The 2016 Boston Festival of Indie Games will take place Saturday, September 10th, 2016 at the MIT Johnson Athletic Center. Click here for full details.
I do know a bit more about board games which in the biz are referred to as “tabletop games”. I have a life-long love of sitting around a table with friends or family (whoever will indulge me!) sharing laughs and trading barbs over a round of Who? What? Where?, Hoopla, Phase 10, Milles Borne, Taboo, and many others. In recent years my eyes have been opened to completely different side (to me) of the game industry which includes genre-inspired tabletop games with elaborate stories, expansion packs, ever-evolving house rules, frequent Board Game Geek consultations, and more. Thanks to FlyingFrog’s zombie B-movie themes board game Last Night on Earth my wallet is a little lighter but I have memories of super intense zombie vs hero marathon standoffs to show for it.
Aha! So, it turns out I do have a little experience with digital gaming--after all, an iPad game is quite obviously also digital game and I merely needed to expand my definition of digital games to include those not solely played on a PC or Xbox.
I arrived at BostonFIG and parking was a snap (and affordable) at the garage across the street from the Johnson Athletic Center in Cambridge, MA. The registration for the event was held outside under the overhang to the facility. I took my badge and headed in.
|L to R: A kiosk of tabletop games for sale, digital game artist meet and greet, games for free play.|
The ground level hosted the tabletop game booths. The festival was set to open to the public at 10:00am but press was invited to get a head start meeting with the exhibitors at 9:00am. At that hour, many exhibitors were still setting up and numerous booths were still unoccupied. I chatted up Jeff Johnston, a game designer with Pair of Jacks Games. Jeff had two of his published family games Toasted or Roasted and Flashlights & Fireflies available for sale and this year he was showcasing his prototype Moonquake Escape for people to play and gather feedback. Jeff was generous with his time and offered an insider tip that I ought to check out the digital game floor early so I could speak with the designers and developers there before the crowds arrived and the room became busy (and warm). I promptly took his advice and made a beeline for the third floor.
Set on the athletic track, the third floor was already buzzing with action by the time I'd arrived. Every table showcased their game which ranged from tablet-only games to elaborate set-ups enabling attendees to experience a game in virtual reality or “standard” play. Although there were small screens and large monitors wherever I looked, playing the games wearing headphones is the norm so the floor lacked the din of narration, ray gun peeoo peeoos, environmental noise, and the like. (Note to germophobes, bring your own headphones if you wish as we saw many who did just that.)
|Cornell Game Design students demo'd their game Arc en Ciel and showed samples of their art.|
I was content to observe others playing the games while engaging designers and developers to learn more about what they were showing on this day but it didn’t take long for me to jump in to play my first game—Arc en Ciel. To be perfectly honest, what first caught my eye about this game was the four people at the booth showing the game were all young women. Being a woman myself, I was curious to learn more about their game and how they came to game design. It turns out they were all students at the Cornell Game Design Initiative and Arc en Ciel was the result of their class project collaboration. In this game, you play the main character Ciel who finds herself suddenly living in a black and white storybook. Ciel moves through the scenes in the book collecting paint to add color to the book’s illustrations. She discovers treasures as she moves through the levels and aims to avoid the “bad guy” Illustrator who aims to revert the story to a colorless world. The women—the designers and illustrator-- were excited to share their game and talk about how it came to be.
With one game under my belt I quickly realized that this festival wasn’t simply a place to gather ideas about which games were coming down the pipeline and meet local designers. Games, of course, are meant to be played so the best way to get the most from the day was to experience as many games as possible no matter how novice I looked trying to learn them.
|My first virtual reality experience|
With few words of instruction (“lean your shoulders to the right to steer your horse right”, “pedal your feet to accelerate”) I was up and running. I am pretty certain my jaw dropped to the floor within the first seconds of pedaling and moving. The responsiveness of the horse (my character) to my body’s subtle movements was phenomenal. So subtly that I hardly noticed, the stationary bike also responded gently with the movement and actions of my horse only adding to the total immersion of the experience. I’d never donned a pair of VR goggles before this and I had never yet experienced the ability to turn my head right or left and the scene before me adapts to expand my environment to wherever I looked.
|Learning to fly at the VirZoom booth|
To say this was one of the most extraordinary experiences is not to do it justice. I have never known anything quite like this! It had the weightless thrill of being on a roller coaster but instead of feeling like I was “riding” the horse, I was the horse—it was me who felt the sensation of flying across the sky. The moment I lifted off I remember reacting to the exhilaration with a sudden gasp of air and what surely must have been a ridiculous gaping smile. Turning my head right and left I could see the wide Pegasus wings flapping slowly and powerfully beside me. Whatever I did, the animal responded. If I forgot to pedal the bike, the horse would gently begin descent—again, not just visually descend but I would simultaneously feel the descent reflected in the movement of the bike itself.
I admit I was completely reluctant to end this mind-blowing first experience with VR and especially with the VirZoom bike. As much as I am not a fan of biking, I didn’t mind the pedaling one bit for this game and I find the idea of being physically active while immersing yourself in a video game also very appealing. It was possibly the world’s easiest way to exercise.
|Dozens of different games to test run|
It's important to realize that we the festival goers at BostonFIG aren’t merely consumers of these products but are active participants in providing feedback to the designers as they continue to work on and refine their game play. By having both complete novices (like me) as well as experienced gamers, the developers are gathering useful feedback to help them make adjustments before going live to the public. The festival provides designers with a peek into how quickly a new player can grasp the play.
Some games rolled out for the festival are still in prototype so it’s possible certain interactions within the game don’t yet function but the minor limitations don’t keep you from having plenty of fun while you gain a sense of what a game is about. Other games were already quite far along in the process or already “shipped” (a phrase I learned applies to digital products going “live” to the public).
|Getting a feel for playing Red Survivor |
at the Mustachio Games' booth
One of the games workshopped in the MassDiGI summer program was Red Survivor –a survival strategy game set in pre-WW I Russia in development by Mustachio Games with the cheeky tagline “Hide Your Babooshka”. As with many of the games at BostonFIG, we were able to play a prototype of Red Survivor with gentle prompts and help from Dylan Mayerchak, the designer and programmer to help us get up on our feet and get a feel for the game play.
|Ape Law's popular Albino Lullaby |
offered standard and VR play options
Tagged as a “first-person horror adventure,” Albino Lullaby’s booth was in full swing all day long with large crowds gathered around to watch this visually stunning narrative-based interactive game which was only three days away from its official game release and is now available to the public.
|The Town of Light's haunting digital game|
draws from a village's complicated history
The real-life asylum housed up to 6,000 patients and during its time of operation was the town’s largest employer until it closed in 1978. The now-abandoned, condemned property was captured first by the game designers with a video walk-through then re-created digitally for an authentic look and feel, complete with the same graffiti you’d find within its peeling walls today. The details of this game are breathtaking—the medical charts that depict astounding and graphic surgical procedures—all real and true to the time and period of this hospital.
The representative for The Town of Light Stefano Petrullo was gracious enough to play the game for me so I could watch and listen to the atmospheric sounds and see the story unfolding while he deftly moved from room to room explaining the various connections and characters. Mr. Petrullo shared with me the designers had taken great care to create a story that was both authentic to the practices at this notorious hospital yet respectful of the patients who may have suffered there.
|Maze Racers hosted an active table|
for tabletop game players of all ages
I wandered from table to table soaking up the game play summaries and strategies. Everything from fantasy-genre card games to family-style collaborative games dotted the booths. Rather than play most games from start to finish, you were invited to just jump in on a game and someone was always there to help you get your feet wet and explain as you played.
One of the most hilarious games I came across also held the most straightforward game play. Why the Long Face?, billed as "the game that brings taxidermy to life", laid four giant picture cards on the table each with a wildlife photograph animal face and the animal’s common name. The participants take turns individually or as a group imitating the expression of a particular animal on a card while the judge tries to guess which animal everyone is mimicking. The game was ultra-simple and totally ridiculous and we all were in tears from laughter while playing it. Within minutes the game testing strangers had become instant friends, ribbing each other for our silly efforts and crazy faces.
|At the Why the Long Face? table we competed to contort our faces to match an animal's expression.|
Again, sometimes the simplest ideas are the ones which work so well. The easier a game is to learn the play and strategy, the more appealing it is to roll out with a group of friends or family for a spontaneous game night.
|Dragoon's high quality materials and|
attractive color scheme was a standout
|The Cookie Brigade volunteers kept us|
fed while raising funds for Child's Play
We can’t resist giving a deserved shout out to the folks at The Cookie Brigade which is a collection of local volunteers who hand out their free baked treats at local game fests in the hope you will make a donation to Child’s Play (and of course you will happily do so!) The Cookie Brigade alone has raised over $200,000 for the charity Child’s Play whose mission "seeks to improve the lives of children in hospitals and domestic violence shelters through the generosity and kindness of the video game industry and the power of play."
Many of the attendees at BostonFIG were college-age (it is held on a university campus after all) but there were some teenagers and I saw several kids about 10-11 years old there with parents in tow. It seemed appropriate for teens and probably a good idea for 13 year olds and under to be there with an adult (for no reason other than it seemed like a good idea) as it can get crowed and some parents may want to inquire about digital content in advance (graphic, etc.)