2016 was a pretty interesting year for games: with the rise of VR and announcements about new generation consoles, there’s a lot more going on for gaming than in previous years. I didn’t get to play everything that I wanted to (of course), and although I played a lot of AAA games as well, I’m trying to spend more time looking at indie offerings. Here (in no particular order) is a quick list of some of the indie games that I played last year and would recommend:
Inside is a side-scrolling puzzle/platform game from indie studio Playdead, where you control a boy who, from the first scene, is being chased by soldiers, dogs and scientists. Although the narrative doesn’t do much to explain what’s happening, you do get to wear mind control helmets to move zombies around to solve puzzles, and there’s an underlying commentary about autonomy and ownership. The art is minimal, with the setting being mostly black and gray, except for your character and interactable objects. Likewise, there’s very little soundtrack, with only audio cues, and the sound of your character’s footsteps, which really adds to how eerie the setting is.
This one came out in 2014 but I only got around to playing it in 2016. There are lots of games about war, but This War of Mine is unique in that you play as non-combatant residents of a war-torn city–all the fighting you do is for your day-to-day survival. I think this one hit home particularly hard because I started playing as the Siege of Aleppo was intensifying at the end of the year, and there are some incredibly heartbreaking choices you have to make. It’s not a game I would say I enjoyed per se, but I think it is definitely one that is worth playing for the lessons in empathy, understanding and acceptance it can teach. (And if that’s not emotionally wrenching enough for you, there’s now an expansion called This War of Mine: The Little Ones where you experience the besieged city through the eyes of a child.)
Overcooked is a great little cooking game where couch cooperation is key to success–it’s not enough to just be good at the game as an individual; where it gets fun (and tricky and frustrating) is playing with a group of up to three other players, where you have to navigate a kitchen without bumping into each other to source, prepare, cook and serve food. With some clever mechanics that focus on teamwork and cooperation, hilarity (and a little bit of rage) ensues.
I absolutely love Unravel. It’s probably the most visually stunning game on this list, and it’s a little game with a lot of heart. You play as Yarny, an anthromorphic ball of yarn who—as the name suggests—unravels as he traverses across levels, using his yarn to solve puzzles and move objects around. The mechanics in the game are pretty straightforward, but what ties Unravel together (if you forgive the pun) is how lovely it is. The story is poignant and bittersweet, but it is incredibly clear that the developers really put their love into making it the game that they wanted. Also, you’d never imagine that a ball of red yarn could have so much emotion and personality.
I’m a huge fan of adventure games, but the majority of them that I’ve played are of the point-and-click variety. Firewatch is almost like a grownup version of that, with a mystery that drives the story and a first-person perspective that works surprisingly well for the narrative and the puzzles. You play as Henry, a volunteer lookout for Shoshone National Park, and your only means of connection to the outside world is via a walkie-talkie. As you patrol your part of the park, you discover a whole host of different storylines that interweave. I really enjoyed the way Firewatch set up dialog trees so that your responses in your conversations would drive how your experience in the game evolved.
Salt and Sanctuary
If you like the grindiness of games like Dark Souls, but set in a 2D platformer, where you can play cooperatively with your friends (and not just people who invade your game), Salt and Sanctuary might be worth checking out. It’s a hard game, but there are lots of player customizations, and playing with your friends helps soften the blow of the many, many, times that you’ll die in the game.
The Flame in the Flood is a roguelike survival game, where you play as Scout, a survivor in a flooded, post-apocalyptic America where the land has been transformed into a series of islands that she has to traverse on a makeshift raft. As she and her dog Aesop travel down the river, Scout has to contend with wild animal attacks, snakebites, hunger, and staying warm and dry, all the while as she uncovers the mystery of where everyone went during the rapture. What keeps the game together is the river, which varies between calm streams to rushing rapids that you have to maneuver through to get to the next destination. Will it take you where you want to go? Or will you be dashed upon rocks? I also highly recommend the soundtrack for The Flame in the Flood; I didn’t stop listening to it for weeks after I finished the campaign.
What did you play in 2016 that you enjoyed? Are there any other indie games that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments below! Happy gaming for 2017!
This one-hour panel, given by Elizabeth Sampat and Zoe Quinn, was a crash course in how—and why—to make your own game. Between them, the two designers have made video games, tabletop games, board games, and other entertainments, and they brought their breadth of knowledge and experience to GeekGirlCon attendees. Each half of the panel could really have been an entire talk of its own, being condensed versions of talks and workshops that Sampat and Quinn have given elsewhere. If you’re interested in more in-depth information on these topics, check out Elizabeth’s and Zoe’s websites.
Obviously I’m not alone when I say autumn is my favorite time of the year and Halloween is my favorite holiday, but for once my secret hipster heart is pleased by not being the only cool kid: it makes it easier to share my interests and, of course, get new recommendations! Right now, though, I’ll be kind enough to propose some of my own ideas for how to get into the spooky mood—but, of course, please comment below if you think of anything else!
In honor of Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I thought I’d highlight some of the best Asian video game characters out there, only to realize that the selection isn’t very large. For an industry that was, in a way, birthed by Asian companies like Nintendo and Sony, there’s surprisingly very few Asian characters in major (or even minor) games.
Professor Dimitri Williams of the University of Southern California did a study back in 2009 about, among other things, the representation of different races in video games. He found that while 80.05% of characters in video games are white, only 5.03% are Asian/Pacific Islander. In 2014, Ross Orlando, a graduate from Ithaca University, looked at the top 10 most highly rated games from 2007 to 2012 and found that Asian characters were only 3% of the games’ protagonists. He even found, perhaps surprisingly, that 75% of the games developed in Japan had white protagonists.
Although Maddie says that she loves these games, she discovered that there were oftentimes male characters, but not female ones. Or, where there were female characters, they had to be unlocked, while the default character was male. This was problematic. However, there are few statistics about the representation of gender in this genre, so, she set out to prove it.
I didn’t self-identify as a geek for a very long time. As a child, I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the 80s, but that wasn’t particularly geeky, because all kids my age liked the Turtles. In a third grade spelling test we were told to spell the longest word we knew, and I managed to get out “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, not because I was an academic overachiever, but because I thought that Mary Poppins was an awesome movie. I liked reading, but I was much more drawn to writers like Roald Dahl and, later, Jeffrey Archer and Michael Crichton, than Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman. I didn’t even touch a Marvel or DC comic until I was about 20.
But the reason I’m writing about my unassumed geekiness is because I was once presented with the question, “but what kind of geek are you?” and I was speechless. That question left me stumped for days. How on earth do you answer something like that? I’ve had geeky interests my whole life, but they just haven’t presented themselves to me as geeky per se. I just thought that they were interests that everyone had. Everyone likes Ninja Turtles, right? Everyone wants to be a superhero, right? Wouldn’t that make everyone a geek?
As I’ve matured as a gamer, it can be difficult to enumerate female protagonists in games that don’t immediately fall into tired gender tropes. So when I came across Together: Amna & Saif, it’s an understatement to say that my interest was piqued. Here was a mother and son cooperative team as the game’s protagonists, AND they were persons of color too?
I wanted to know more about the project and the folks behind it. Lyle Cox (programmer, game designer, and owner) and Evan Munro (game developer and art director) took some time from his busy schedule to answer some questions for our GeekGirlCon blog!
Hi Lyle! Hi Evan! Last February, Lyle quit his day job and took a leap into the world of indie game development. Were you always a gamer, Lyle?
LC: Yes, I have always enjoyed games, especially co-op games. I grew up making games too, just not video games. My friends and I would pretend there were Metroid-type unlocks around the neighborhood and the grass was lava. In the back of my grandparents’ house there was a bunch of broken glass which we used as currency for another game. The game ended shortly after inflation introduced from broken root beer bottles acquired from the nearby gas station. I was the oldest in my family so I was frequently making up new things for us to do.
How about you, Evan?
EM: Besides the occasional hiatus, I’ve been gaming since I was 6 or 7. My grandma had a scary basement with a black-and-white TV and an NES. My sister and I braved many a trip down there just to get a few hours of quality Mario time.
As I’ve gotten older, spending days playing a title has become harder to schedule. In fact, scheduling might be the order of the day if co-op play is required with other friends. Thankfully in Seattle, geeks are thick on the ground. There are a plethora of video game companies in the area, not to mention board game and RPG developers. Has it been harder for geeks to connect in a city like Salt Lake City?
LC: While we don’t have as many game developers as San Francisco or Seattle, it is pretty easy to connect with other developers; we have bimonthly indie game nights where 30-50 people show up. The game design program at the University of Utah was ranked #1 in the country as well. Utah also has a strong board game community, and over 70,000 people attended Salt Lake Comic Con last year, so there are plenty of geeks here.
Wow. I had no idea that Salt Lake Comic Con was the largest first year Comic Con in North American history and the largest convention EVER to take place in Utah. Impressive!
LC: There are a lot of us here that are doing things to build the game dev community in Utah. Hopefully we can make it one of the best places to be an indie developer.
What have been some of the challenges as an indie developer?
LC: Constantly playtesting and finding new people to test the game in a situation where I can observe is a challenge. We have local meetups where I can do some of that, but when I can’t find anyone I have gone to local universities and asked people to play my game while they are there eating their lunch. It isn’t ideal, and you get turned down a few times before you find someone who wants to and has the time, but the game will be better for it in the end.
Maintaining work-life balance, a schedule, and productivity can be a challenge for anyone that works independently. I sometimes overwork myself, which ends up being a net loss because I get burnt out and my body/mind won’t let me work anymore. I am getting better at not doing that.
EM: For me, the hardest part has been making enough money with side jobs to survive, while still having time to devote to development. As I’ve gained experience, paid opportunities have arisen, and it’s been getting gradually easier. But even so, the market is a fickle beast, and the lack of stability is always daunting.
How did Mount Olympus Games get its name?
LC: I like mythology, and the domain http://mountolymp.us was available. I thought it would be fun to have customer support and such come from Zeus at mountolymp.us or Apollo at mountolymp.us etc. So I bought the domain and Mount Olympus Games became the name of the studio.
Nice! I also like Greek mythology and knowing that Apollo was the patron god of music and poetry makes for a nice tie-in with video games, in my humble opinion.
Let’s talk about the video game you’ve been working on. Together: Amna & Saif seems like a fantastic way to spend an evening. How many hours of game play will Together have?
LC: I want two people to be able to play the game in one sitting. So I plan for the main campaign to take about 2.5 hours, which is close to the upper limit for most people to get in the same room together without interruption. There will be a good amount of additional levels and secrets that will probably double or triple that time. There is a stretch goal on the Kickstarter that will add New Game Plus, where you can play through the game again with more difficulty as well. I will redesign/tweak the levels to make them all more difficult.
The New Game Plus level – will that be available after you’ve completed the game initially?
LC: Yes. After you have beaten the game, you can play through the game again with harder levels. The exact implementation will be refined and decided later, but in the end there will be a lot more levels to enjoy if we reach that stretch goal.
Two-and-a-half hours seems like the perfect amount to complete a story mode. Were you inspired by any other video games that took about that long?
LC: Yes, I listened to a talk about how Journey kept the game length intentionally short so two people could play through in one sitting.
I mentioned earlier that I was intrigued by the decision to make the protagonists persons of color. What inspired that choice?
LC: There were some talks at GDCthis year that opened my eyes to the fact that there is a large amount of [people underrepresented] in games. At the same time Evan Munro, the art director on Together: Amna & Saif, asked me about trying out different races for the characters. I was passionate about it so I told him to go for it. All credit goes to him for the result.
As a POC, I am glad that you and Evan chose diversity for your game characters. Do you find that once you’re aware of the underrepresentation, you can’t turn it off?
LC: There are people far more qualified to talk about this than I am. But it is a cultural thing and not isolated to games. What we feed our minds affects us whether we admit it or not; that includes racial stereotypes. The world would be a better place if we consumed media with humanized characters rather than caricatures of stereotypes.
EM: For me as a white male, there are thousands upon thousands of lead characters designed to appeal to me. But for a POC not so much, and the characters that do exist are often based on offensive stereotypes. And even in the indie games scene, there are still overwhelmingly more white characters to choose from than non-white. So when designing Amna and Saif, I decided that if this were my only chance to have total control over a character design, I’d want to take that opportunity and do something unique with them.
Having POC characters also fits into the overall concept and theme of Together as well. As Lyle has mentioned, we want Together to bring newcomers into gaming, and designing POC characters instantly appeals to new audiences.
Were you inspired by any specific titles?
EM: I was inspired by Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana for a lot of the character proportions and color schemes. Other than that I used references outside of gaming. I researched into people from Iran and Pakistan.
Congratulations on reaching your funding goal on Kickstarter! Was its success a surprise?
LC: Thank you. We are taking a lot of risks with Together, so I was prepared for the game to flop, but hoping it would do what it is doing now. I am very grateful and happy that people have seen what makes Together unique and are supporting us. Thank you to all of our backers, and those who have told others about Together.
EM: This being my third Kickstarter project, in general I knew what to expect and what to plan for. So I had hoped that my preparation would at least get us funded. But yeah, it’s always a risk and I’m still amazed by people willing to proactively support indie game development. And we’re definitely elated with the response we’ve gotten.
I can see why. Checking out the game, I really look forward to playing through the game with my partner. He and I have played through many story modes together but this one seems like it might be more compelling because everything requires two players, working together.
So, what you do when you’re not wearing your indie game dev hat?
LC: I spend time with my wife Rachel, who has been very supportive of the development of Together. I like to read, mostly non-fiction, but I mix in some fantasy and sci-fi as well. And of course I play games.
Does Rachel play video games also?
She plays some, but not a lot. She likes the genesis era Sonic games and she was hooked on Flappy Bird and Threes for a little bit. We played through Portal 2 and some other games together, and she helps me playtest Together: Amna & Saif as well.
How about you, Evan?
Well, I always try to keep drawing and filling up sketchbooks. I also enjoy watching horror movies and anime with my girlfriend. And of course playing games!
Awesome! Can you share what we can look forward to for the rest of 2014 for Mount Olympus Games?
Mostly we will continue development of Together: Amna & Saif. We will have a number of beta releases that go to the beta backers on kickstarter. We will be showing the game at SLC Comic Con in September, and if the Indie Megabooth [at Penny Arcade Expo] and/or IndieCade want us, we will be there as well.
I wish you luck at Salt Lake Comic Con, and hope folks respond well to your game!
We here at GeekGirlCon, love sharing our geekdoms. What have you been geeking over lately?
LC: For Books: I am a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. The Manderlys make excellent pies you know. I have The Hound’s Helm from the HBO show sitting on my desk. It is my favorite decoration in my office space.
EM: I recently found an amazing anime film called Fusé: Memoirs of a Huntress. Fusé has great animation, really interesting story, and the main character is kinda badass. I’m also a big fan of synth music. I’m in the market for a korg or something to mess around on.
Any final words of advice would you have for anyone who wanted to follow your lead?
LC: Get out of debt, and study as much as you can. Debt weighs you down and limits your opportunities. Knowledge increases your opportunities. Start creating now–it doesn’t have to look pretty and it doesn’t have to make money. Only make games if it rewards you intrinsically, not extrinsically.
EM: On the art end of things, I’d say, focus on the basics 100%: color, anatomy and composition. Employers are impressed by traditional abilities more so than your handling of a specific program (though they also are good to know). Also if you can afford it, I had a very good experience at art school. I was able to seek out professors that taught me a lot about different mediums and visual communication. Additionally, for game development, all of the connections that have allowed me to work in game development came from my involvement at my university.
Thank you to Evan and Lyle for speaking with me today. I’ve really enjoyed their insights on Together: Amna & Saif, and hopefully you have too. I highly recommend this game whether you’re an old school gamer looking for something fresh or if you’re a neophyte to the whole gaming thing. It’s worth noting that the creators have also taken steps to make the game very accessible. You can play this game with one hand, and they’ve crafted the game’s color palette for people with color blindness.
It continues to amaze me how far the human race has come technologically in the past 20 years. I was in an interview not long ago, and the interviewer (who appeared to be a middle-aged woman) started talking about the way they used to do things in her office. She mentioned mimeograph machines, carbon copies, and using the actual US Mail to get information where it needed to be.
This got me thinking, way back to when I was just a girl…you know, the 1980s.
My grade school didn’t have computers other than the one in the secretary’s office–and that was just a word processor. Nobody had even heard of the Internet in my Wisconsin hometown (population 21,069) at that point.
My parents bought our first computer (an Apple IIGS) when my mom went back to school, which would have put me in late middle school (we called it “junior high” back then).
The first video game of any kind I ever played was the 8-bit version of Oregon Trail. I died countless times on the way to Oregon with my family. It was a little disturbing.
Now, I am aware that everyone has this feeling (nostalgia, to put it politely) to some extent, especially people my age and older. My parents have told stories of their lives before their families even owned a television–and the ones they eventually had were black and white and weighed A LOT.
This feeling is something I’ve really been dealing with for the past couple of weeks. For the moment, my home Internet is off, so the only access I have to the outside world at home is my cell phone. I can’t jump on the computer and edit a GeekGirlCon blog post, or work on the program book for our upcoming convention. I can usually get some spotty Internet on my phone–just enough to read fanfiction until way too late at night. Of course, inside my apartment, that’s pretty much all my smartphone is good for: I get little to no cell reception in my apartment (which has nothing to do with my Internet connection and everything to do with the age and building materials of my apartment building). I’ve been spending a lot of time at my local branch of the Seattle Public Library, and the coffee shops in my neighborhood are becoming quite familiar as well–but I have to spend money to use their Internet. Although, the Barnes and Noble at Northgate Mall has free wifi–no need to buy anything. (Not false advertising–the poster on the window says it!)
The other good thing about having to leave my house to get Internet (especially in recent weeks in Seattle) is that all these places with Internet also have AIR CONDITIONING. I do not function well in the heat at all, so being “forced” to head to the library isn’t much of a hardship. Going home while it’s still 90 degrees in my apartment? THAT is a hardship.
I have read many insightful articles (mostly via my smartphone) regarding the obsession with cell phones, the Internet, and computers. Most of them come to the conclusion that while all this technology tries to foster connectivity with the rest of our species (Facebook, YouTube, etc.), we seem to be more isolated. Is the Internet the cause of my sense of isolation, or is it the cure? Will I feel better when I can truly get online at home again? If I can’t watch television on my phone or computer, what the heck am I going to do with all my time? Thor knows, I’m NOT going to clean anything! I guess I’ll just find the best spot in my apartment to get the fanfiction on my phone, and read until I fall asleep.
Do you think the Internet isolates us, or brings us closer together?
A recent Ask GeekGirlCon about what the games we played as children had me thinking about games I play with my children. As gamers prior to having kids, of course my husband and I were going to play lots of games with our children. Playing games with babies tend to be things like singing nursery rhymes and peek-a-boo – not exactly the pinnacle of gaming. When my children were that young, games on the computer and consoles were not under three friendly, but a quick Google search shows many options for that age now.
When the kids hit about age three, you can start getting both video games and board games robust enough for the younglings. My daughter was four when the oft-maligned Barbie Horse Adventures came out. She loved this game. The plot was basically to go collect horses and ponies that had left the stables and return them to the stables while making them happy by keeping them away from skunks and feeding them fruits and veggies. There was a whole beautifying aspect to the game, but it did not interest my daughter. She loved this game, which we had for Xbox or Playstation 2 (I don’t recall which) at the time. There have been several games in the series released since on several different consoles.
Nintendo GameCube and Wii have catered to younger users and the whole family more than other Next Gen gaming systems. The Kirby game series, especially on Nintendo systems, was popular with my kids and my nephlings. The Super Mario Parties are always a hit. They started in 1998 and the latest edition, 9, released in 2012. My husband and I have played hours of the various Mario Parties with our children as they have grown older. The kids always have their favorite characters that they want to play. These games have a mish-mash of cooperative and competitive play.
We also enjoyed Animal Crossing and Viva Pinata. On these games, the kids could have their own characters and towns/gardens, and we parents could also have them to interact with the kids. This led to a little less “parent plays and child watches” – as was the case in Super Mario Sunshine – and a little more child plays without a lot of competition. Rock Band, with its multiple difficulty levels, edited lyrics, and collaborative play, was also popular in our house for many, many years.
My kids are pre-teen and early teen now. They play a wide variety of games. However, we recently had a revisit of Kirby Air Ride and the latest Mario Party. Puyo Puyo has become quite popular in my house, too, which harkens back to my own childhood days of playing Tetris. Truth be known, a Wii U has just made an appearance in my house. The family is currently playing Nintendoland, which we find loads of fun with its recycling of familiar Nintendo characters and versions of mini-games. Nintendoland has both cooperative and competitive play, with 1 to 5 players.
I would not want to leave out games on the good ol’ desktop. Desktop games do not lend themselves well to family play, unfortunately. Nearly all the console games I mentioned have multiplayer modes or a method of collaborative play. As my pre-teen has grown older, he has enjoyed perusing some of the video RP games his dad has played. He’s spent much time watching Dad play his own characters and building some characters. (Unfortunately, my RP characters are gathering dust in the server.)
Of course, I haven’t even touched on tablet or smart phone games.
Games have rating systems. All the games mentioned are rated E for Everyone, ages 6 and over, except Rock Band, rated T for Teen. Ratings and manufacturers recommended ages are based on content and not play capability. I will admit to not strictly adhering to the suggested ages at all times. Our kids have done well at ages 6 and over playing Rock Band, we simply avoided more suggestive songs. In addition, game play is rather individual. My kids have been able to play Mario Party games since about age 3, but were not able to play Super Mario Sunshine with the same rating – they mostly enjoyed watching the adult play it. There is also lots of advice on how much screen time any person, especially children, should get in a week or a day. But for a little family fun time, a video game can be just the thing to share your own gaming enthusiasm with your kids.
Do you have video games you play with your kids? Tell us about them.