indie games

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.

———

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.

Show Me the Games: Holiday 2018 by Caleb Sawyer

Photo by @ollie_606

Photo by @ollie_606

2018 was a stellar year for games. From God of War kicking the door down in March, to Fortnite redefining persistent online experiences, to Red Dead Redemption 2 causing games to flee its wake, to Celeste, Owlboy, and Gorogoa taking hearts and thumbs by storm. It is impossible to tell people what they should go out and play because the list is humanly impossible to complete. That is, unless you are superhuman. So, rather than trying to page through every single Black Friday ad, we thought it would be more fitting to give you a list of games that you have to play. The deals run amok on Black Friday and with the Black Friday ads linked below we are confident you will be able to find these gems at a deep discount somewhere (in many cases EVERYWHERE). So for our list, in no particular order:

AAA Must Have Titles:

God of War (PS4 Exclusive)
Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox Exclusive)
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Good luck finding a discount here)
Battlefield V
Destiny Forsaken
Overwatch
PUBG (Xbox Exclusive)
Fortnite (Technically Free, but find all the V-Bucks deals you can)
Detroit: Become Human (PS4 Exclusive)
Monster Hunter World
No Man’s Sky
Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4 Exclusive)
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (Doorbuster in many locations)
Hitman 2

Indie Must Have Titles:

Celeste
Owlboy
Dead Cells
Mark of the Ninja: Remastered
We Happy Few (If this even still counts as indie now)
Overcooked 2
Octopath Traveler (Switch Exclusive)
Unravel 2
State of Decay 2 (also questionably indie now)

Get out there and get some games!

BLACK FRIDAY ADS:

Walmart
Best Buy
Target
Microsoft Store
GameStop

@LubWub

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

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