The depth and breadth of projects coming out of the Pacific Northwest indie gaming community was in the spotlight earlier this month at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle.
PAX attendees had a chance to check out the Indie Megabooth on the fourth floor of the Washington State Convention Center to see a curated assortment of independently-produced video games from around the world.
The Megabooth, founded in 2011, is a traveling exhibit that tours the gaming convention circuit, with regular appearances at all three U.S. Penny Arcade Expos and the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco. The Megabooth opens for submissions from developers twice a year, in the spring and fall, and chooses its games based on a list of criteria that includes quality, functionality, and representing a broad assortment of genres and creators.
This year, just over a fourth of the games in the Megabooth, 19 in total, were made by teams from the Pacific Northwest, and ran the gamut from old-school arcade action to an interactive romance novel. I had the chance to check out all 19 of them over the course of the show — here’s a rundown of each game, listed in alphabetical order.
Arcade Spirits (Fiction Factory Games)
What I want to say here is, “Have you ever seen Empire Records? OK, imagine that, but set in an arcade.”
Arcade Spirits is a romantic comedy visual novel built with Ren’Py, set in an alternate history where the great video game crash of 1983 never happened. Your custom-made protagonist becomes the newest employee at the Funplex, a giant family fun center full of eccentrics, nerds, and crying children. Your choices determine what friends you make, where your new job takes you, and whether or not your character finds romance along the way.
Fiction Factory was at PAX to hype up Arcade Spirits’ February 2020 debut on PS4, Switch, and Xbox One, following its debut earlier this year for the PC. The game was made in Portland, Ore. by a 10-person development team, with art by Molly Nemecek and a script co-written by Aenne Schumann and Stefan “Twoflower” Gagne.
Backbone: A Dystopian Noir Adventure (Eggnut)
If I was handing out awards for the most distributed team at PAX, Backbone would get it. Set and made in Vancouver B.C., by a team that also includes workers from London, Siberia, and the eastern U.S., Backbone is a retro-futurist noir detective story.
You play as Howard Lotor, raccoon private eye, in a version of Vancouver where the Great Apes rule the tall buildings and every other animal has to scramble for gutter scraps. Howard’s newest case is “just” tracking down an unfaithful husband, but naturally, nothing’s ever that simple. Things were already out of control by the end of the 10-minute PAX demo, due to a crooked nightclub, an illicit street drug, and a murder or two.
Backbone is the sort of adventure game that ‘90s LucasArts built its reputation on, with a smooth jazz soundtrack, well-animated pixel art, lots of fast-talking your way out of problems, and a couple of tricky puzzles. Also, the code to the first locked door you find is 0451. It’s nice to see traditions being followed.
Calico: Magical Girls Running Cat Cafes (CatBean Games)
I did not actually play Calico at PAX, because doing so would’ve involved kicking several 8-year-old girls off of it, and I didn’t have the heart. If there was a game at PAX this year that was more popular with children, I sure didn’t see it.
According to Kells, its creative director, Calico was made because “we just want a game like it to exist.” It tasks you with traveling to a village full of magical girls, to take over your aunt’s old cat café and fill it back up with animal friends. Calico is a life sim at heart, with daily activities and a full in-game economy, but is also being made without negative consequences; you’re free to ignore the café’s business concerns and treat Calico like a cat-petting simulator.
Made in Unity by a small team out of Seattle, Calico has been in development for two years. It recently completed a successful Kickstarter, with the goal to let both its primary developers go full-time on it. Their goal is that Calico will be feature-complete by the end of 2019.
Cat Lady (Rose City Games)
From one extreme to the other: Cat Lady is also about finding adorable kittens… so you can weaponize them. It’s a surprisingly intense “twin-stick” shooter, where you move with one thumbstick and aim your weapon with the other.
You play as Ally Marie, who’s shown up at her grandmother’s mansion to discover it’s been cursed by demonic forces. As a useful side effect, the curse also made Ally’s grandmother’s cats sentient and endowed them with magical powers. You can carry one cat as your primary “gun,” launching fireballs or throwing punches at enemies, and pick up a second to use as a utility option, such as a grenade or a turret.
Cat Lady is the first original game published by VIZ Media, which primarily localizes manga for the American market. The game’s developer, Portland’s Rose City Games, is also co-publishing Garden Story, a social sim by solo PNW-based developer “Picogram,” with VIZ.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Greg Lobanov)
Formerly known as “drawdog,” Chicory was double-funded on Kickstarter by the first day of this year’s PAX. It’s Greg Lobanov’s follow-up to 2018’s Wandersong, with music by Seattle-based composer Lena Raine (Celeste) and art by Vancouver-based cartoonist and animator Alexis Dean-Jones.
Chicory is a largely non-violent game about exploring and making friends. You play as a dog who works for Chicory, an artist who puts color into the world using her magical Brush. One day, Chicory vanishes, leaving the Brush behind and turning the world black and white. You pick up the Brush and use it to try and figure out what happened to Chicory.
You play Chicory by using the Brush to manipulate your environment, hitting switches and slapping down trees, while also slathering paint all over creation. It’s a cheerful, optimistic interactive coloring book, albeit with the same sudden genre flexibility that also marked Wandersong. Just when you think it’s a game for children, it hits you with a sudden boss battle against a multi-eyed demon that tests an entirely different set of skills.
Elsinore (Golden Glitch)
For the last six years, the developers at Golden Glitch got together on Sunday afternoons via Google Hangouts to work on Elsinore, a “time-looping tragedy” set inside Shakespeare’s Hamlet where you play as Ophelia. The team, eight moonlighting designers and game creators from Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, finally completed and released Elsinore in July, and treated their appearance at PAX West this year as a sort of victory lap.
Elsinore begins at around Act II of the play, as Hamlet is beginning his long slide into insanity. You set out to try and figure out what’s happened to Hamlet, but the next morning, Hamlet murders Ophelia’s father Polonius. Ophelia herself dies shortly afterward… and wakes up in her own bed on the previous morning, before her father’s murder, with all her memories of the last two days.
As Ophelia, you can explore behind the scenes to piece together a timeline of events, explore the other characters’ backgrounds, dig up the history of the area, and ideally, try to change the course of the play’s events. At heart, it’s a strange detective story, told through digital art that looks like an animated oil painting.
Falcon Age (Outerloop)
Falcon Age is perhaps the premiere anti-robot guerilla warfare/virtual falconry game on the market today. You play as Ara, one of the natives of a planet that’s being strip-mined in advance of invading colonizers. Your primary ally against the colonizers’ army of robots is your pet falcon, which covers you from the sky, hunts small games, interacts with distant targets, and has the grace not to complain when you put little hats on him.
Falcon Age’s developer, Outerloop, is based in Bothell, Wash., with a distributed team from around the world. It features a script by Meg Jayanth (80 Days, Horizon: Zero Dawn) and sci-fi/horror author Cassandra Khaw.
This was Falcon Age’s second year at PAX West’s Indie Megabooth. Last year, it was heading toward release on the PlayStation 4. This year, it was at the show to announce that it’s heading to PCs via the Epic Games Store on Sept. 6, in a rebalanced edition with new content. This includes new enemies, a changed in-game economy, and most importantly, new costumes (including a Fortnite-inspired skin) for your pet bird. You can play Falcon Age in or out of VR, and the latter version is currently planned to head to the Switch in the future.
Heaven Will Be Mine (Worst Girls Games)
One corner of this year’s Megabooth was labeled on its map as the Visual Novel Reading Room, organized by Toronto-based indie developer Christine Love (Get In the Car, Loser) to bring more visibility to visual novels as a format.
The games on display in the Reading Room included 2018’s Heaven Will Be Mine, by Worst Girls Games, with additional production and programming by Pillowfight. Worst Girls, a collaboration between Olympia, Wash.-based director/writer Aevee Bee and Seattle-based artist Mia Schwartz, is also known for its 2015 horror visual novel We Know the Devil.
“I want all the choices in a game to revolve around a concept I’m trying to communicate,” Bee said, and in Heaven Will Be Mine, that concept is balance. Heaven is a queer visual novel “about joyriding giant robots, kissing your enemies, and fighting gravity’s pull,” to quote its description in the IMB press kit. Like many visual novels, its gameplay is heavily based around the choices you make and how they influence the narrative; unlike many visual novels, you have the ability to dramatically effect Heaven’s plot.
Heaven is set in an alternate version of the 1980s, where humanity has reached space and splintered into several factions, which are caught in an endless war. As one of three female mecha pilots on opposing sides of an eight-day-long stretch of the conflict, you can choose to support your faction, undermine its plans, or blow off your duties to flirt, successfully or otherwise, with your opposition. (It’s weirdly difficult to try and summarize Heaven Will Be Mine‘s plot without making it sound like it’s much more serious than it is.)
Hot Routes: VR Football (SCREAMING_SNAKE Games)
“If somebody else was making a football game in VR,” Wyatt Kirby said, “we would’ve stopped doing it.” Kirby, who runs a small development shop for healthcare apps by day, is also one half of a two-man studio, SCREAMING_SNAKE Games, which works out of Seattle. Hot Routes is an experiment that got out of hand, to hear Kirby tell it, and began with the team using a Vive development kit to throw around physics objects in Unity. Five years later, SCREAMING_SNAKE was at the Indie Megabooth showing off their new VR game.
The basic mode is an arcade-style game of 7-on-7 football with you as the quarterback, and leans more toward simulation-style rules when you dip into player vs. player. The titular Hot Routes mode is a challenge game where you’re given limited attempts to make progressively more difficult passes, while Time Attack challenges you to throw as many footballs through distant rings as you can before the clock runs out.
The abiding goal of Hot Routes, according to Kirby, is to make the player realize just how hard a job it is to be a pro quarterback, and how much talent and skill it requires. It’s currently scheduled to enter Early Access for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift in the third quarter of 2019, with a spin-off for the Oculus Go, Hot Routes Arcade, currently recruiting alpha testers.
Lumote (Luminawesome Games)
Arguably the squishiest game of PAX West 2019, Lumote is a thoughtful, non-violent puzzle-platformer where you bounce through a maze of colorful bioluminescence as a heroic amoeba. The world has been infected by the Mastermote through veinlike “lightwires,” which turned everything to a shade of sickly red.
Your goal is to change the world back to its previous multicolored state by taking control of various objects in your environment. You can use fronds to boost yourself across gaps or up to higher platforms, or walk around on powerful crystals to empower certain flowers in the lightwire network. When you succeed, it instantly replaces the Mastermote’s red with bursts of glittering color. A completed stage in Lumote ends up looking like the cover of a progressive rock album.
Notably for a modern puzzle-platformer, Lumote is a forgiving experience. There aren’t any time limits, pinpoint jumps, or enemies on the maps, and you can only really fail by falling into a pit. It’s a surprisingly calm game, even when you’re playing it in the middle of the most crowded area in PAX.
Lumote has been in development for several years by Luminawesome Games, which was founded in 2014 in Vancouver B.C. by Michelle and Kyle Rocha. Lumote began as a winning project for the October Unreal Game Jam, and eventually became the team’s full-time job with the help of a grant from Creative BC. It’s scheduled for a Steam release in the first quarter of 2020, with console versions following “eventually.”
Nibblity (Leaftail Labs)
The developers of Nibblity, Seattle-based Leaftail Labs, describe it as “if Pokémon Go was best friends with a Tamagotchi and they were obsessed with snacks.” What I got out of it was that I got to fire a donut launcher at a sandwich monster until it fell asleep.
Nibblity is an augmented-reality game for iOS where you hunt for “Nibblins,” little food-based monsters that are hiding in your environment. Once you’ve caught a Nibblin, you keep it happy by scanning objects around you to turn them into food for your new little monster. A well-fed Nibblin produces bits, which can in turn be traded for upgrades and perks to make your time as a Nibblin wrangler more efficient.
There are currently 40 Nibblins to choose from, such as the Orange Angler Fish (see right), with plans for 100 to 150 Nibblins available at the game’s launch. Leaftail, which raised investment from top venture capital investors last year, is also working on pushing forward the game’s machine learning in order to make it easier to recognize objects through its AR camera, so you can convert just about any real-world object into virtual Nibblin food.
Nibblity makes use of a number of new features that are exclusive to the iOS, such as the ability to share your Nibblin buddies via email or direct message with people who don’t actually own the game. It’s currently planned to be free-to-play, with no firm release date besides “soon.”
This might conquer the known universe if it takes off. These are some of the most violently adorable monsters I’ve seen since, well, Pokémon.
Plunge (Spooky Buns)
The developers of Plunge had a busy weekend, as it had two stations: one was in the Indie Megabooth, and the other was on the sixth floor with the rest of this year’s PAX 10. Available now on Steam and the Switch, Plunge was made by a 3-person team in Portland, Ore., over the course of three years.
It’s one of those games that sounds unwieldy when you try to describe it, but it clicks together almost immediately when you actually play it. Described as a “turn-based strategy rogue-lite,” your job in Plunge is to escape from a strange medieval prison by fighting your way down through its lowest levels, past the guards and traps that have been left down there to rot.
In each stage, you drop onto a tile-based map, where you’ll move in whatever direction you pick until an obstacle stops you. You need to move carefully to conserve resources, evade or dispatch enemies, collect a key, and escape through a hatch to the next stage. The trick is that every time you move, it counts as a turn, which means any other enemies or obstacles on the map move at the same time you do. There’s a peculiar dance to it once you figure it out, where you can take as long as you want to figure out your next few moves, but it’s easy for things to spiral out of control.
Praey for the Gods (No Matter Studios)
The primary inspiration for Praey for the Gods, according to its artist Brian Parnell, is that in the past 14 years, no one else has made another game like Shadow of the Colossus. It’s an action game where there’s exactly one enemy at a time, and that enemy is a giant, desiccated figure the size of a small building. It’s trying to squash you; you’re trying to climb up its legs to get to the glowing weak points on its back and head. Imagine scaling a cliff face free-hand if the cliff face was trying to shake you off like a dog with a flea, and that’s Praey for the Gods.
No Matter Studios, a 3-man team based in Seattle, describes Praey (you can read it as either “prey” or “pray” and it works either way) as an “open-world boss climbing game.” You play as a nameless woman, the latest in a series of villagers who’ve been sent to a distant island to find out what’s causing the rest of the world to be buried beneath a never-ending winter.
Along the way to finding and destroying a procession of climbable giants, you can hunt and forage for food to restore health, and as explore the elaborate ruins that honeycomb the island. Praey also features one of the more satisfying grappling hooks I’ve used in a game lately, where you can hookshot across an entire area code to explore distant locations.
This sounded dangerous from the moment I started. Roundguard’s developers describe it as “if Peggle played Dungeons & Dragons”: You clean out the monsters that have overrun the king’s castle, by firing yourself out of a cannon at them before ricocheting around the room.
In Roundguard, you collect gold by breaking pots, burn mana to use special moves, grab equipment for passive bonuses, probably skip your next two meals, and eventually pass out at your keyboard at 1 a.m. I played it for ten minutes at PAX and could already feel the “just one more run” addiction kicking in. It’s a deliberate fusion of two highly absorbing genres. If they bring it to mobile devices, human civilization as we know it is in danger.
Roundguard was made in Unity by Wonderbelly Games, a two-person studio in Seattle and Redmond, Wash. Both its primary developers, Andrea Roberts and Kurt Loidl, are veterans of Microsoft’s Xbox department, and have been working on Roundguard part-time for the last two years. The game is currently in beta, with a planned release date in early 2020 on Steam, and published by the Quantum Astrophysicists Guild.
Sail Forth (David Evans)
Sail Forth is a procedurally-generated sailing adventure, designed as a “chill experience,” where you can explore an endless assortment of beautiful scenery, while racing other ships, searching for treasure, fighting pirates, and dealing with sea monsters. As you accomplish objectives, you’ll earn resources that you can use to build your fleet of ships and unlock more types of content.
The game was built as a side project over the course of three years by David Evans, a solo developer based out of Seattle who works as a Microsoft programmer by day. It’s made with Unity, and like Roundguard, is being published on Steam early next year by the Quantum Astrophysicists Guild.
While Evans describes Sail Forth as “roguelike,” it’s more forgiving than most games that use the term. If you die in Sail Forth, you don’t have to start over from scratch. Instead, you lose some of your accumulated resources and go back a bit. From start to finish, a single run through Sail Forth is designed to last about an hour. It’s a bite-sized solo naval adventure that’ll be different every time you play it.
A Sound Plan (Studio Kumiho)
There is an unaccountable lack of video games that involve feeding your friends to zombies on purpose, and A Sound Plan is here to fill that void. At the start of a round, you and up to three opponents get dropped into a small arena with a couple of zombies and a pocketful of rocks. The zombies can’t be killed and are attracted to noise, so you can throw rocks to stun opponents or guide the zombies toward targets other than yourself. The last person standing wins.
A Sound Plan is a four-player free-for-all made in six months by Studio Kumiho, a small Seattle-based company that also does contract programming and server backend work. It’s a fast-paced, casual party game with pixel graphics, which you can learn how to play in about 10 seconds.
The developers coded A Sound Plan in their own custom engine, as a side project/test case while working on a much bigger game with the working title Project Chang’e. The studio’s CEO, Jimmy Spencer, describes Chang’e as a “heartfelt, silly take on the JRPG.”
Superliminal (Pillow Castle)
In Superliminal, a first-person puzzle game, you’re a nameless participant in a research project that involves lucid dreaming. Your goal is to get from one room to the next, and to do so, you can manipulate parts of your environment using tricks of field depth and perspective. If you need to reach a doorway above you, you can pick up an object and back away until through your eyes, the object looks big enough that you can use it to reach the door. At that point, thanks to the wonders of dream logic, it will be big enough.
It’s a slightly awkward mechanic, because it feels like you’re brute-forcing your way through the game using a glitch in its physics engine. A lot of the solutions are messy in a way that puzzle game solutions often aren’t, full of rickety improvised footholds and ramps. In a way, it’s a meta-joke; like a show that challenges a good actor to play a character who’s a bad actor, Superliminal’s PAX demo is a well-made game that’s almost pretending to be a badly-made game.
The developer, Pillow Castle, is a six-person team based in Seattle. It began as a college project by its lead designer, and has been in full collaborative production for three years. Superliminal will launch later this year as a timed 12-month exclusive on the Epic Games Store.
UnderMine (Thorium Entertainment)
UnderMine really ruined my PAX schedule by taking up a lot of my time in the week leading up to the con. Its PR company sent over an early code, which promptly ate nine hours of my life.
As one of an army of identical peasants, you’re the expendable front line in an effort to explore a seemingly-infinite cavern that was once a gold mine, and is now producing monsters and earthquakes. You gather gold to buy supplies, fight monsters with your trusty pick, smash crates, dodge spikes, and gradually make your way deeper into the caves. Every trip you make is one-way, however, when you die — and you will — you’re dropped back into the top level of the mine to start over, with half your accumulated gold and any passive bonuses you purchased on the top level.
The primary development team on UnderMine, Derek Johnson and Clint Tasker, first met at Relic Entertainment in Vancouver, where they worked on strategy games like Company of Heroes. Johnson describes UnderMine as an attempt to make “a game I really wanted to play.” They plan to spend eight months in Early Access before launching a full version next year.
Wintermoor Tactics Club (EVC)
2003’s Final Fantasy Tactics Advance has a tutorial mission right at the start of the game where it teaches the player its mechanics by putting you in control of a bunch of kids having a snowball fight. That level, 16 years later, is a big influence on EVC’s Wintermoor Tactics Club, a tactical strategy game where you aren’t a general or captain, but the nominal leader of a clique of geeks at an isolated boarding school.
At Wintermoor Academy, the students have split into teams for the “War of the Clubs,” a snowball-fight competition. Alicia’s only friends are in the Tactics Club, a couple of “nerdy nobodies” who’d rather stay inside and play tabletop games than participate in the War. Alicia has to make new allies, win battles, and write new adventures for her tabletop campaign, using the game as a tool with which to teach and encourage her friends.
WTC’s director, Ben Walker, is a former Microsoft and 343 Industries programmer (he helped make Forge Mode in Halo 5) who saved up money from those jobs to make WTC. The idea behind it, he told me, is that “tactics games have a bad reputation for being for people who already know what tactics games are.” He’s building WTC with a six-person team as a “cozy” turn-based strategy game, meant as a low-stakes entry-level title for newcomers to the genre. When he and I spoke at the Seattle Indies Expo during PAX, Walker had just signed a deal with Versus Evil to publish WTC later this year.