in Far: Lone Sails, it is its ability to deliver an aesthetic swiftly and creatively. As a long time fan of Playdead’s Inside and Limbo, the task of telling a compelling story in the limited space of a side crawling platformer is a challenge not easily overcome. Music and art take center stage, while gameplay often takes a back seat, punctuating the visual tableaus with puzzles. Okomotive’s ambitious entry into this genre is an outstanding accomplishment. 

———

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My grandfather served 23 years in the Navy. A period of his life he spoke of sparingly. To this day I am unsure if that was because it conjured memories he didn’t care to relive, or if there was another reason. The stories he told were always comical. Stepping up several decks in a single bound while the ship flexed in choppy waters. Drinking hot beers on the deck while docked at shore in the Philippines. Nearly missing the boat back while resupplying. His Navy career was a mystery to me. It will always be a mystery.

———

Far: Lone Sails takes place in a world made desolate by a disaster given no explanation. As you step down a sandy beach, the sound of an ocean never comes. Instead a windswept desert stands in its place, the carcasses of various ships strewn about the wastes. As you step into your ship (the eponymous Okomotive), crank up the engine, and pull away from the scaffolding surrounding it, you set off across this lonely place. The destination: unknown. 

Within moments the world begins to unfold itself around you. Broken down ships are everywhere. Dust crept onto their decks. Debris lays scattered, half submerged in the sands of of time and abandonment. Something happened to this place. It is hard to keep from imagining a world full of color. Rippling seas teeming with life. Nothing remains but shattered hope, abandoned dreams, derelict homes. 

———

When my grandfather passed it was sudden. He had interstitial lung disease. One day he felt worse than usual. He and my grandmother went to the Emergency Room. Eleven days later he was gone. Despite the expertise of the doctors that attempted to help, they never found out what caused this flare up. Despite everything they attempted there was no explanation. I remember my uncle, sitting in shock next to his dead father. “My whole life I have believed in science. And science has failed me.” The words were sobering.

———

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As you progress through Far: Lone Sails the obscured history of the world begins to unravel itself. The shallow, dried out seabed gives way to rolling pastures. Billboards pass by for a small farming and industrial town, The Blue Isles. This town, as picturesque as it may look with its rolling green hills, rests abandoned. The hills are washed grey-green, and before long you find barns and farmhouses torn asunder. Cars rest on roofs. 

A tornado appears just beyond the last partially standing buildings. Without words it becomes clear: the damage done to this world is deep and irreparable. 

The game continues this story of unnatural disaster as you progress. Color comes and goes, rarely, but those colors are always bleak. Dreary. Joel Schoch’s score moves emotionally throughout these moments, rising as the Okomotive churns forward, dipping as night falls, rising as the day breaks, the amber glow of the sun projecting into the thick clouds that cover the world. Schoch’s score is incredible. I’ll never forget trudging through the rain, the drops plinking off of the Okomotive, while the score receded. Leaving me to the sound of the rain and my thoughts. One of the best parts of Far: Lone Sails’ score is its willingness to leave you in silence, proving that even in its absence it can have a dramatic impact.

———

It was rainy the day he died. I remember thinking, “thank god no one else will be happy today.” I had always found comfort in rain. Since then, rain has been…different. No longer just a source of comfort, it is a reminder. Every time it rains, I am brought back to that day. Each time a little less, sure, but it is still there. I think it may always be there. I’m not sure I want it any other way. 

The thought that he died of natural causes so suddenly felt, well, unnatural. He was tough, he rarely complained, and to think that one day his body just decided it was tired of struggling was hard to understand. 

For the next six months it was hard to see color in anything. Everything felt greyed out. Food tasted different, sleep was less rejuvenating, laughter didn’t linger like it used to. My inability to write became apparent quickly. I struggled for hours to get singular thoughts onto a page. I was afraid that talking about this loss openly would look like a crutch I was leaning on. So I didn’t write. 

———

The billboard for the Blue Isles says “A Fresh Start” just beneath the name of the town. Another says, “We Build Our Future”. The people of this place tried their hardest to move past the fact that their world was dying. But they don’t appear to have ever attempted to address the issue. The rusted and hulking remains of industry and manufacturing tell a story of a people who believed in science, and who were betrayed by that belief.

As the remains of civilization pass you can see people building escape hatches, not treating a wound.

———

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Writing has always been my release. My means of escape, of coping, of healing. Not writing meant I did none of those things properly. I bottled and distilled my grief, making each moment it returned stronger. I tried everything to get away from it. I hid my pain from my grandmother, trying to be strong for her. I hid my pain from my wife, trying to prove that I was fine. That I was able to hold it together. I tried my best to move past the fact that a part of my world had died. In reality I was building escape hatches. 

Without giving away the ending of Far: Lone Sails, because you should absolutely play it, I realized that part of me needed to let go, sure, but a larger part of me needed to face the problem head on and push through it. My grief is my Okomotive right now. I need to maintain the ship pushing me through life. I need to remember that, even if the ship is damaged, it is fixable. But it won’t be forever. Someday, it will decide it can go no further. When that time comes, it will be okay to let it go. To move on to another vessel. To take a moment and say, “Goodbye old Friend.”

The front of the Okomotive in Far: Lone Sails has two figures etched on its prow. An adult and a child. The house you pass through in the opening moments show you a Father and his child and the machine they created together. I am not entirely self-made. I owe a lot to Timothy Sawyer. His family was the thing he was most proud of. I realize now, that is why he didn’t share a ton about his service in the Navy. It wasn’t what he built with his hands. His family was. Now that he is gone, we must take journey forward, through the waste and colorlessness, to a new place. And he is still here for the ride. Even in his absence he has had a dramatic impact on all of us.

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I valued every moment I had with Far: Lone Sails. It has brought me a lot of peace over the last few weeks and helped me better contextualize the struggle and pain of moving on. Of pushing through the shit to get to the other side.

Mechanically easy to pick up, hard to put down, a brilliant and evocative score, and entrancing art elevate Far: Lone Sails into the poetic. A contemplative and somber yet unwaveringly charming journey It hooked me immediately. Despite having beaten it twice, I keep finding myself coming back for a little more every couple of days. 


Bravo, Okomotive.

Thank you for making this game.

Thief of Thieves: Volume 1 Review by Caleb Sawyer

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Thief of Thieves released on Xbox Game Pass this week by publisher Skybound Entertainment and developer Rival games. The Point-and-Click, adventure style game shares a likeness to former Telltale titles like The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us (the former, also a Skybound property). Based on a comic series penned by Robert Kirkman (Creator of The Walking Dead), Thief of Thieves puts you in control of Celia, a punk styled spy protogé of master thief Redmond. Volume One, available now, is an interesting starter for the series but is a bit limited by its length.

Volume One introduces you to Celia and her most recent mission, a motorcycle heist at a swanky party. While Thief of Thieves art direction is stylistically solid, the game breaks down a bit over its oftentimes clunky camera work. While the camera frames the environment well, its utility is undermined by the very same characteristic. Camera angles make it difficult to track patrolling guards, making sneaky entry and swift egress more difficult than it should.

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That being said, the title was still a lot of fun to explore, and the sandbox-style environments were fun to play around in. The UI paints objectives and pertinent information on the environment itself, much like 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction. Similarly creative, the games cutscenes are minimalistic motion comics, further lending to draw parallel to Thief of Thieves source material.

Overall, Volume One was fun to play but lacked any length to allow me to really get excited about what is coming in the next installments. Though the incipient episode ends with a genuinely alluring cliff-hanger that promises a far broader experience, I found myself wanting more in the moment, rather than in the future, a tricky line to dance for episodic titles.

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If you have Game Pass give Thief of Thieves a try. The lack of an upfront cost through Game Pass makes content like this far more accessible. For players without Game Pass, I think it would be safe to wait for a few more Volumes to be released. It is a bit too early to pass any real judgment on the title.

@LubWub

Zap Blastum: Cover-Based Action for All by Caleb Sawyer

Zap Blastum is fun. That is the first thing I thought as I tapped away at the screen, strategically placing myself against cover to take potshots at less guarded foes. An isometric perspective cover-based shooter, the game uses touch controls, a feature that will make the game a blast on mobile devices and tablets. It is easy enough to pick up. Touch the spot you want to run, touch the enemy you want to shoot. The complexity comes in the form of enemy types and cover angles. 

Developer Kevin Dressel (@kevinddressel) says that he and his collaborators were inspired by games like Gears of War, but he wanted to make the skill requirement more forgiving. Zap Blastum accomplishes that goal extremely well. The ease of tapping commands makes the game a breeze to pick up. Once you get those controls down you can challenge yourself by firing while moving, aiming to beat time limits, and finding weapon upgrades hidden about each level.

Dressel also said he wanted to make a game that anyone could play. The violence of most shooters means that kids can't get in on the fun. Zap Blastum's cartoony style and robotic villains makes it perfect for hardcore gamers and kids alike.

Zap Blastum is a addicting game I could easily see myself putting several hours into on my phone. The combination of cover-based gameplay with XCOM's camera angle makes for a slick combination of mobility and visibility. By the end of my sit-down with it, I was shooting between cover and tossing grenades over enemy cover with ease.

For now, Dressel plans to release a Beta later this year with hopes of a full release in early 2018. To follow Zap Blastum check out developer Shiny Dolphin's website and Twitter.

Marshall's Theory: Wading Through the President's Holographic Nightmares by Caleb Sawyer

With the current political climate as it is, it only makes sense that it impacts as many levels of media as possible. Benjamin Poynter's (@BenjaminPoynter) Marshall's Theory, puts players in control of the President of the United States during one of his nightmares. A strange mix of hilarity and morbidity, "Marshall's Theory [is] a game with a central theme of paranoia."

Players control POTUS as he attempts to fight back protesters, encircling him with arms raised and signs hoisted. You can fire tweets to mow them down, carpet bomb them, or call in an Area-of-Effect strike a la Vladimir Putin dive-bombing the ground, Russian flag cape and all.

Marshall's theory utilizes a type of holographic projection provided by the minds at Looking Glass (@LKGGlass). The HoloPlayer One is an interesting piece of tech, and with a game like Marshall's Theory, the unsettling setting is complimented by the fuzzy holographic display.

Developer Benjamin Poynter, when asked about the role of games with social stances, thinks that games could say more. His experience travelling through D.C. with his wife during the Travel Ban protests, inspired him to take a stance and make games that voiced that stance. Marshall's Theory being the first.

Putin flies in to do damage.

Putin flies in to do damage.

Marshall's Theory definitely uses that voice without pulling punches. As players survive the nightmare and the protesters all drop dead, a prompt follows that says, brought to you by "The American Health Care Act." This is followed shortly after by an image of Abraham Lincoln falling on a spike. "It is a message that illustrates the death of Democracy," Poynter says. It certainly gets that point across.

Marshall's theory is also playable on PC. 

~Caleb
@LubWub

 

Lucah: Carving Through a Nightmare of Self-Discovery by Caleb Sawyer

In the last year, several games have tried to revisit the aesthetic, both in appearance and difficulty, of retro Zelda. Perhaps the most notable to do this was last year's Hyper Light Drifter. A title by a small team that knocked the socks of of nostalgic gamers and newcomers alike. Next in that same lineup comes Lucah, a gritty game about a boy's journey through a world of nightmares on the way to self-discovery.

The first thing that makes Lucah stand out is, well, its high contrast art style. The game is built in a black and white world of harsh lines and jittery animations. The jitter here isn't a lack of polish however, it is an embodiment of tumultuous mental state. Enemies shudder across the battlefield as they shamble towards you. The game's protagonist, the eponymous Lucah and his familiar stand out like beacons of light against this background of black and white nightmares, etched in neon blues or oranges.

Lucah's combat feels familiar (pun intended) but fresh. Your familiar floats around you to provide ranged attacks, and Lucah is capable of Heavy and Light attacks. It may seem favorable to rely on the heavy attacks right away, but after putting in a bit of due diligence, the light attacks add a lot of flexibility to your playstyle. 

Lucah's art style and knack for creative storytelling does wonders for first-time players, and the demo that was available at Pixel Pop was extremely well crafted, giving players enough time to get familiar with the controls, but cutting them off with a cliffhanger of a boss fight that made me want so much more than I got. 

Lucah recently was fully funded on Kickstarter and plans to release in 2018. The demo is up now, and I encourage anyone who has a PC and some free time to go give it a shot. The potential here is visible. To stay in the loop on development updates and release news follow Lucah on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

~Caleb
@LubWub

 

Anthromancer: Beauty, Mystery, and Deadly Aesthetic by Caleb Sawyer

The goal of any game, table top, digital, or otherwise, is to catch your eye. Walking the floor of Pixel Pop 2017 there was one game in particular that shouted "Come look at this!" Anthromancer is the creation of the multitalented folks at Dancakes. Yes, that is correct. Pancake artists by day, the people at Dancakes are also hard at work on a board game that is damn beautiful. 

In Anthromancer, minimalistic geometry meets otherworldly occult. Dan himself (@drdancake) describes the game as "the Voyager Record from another planet." For those unfamiliar, the Voyager Record was a bank of information stored on the Voyager 1, a space probe launched in 1977. In the record was a mix of media that included images, sounds, greetings in 55 different languages, and music. A time capsule sent into space for any intelligent species that may find it. For those playing Anthromancer, you have found a time capsule from another planet, and boy does the game get that across beautifully. 

You are immediately confronted with a board covered in geometric symmetry, save for the faction logos at the compass points, Claws, Souls, Gears, and Blades; four factions with advantage against one and weakness against another (Claws beats Souls in a tie, Souls beats Gears, and so on...). Aether sits in the middle, a confluence. 

Anthromancer plays like a game of checkers if each piece were summoned and had attack ratings on each side of the piece. And if you had Hymn cards that played a myriad of different strategic roles. So in other words, not like checkers at all. Anthromancer is a unique blend of conventional mechanics retooled into an experience that is part divine, part sacrilege, all enthralling. 

And that is just the surface. There is an musical component that will come with the full game, albums that hint at deeper truths hidden in the cryptic language littered about the board and cards. I played my game against Hank Gustafson (who appears to be better than Twitter, pff!) and as I played he regaled me with a lore richer than even the most heady expectations for a board game.

Anthromancer is a beautiful creation by people that desire nothing more than to bend your mind. Look for more news as they launch their Kickstarter soon (planning to coincide with the solar eclipse, as if there were any more appropriate timing) and we meet with them to get even more hands on in the future (even I am being mystical now).

Oh, and did I mention the game can also be used as a Tarot deck? Yeah...prepare to "Be Moved."

Follow Anthromancer on Facebook and Twitter!

~Caleb
@LubWub

Defend Neo Tokyo: Co-op Pacific Rim for the Dining Room Table by Caleb Sawyer

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Amid the overwhelming lineup of indie videogames at Pixel Pop 2017 was an impressive crowd of tabletop games on display. One of those games was @STLGatewayGames Defend Neo Tokyo. I spoke with creators Jamie Toon and Jason Mayer about their ambitious board game at length and I can tell you this much, they have my money.

Conceived as a co-op monster fighting game, Defend Neo Tokyo gives up to five players the ability to build their own mech to fight towering abominations set to destroy Neo Tokyo. Players get to choose the arms, legs, and chassis of their mech from a pool of possibilities, allowing a level of freedom in customization that, in Jason's words "leads to a lot of different possibilities."

After players assemble their mechs they are tasked with beating a faction of monsters besieging Neo Tokyo. The launch game will come with sea monsters, land monsters, and giant insects, each with their own unique traits and tendencies. Before you ask, yes they plan to introduce Alien invaders in future expansions.

Defend Neo Tokyo is handsomely built, with what appears to be a complex system of power nodes and damage slots that is deftly explained and easy to get a grip on. The mechs that players build have abilities based on their choices that need accumulated power to use, the more powerful the ability the more power consumed. Take damage from a rampaging baddie, and you may need to spend a repair bot to restore functionality. 

If you're lucky enough to beat the team of monsters, a boss beast enters the game that serves as the final showdown. It's five on one monster slaying mayhem that is sure to leave players with memorable moments in the aftermath. 

Behold the menacing Gorganus!

Behold the menacing Gorganus!

Defend Neo Tokyo will be headed to Kickstarter in October, so keep your ear to the ground for more news in the coming weeks and months. We also plan to sit down with the folks at Gateway Games to play a game or two of our own. So stay tuned!

Check out Defend Neo Tokyo.

~Caleb
@LubWub

The Humans Behind it All: Pixel Pop Festival 2017 by Caleb Sawyer

I have been to three of four Pixel Pop Festival's, each in a different capacity. This year, as a journalist, I hoped to hone in on the theme in the bones of this year's indie showcasing festival. Within hours it was clear what Pixel Pop was trying to say. Games are made by humans. Normal people like you and me. Their successes and sacrifices were given a spotlight here, illustrating one message clear as day: Behind the games you love are people who have dedicated themselves to creating what they love.

I went to the original Pixel Pop Festival on a whim. My uncle and I had just learned about the event and, as gamers, content creators, and hopeful developers, we felt it too good an opportunity to pass up on. We bought our tickets at the door and walked through the halls of Webster University a bit aimlessly. Pixel Pop was small then, but had the heart of a dragon. There was an air of excitement in those halls. The realization that St. Louis had a vibrant indie game community was still fresh for most of the people there. There was this mild dumbstruck look on a lot of people's faces.

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Fast forward to 2017. I got my Press credentials in the last days of June and began to gear up for attending Pixel Pop as a member of the press. As more and more information came out I began to build my schedule for the two day event. Based on the information presented alone, it was clear that PxP2017 was going to be bringing a lot to the plate. A full schedule of panels and talks, an impressive list of content on display. I thought of the first Pixel Pop I went to. In a short four years a lot had changed.

That isn't to say that Pixel Pop was less organized before. It was young. It still is. But stepping through the doors onto the Expo floor this year made one thing effortlessly clear. The showrunners behind Pixel Pop had been hard at work. Pixel Pop Festival 2017 was bigger, better, and had something to tell its attendees: the St. Louis indie community is here to stay.

As a journalist I knew I wanted to find a theme. I knew, as soon as I arrived, that there was a message in the air. It was in the smiles of the exhibitors. In the games they were showing off. In the words of each and every panelist, speaker, and community member. In an age where technology so easily removes the faces of those responsible from their work, Pixel Pop Festival 2017 put the human element on glorious display.

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The Keynote Speaker, Rebecca Saltsman of Finji (@BexSaltsman) spoke about her family's triumphs and struggles adapting and creating in the game industry. From harsh lessons about preparedness, to sacrifices made for fiscal solvency, to being full-time developers with two young boys. It was refreshing, enlightening even, to see someone who, by most people's standards, made it, speak to the difficulty of the journey. The sea of heads nodded and hummed in acknowledgement and laughed in agreement throughout the talk.

Other talks focused on helping new developers get started on their own, bootstrapping their own games, balancing life and game development, and gaming for a cause. It was a lineup chock full of heart and down to earth advice from important voices in the game industry. 

The Expo floor was no different. Creators of all ages waited with eager hearts as attendees stepped up to their booths. In passing, at any moment, you could hear the stories behind these games. You could feel the pride in the developer's voices. Voices like @Waffle__Works Isaac White smiling next to a proud family as people played his charming, submarine side-scrolling shooter Submerged. Voices like Jason Mayer and Jamie Toon at @STLGatewayGames who gushed about their board game Defend Neo Tokyo (there was a SOLID showing by board games at Pixel Pop). Everywhere you turned, people in love with what they had created stood tall behind their creations.

In the short four years that Pixel Pop Festival has existed it has grown leagues beyond what I thought it could have, and this year's showing sets the bar high for next year. It was a privilege to be able to cover this event. The amount of love on display was palpable. St. Louis has a lot to be proud of in Pixel Pop. The most sincere thank you and congratulations to the team behind the scenes putting it all together. You all made an event deserving of every bit of praise it receives. Here is to a stellar 2018 show.

~Caleb
@LubWub

Hands On with Happy Badger Studio's SmuggleCraft by Benjamin Sawyer

Friday I had the privledge of visiting indie developer Happy Badger Studio for some hands-on time with their upcoming, and recently announced, procedural racing game SmuggleCraft. The first thing I recognized about the studio, a cozy, top floor space in Maplewood, was how quaint and understated it was. It was quiet. The small puppy that greeted me upon entry made the space feel a lot less "studio" and a lot more "home."

In my experience with indie devs, as limited as it may be (after all I have only visited two studios to date), there has always been a small degree of anxiety in my chest as I made the trek to their doors. Call it amateurism, call it inexperience, call it being over my head, every time I have done it, I have always been slightly on edge when I go to a studio as a representative of NerdyBits. Happy Badger was no different.

But just as with Pixel Press, my visit to Happy Badger showed me that this industry is one of the friendliest industries I have ever encountered. Everyone is supportive, kind, welcoming, even homey. But I get ahead of myself. Why was I there?

SmuggleCraft.

Happy Badger, a studio who had made themselves in the mobile gaming market, is making a game that is going to perform the console jump. Their console of choice? The indie-friendly PS4 (still not quite sure I forgive Microsoft). SmuggleCraft, as the brain behind the idea (also Game Designer and Producer) Ben Triola said, was born out of a very simple idea. He wanted to make a racing game where gamers finally weren't restricted to "racing in circles." Pretty novel idea right? "If you look at racing games you really have two dynamics," he went on, "either the hyper realistic (i.e. Forza, Gran Tourismo) or the overtly cartoonish (Mario Kart anyone?)". And while none of what he was saying was a revelation, it took me a bit by surprise. I had never really given the racing world much thought when it came to games.

I've played Forza plenty. Correction, I have tried to play Forza plenty, almost always a decision that leads to a childish rage quit, laden with adultish profanity. The games are hard. At least to me. And while Mario Kart is a change of pace car, it is on the far oppoiste side of the spectrum. There is very little realism to shooting shells at your buddies. Sorry Mario. Yes, there are titles that fill the gap, for sure. The Need for Speed series has consistently battled with the line between realism and arcade. But even with those games, there is still a defining factor that 90% of them have, that Happy Badger is trying to steer away from. Driving in circles.

I translated that assertion liberally. Perhaps only for the sake of games like Burnout and the more recent Need for Speeds. Because, while they have steered in the direction of A to B style races (rather than A-B-C-D-A, 12 times) there is still an overlying tone of competition that doesn't quite change from title to title.

SmuggleCraft is seeking to change that very thing.

Immediately, what set SmuggleCraft apart, was one word. Procedural. For those of you who aren't sure what that means, I'll clarify. Procedural is a fancy, programming way of saying random. Instead of Happy Badger creating a set number of tracks that you can master and then, as a result, get bored with, they are creating dozens of track parts. The game then algorithmically creates tracks based on quantified "connection points" between parts (piece AB connects to piece BA, BB, BC, and so on). This makes every track different from the last, and the next, for that matter. No two gamers will ever get the same track.

That isn't the only thing that sets it apart from other racing games, however. SmuggleCraft is a quest-based racing game, set in a world where over-regulation is the norm and oppression is the M.O., and Narrative and Character Designer Carol Mertz is working hard to create a story based on player decision. There are three factions in SmuggleCraft: The Laborers, the Rebels, and the Auros. Players will be able to pick up jobs from all three factions in an effort to pay off their debt. A debt that every player inherits as they take the role of Ferre Astraea, a smuggler (duh). Which jobs you pick up will change the story that you get, as well as increase your notoriety, making your trips from city to city more perilous as hitmen from other factions, and government authorities hunt you in transit.

Those cities will be procedurally generated as well. So rather than random tracks taking you to set cities, the whole world will be new every playthrough you have. With so many possibilities, replay value is bound to be through the roof.

And this is just the preamble I got, before I got hands on time. SmuggleCraft is pre-alpha. With almost a year before release date and as small a dev team as they have, it makes sense that the game be in its first stages. But even with the framework that was their demo, I was hooked. There was a distinct, Wipeout, feel to the control scheme and ship handling. Drifting around corners felt directional and not tractional, appropriate for a hover-craft. The inclusion of a strafe ability, attached to the right stick, also lent to degree of finesse that many games with similar vehicles need but almost always lack.

The courses themselves are rendered with an almost haunting aesthetic, and while Dana Huth, the Creative Director and Environment Designer, admitted to this title being her first time really helming that side of things, it doesn't show. It all fits together so well. Like pieces of a puzzle that you didn't think to align in that order. Even the early music tracks by Phil Hayes (@Bravendary) meshed well. The build that I had access to was lacking the story elements I mentioned earlier, surely still in the development phase, but the frame was there. Quests that I chose were clearly qualified on four levels: Legality, difficulty, risk, and rewards. The upgrade system also wasn't finished, but Happy Badger promises fully upgradeable hovercraft in later builds, and the finished product, a point that led to an interesting discussion about multiplayer.

Multiplayer is definitely a planned feature and, much like Destiny, they plan to give players the opportunity to use their own, upgraded craft in races that would resemble the races old prohibition-era bootleggers used to have. With similar, cut-throat stakes. "You know how when you fall off of the course in Mario Kart, you are gingerly lifted from the wreckage and placed on the track?" Carol asked, "Well we don't want that to happen in SmuggleCraft. If you crash, you're out." 

SmuggleCraft is a long way out, but with what I saw on Friday, I wanted to take it home with me, bugs and all. A fresh take on racing, with a branching, player-impacted story, and an unforgiving competitive multiplayer? Sign me up now! And all of the promise that this game holds rests firmly on the shoulders of their great development team.

I only met with three of them: Ben Triola, Carol Mertz, and Dana Huth. But it was easy to see that their passion for games, is matched only by their passion for the St. Louis gaming community. Founders of Pixel Pop Festival, a small gaming conference on the campus of Webster University, these three are fervent about the growing indie community in St. Louis and the Midwest as a whole. They reached out and contacted NerdyBits after all. Excited to reach out to a local blog. I could not be happier that I fell under that category. The Badgers are great company.

For more on Happy Badger Studio or their upcoming SmuggleCraft follow these links. The other team members at Happy Badger that I missed on Friday are Joey Paniello (@JoeyMaru) and TJ Hughes (@_Teejay5).

Follow Carol Mertz (@carolmertz), Dana Huth (@theRampant), and Ben Triola (@bentriola) on Twitter

@CalebtSawyer
~Caleb