Arts reviewer’s notebook

Indie game developers and enthusiasts join to celebrate a growing medium

MIT hosted the Boston Festival of Indie Games this weekend

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Attendees demo the virtual reality game Swing Star, a platform game where players attempt to swing from block to block in a quest to ring a mysterious bell and save their home from a technology gone awry.
Nafisa Syed–The Tech
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Game enthusiasts at the BFIG play Legacy of Svarog, an RPG/adventure game that draws inspiration from Slavic mythology and allows players to explore, fight, and make story-changing decisions.
Nafisa Syed–The Tech
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An attendee at the Boston Festival of Indie Games tries out Intern Astronaut, a virtual reality game in which players are tasked with piloting a spaceship.
Mengyuan Sun–The Tech

Boston Festival of Indie Games

Johnson Athletic Center

Saturday, September 10, 2016

This past Saturday, September 10, marked the fifth annual Boston Festival of Indie Games (abbreviated as Boston FIG), held in MIT’s Johnson Athletic Center. For the better part of a day, attendees and exhibitors alike walked around the venue and played each other’s games, both digital and tabletop in format. The games on display numbered over 100, and varied widely in genre, scope, and style. Throughout the day, participants could vote for their favorite games, and at the festival’s close there was an awards show, “The Figgies,” celebrating the best and most interesting games exhibited.

For those unfamiliar with the term, indie games are those created without backing from a publisher, usually by a small team of developers or even a single person. Because of the way they are made, they are often quite financially risky, but allow creators a great deal of freedom in what they are able to make. The digital indie game scene has sprung up and flourished over the last five to eight years, made possible in part by distribution platforms like Steam that allow developers to sell their games directly to an audience.

Boston FIG is all about celebrating these creators, exposing their games to greater audiences, and fostering a strong and supportive community. The developers exhibiting games ranged from large teams who had left big studios, to single designers devoting all of their time to their games, to even a group of Cornell students showing a game they had made in a game design class. The prevailing feeling of the festival was one ofcamaraderie, inclusivity, and total enthusiasm about everybody’s work.

When the Figgie awards came around, the biggest ones given out were the best in show awards, decided on by a panel in ad

vance, and the audience choice awards, which attendees voted on throughout the day. Tabletop and digital games were evaluated and granted awards separately. The audience choice winner for tabletop games was Wicked Apples by Robert Fowler, a game where players “eat” a variety of apples with different abilities and try to trick their friends into eating the dangerous ones. It’s a game with a certain amount of randomness, which adds in strategy and manipulation. The winner of best in show for tabletop was a game called Faulty Maps.

In the realm of digital games, the audience choice winner was Ape Out by Gabe Cuzzillo, a fast-paced, stylistic game where you play as a gorilla escaping captivity and smashing the crap out of everybody trying to stop you. Ape Out also won an award for compelling game loops earlier in the night. The winner of best in show was Perception, a game which also won an award earlier in the night for worldbuilding and narrative. Created by The Deep End Games, a team of former big studio developers who worked on games like Bioshock, Dead Space, and Rock Band, Perception was Kickstarted into existence last year, raising over $150,000 on the online funding platform. The game takes horror in a completely new direction: you play as a blind woman investigating a haunted house and uncovering its secrets. She can only see by clicking her tongue to echolocate, giving the game a novel visual style with the caveat that if you click to see what’s in front of you, it might give you away if there’s something (or someone) there. The lessons the designers learned from working on the Bioshock games are clearly evident, manifesting themselves in smart level design that subtly guides but doesn’t restrict the player, as well as — love it or hate it — audio diaries.

The festival’s theme this year was “mosaic,” with the intent of promoting and showcasing games that speak to a diversity of experience, accessibility, and intent. This was highlighted by some interesting choices of award categories, such as the accessibility and inclusion award for digital games, which was won by HEARtREAD, a game by Matt Surka that uses only audio to tell its story, making it accessible to people of all seeing abilities. eBee, the winner of most innovative tabletop game, had players of all ages create circuits by combining quilted pieces, which were all hand-sewn with embedded electronics. It was created by a team of students from Northeastern University.

The winner of the tabletop award for cultural mosaic was Blabber Mouthz by Tricia McLaughlin, a game in which players try to lip read each other, an attempt at capturing the experience of being deaf. Then there was Anamorphine, a 3D digital game by Artifact 5 that tries to depict the process of coping with depression and loss, and which won the award for art and experimental digital games. The player is guided through a surrealist landscape and told a story with no voice-overs, only the sound of the main character’s dead wife playing the cello to beckon you forward.

The festival also had some games made for virtual reality, my favorite of which was Intern Astronaut, a game by Broken Door Studio for the Samsung Gear VR that has the player trying to figure out the controls for the cockpit of a spaceship, which change on every play and involve spinning knobs, flipping switches, and hitting buttons. The frenetic pace of the game, coupled with its developer’s absolute enthusiasm in selling its concept, made the experience a lot of fun.

My favorite part of the day by far, and a moment that I feel really captured the spirit of the festival, was when I walked by Temple Scramble, a game by Birdwards where one player uses the arrow keys to navigate a temple and get to the treasure, and the other player uses the mouse to rearrange the temple and stop the adventurer. There was a father and son playing, and the son, who was probably around seven years old, was having the most fun I’ve ever seen somebody have playing a game. He was laughing hysterically, screaming, “Again!” after each time he played, and a small crowd started to gather just to observe his glee in cutting his dad off from the treasure. The woman showing the game was just grinning, and when I went up to ask her about it, she said that the game was actually made by her brother, and she was showing it for him. And that’s what the festival was: a little scrappy at the edges, but in the most endearing way. There was a spirit running through the day of playfulness, exploration, inclusivity, and the mutual appreciation of one another’s work, because in the indie community, banding together is better than going it alone.