One of the most interesting trends I saw this year in game design was the emphasis on accessibility. Although I’m somebody that enjoys a good, crunchy challenge, it’s oftentimes easy to forget that having a comfy experience is one of the ways in which video games can be a powerful tool for positivity.
Well, let’s get down to it then! In no particular order, here are seven more amazing indies that I had the opportunity to check out at PAX West.
Haven is a love story about all the moments in-between: the gentle touches, the small fights, and the quiet laughs. Drenched in bright neon colors, Haven focuses on the relationship between Yu and Kay, a couple that ekes out their days on a backwater planet. Though their routine is mundane, they are alone together and happy.
It’s this connection that lies at the heart of Haven’s story and gameplay mechanics. The game plays rather oddly at first. Dialogue choices exist for both characters in the same conversation, Yu and Kay seamlessly switch who leads when gliding around, and combat requires simultaneously managing the two and their abilities. As a solo player, the character you control isn’t Yu or Kay: it’s their relationship. Haven quite masterfully encapsulates the warm feel of being in love, of having to rely on and be relied on by another person.
The real genius, however, is how this experience changes when you play with another person. Because the mechanics operate on a philosophy of simultaneous decisions, Haven encourages conversation. This game isn’t about skill or optimization: it’s about learning, talking, and being present with another human being,
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the developers behind Haven are the same ones behind Furi. Yes. Furi. The high-octane, white-knuckle, off-the-wall boss-rush bullet hell hack-and-slash game about slaying your jailors and escaping prison. That Furi. Yet, when the vivid blue and purple neon tones bloom onto the screen, accompanied by a gently pulsing synth score, there’s no denying it’s the same team. Haven is an odd step forward, but one that works with such a stirring beauty to both its presentation and gameplay.
Emily is Away <3
It’s 2008: Barack Obama’s presidency has begun, Team Jacob vs. Team Edward debates rage fiercely, and America is experiencing a crippling financial crisis. For a large number of us who were teenagers at the time, Facebook was our sanctuary. It was a home that we made for ourselves. After the confusing gaudiness of MySpace, the sleek, uncluttered timeline was perfect for a cool internet kid like myself. All of my friends were on it too! I just had to make an account, fill out some details, pick my favorite movies, books, and shows, and bam my feed was up and running.
That’s how Emily is Away <3 starts. Once your “Facenook” account is created, you’ll receive your first friend invite. Soon after, more friends reach out until you find yourself switching between conversations as you pore over your walls and photos. Emily is Away <3 is the third installment in a series of games by Kyle Seeley that aims to recreate the experience of internet communication in the mid-late 2000s. Seeley not only captures the look of Facebook in 2008, but the feel of it. The user-driven timelines, the pokes and tags, and the frenetic lowercase typing instantly transport you back to a decade where social media was still figuring itself out. Within this framework, Seeley tells a story of teenage pettiness, pop-culture, and surviving friendship on the internet.
Emily is Away <3 is a time capsule for the 2008 kid, a look back on how we used to engage with technology in our personal lives. For those of us that lived through that period, it offers a moment to reflect on who we were back then and where we came from. For everyone that has come after, it’s a chance to see how internet culture has changed into the unrecognizable behemoth it is today.
Chicory, much like Spiritfarer, abides by a philosophy of accessibility, optimism, and fun. The game has been built from the ground up as a sandbox for discovery and play. As an apprentice to Chicory, wielder of a magic paintbrush, you suddenly find yourself in possession of the brush and all its powers. Out into the world you go, coloring everything to your heart’s content.
The world of Chicory is your canvas and invites you to fill it as you see fit. There is no fail state, there is no wrong way to play the game. The core gameplay can best be thought of as 2D Zelda’s exploration and puzzle systems. With brush in hand, you venture out into the world and use your paint to color and shape the environment around. Along the way you meet quirky characters, like Pickle the smarmy fox or Lemon the skittish lizard (salamander?).
From top to bottom, Chicory is a game first and foremost. The brush itself feels fantastic to paint with and rewards players who think (and color) outside the box. There are so many small details that you can fiddle around with, like coloring in your parents during a phone call or creating a totally awesome t-shirt design. Chicory explores the idea of fun and encourages you to do the same.
Visual novels and all of its offshoots are, to put it bluntly, stagnant. While the word “novel” is there in the phrase, people tend to follow that notion a bit too religiously and end up creating walls of text for the player to surmount. If Found bucks that trend by placing its story within a mesmerizingly simple mechanic: erasure.
If Found tells the story of Kasio, a young adult undergoing a stressful time in their life, both in and outside of their head. While these story beats may have been tread before, the way If Found presents them is nothing short of gorgeous. There is no clicking text boxes or choosing dialogue options like a traditional kinetic novel (linear visual novel). Instead, If Found gives you a simple eraser. With it, you wipe away scratchy drawings, moody colors, and heartfelt words that fill your screen.
Steeped in metaphor and emotions, If Found manages to achieve a simple sincerity with how straightforward it is. Each click of the eraser keeps you invested in Kasio’s story as you uncover layer after layer to see what lies beneath.
Sayonara Wild Hearts
The notion of “game feel” is not to be discounted, as a sense of play is just as important to a game as its design. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a rhythm runner that doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, but it possesses such a vibrant sense of style that it ends up not mattering much. Billed as “A Pop Album Video Game”, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a sensory experience from start to finish.
Like other rhythm runners, Sayonara Wild Hearts has the player run straight ahead and move around to collect pickups to the beat of a song. Sometimes it shakes things up and has you tap or mash a button, but otherwise the actual mechanics behind the game are super simple. Where Sayonara Wild Hearts excels is in its presentation.
Good golly this is one of the most stylish games I’ve ever played. Straight from the game itself: “Sayonara Wild Hearts is a pop album video game about riding motorcycles, skateboarding, dance battling, shooting lasers, wielding swords, and breaking hearts at 200 mph”. Decked out in its tarot theming, it reveals in excess and style. From the loud and proud neon visuals to the thumping electronic pop soundtrack, Sayonara Wild Hearts oozes charm that keeps you around just so you can see and hear more of it.
Minute of Islands
In examining the classic “Hero’s Journey”, Minute of Islands has chosen to do so in a succinct four-hour adventure game. Players follow Mo, a young girl raised by giants that has been tasked with the responsibility of fixing and maintaining the islands they live on. Styled as a traditional narrative adventure game, Minute of Islands offers a refreshing change of pace for even the most burned-out story-based game fans.
One of the most noticeable features of the game is that there is no dialogue. All in-game text is told from the perspective of a third-person narrator. The result is a narrative that feels removed from the player, allowing them to more closely examine Mo’s story without projecting themselves into it.
Minute of Islands has an oddly comforting, airy feel to it, as its narrative prose works wonderfully with the serene, storybook quality of its art. However, the game is anything but a story for children. Minute of Islands delves into shockingly mature content, seemingly at odds with its adorable art style, which only makes it stand out all the more.
Devolver Digital has a reputation for publishing the quirky, odd, and obscene. Carrion is another title the company can stick in their trophy case, a celebration of all things grotesque. In Carrion, you play as a biomutated mass of flesh and teeth that has escaped containment to wreak havoc in a research facility. The game looks and feels like an over-the-top horror movie, from the gory visuals of blood splattering the walls to the sickening crunch of bone as you engorge on a mountain of bodies.
You control your pulsing, writhing biomass with two sticks, one for movement, the other for aiming, and a trigger button that has a general purpose interact/mangle function. As you progress, you obtain new, horrifying powers like shooting cobwebs. These abilities open up pathways and give you even more options to savagely overwhelm your prey. While there are times where you need to be sneaky and subtle, you’re most often bursting into rooms, grabbing frightened scientists and guards, and frantically tearing them to shreds.
Carrion’s gameplay flow shifts quite satisfyingly to menacing stealth to absolute carnage, as you smash on the trigger and wildly flick your control sticks to cause utter mayhem onscreen. Where it unfortunately lacks a oomph is in the exploration aspect. The way the maps are designed, it’s rather hard to tell where you need to go and what you need to interact with. However, the sheer tactile sensation of controlling a sci-fi horror creature is beyond comparison, so hopefully the dev team can create levels that support it.