Radius Festival 2014 - Thursday thoughts
I guess I am a little jaded. Video games have been slowly slipping into a quagmire of unimaginitive clones and sequels for some time now. When skimming over the top tier of gaming, that insipid ongoing argument over whether this genre can be considered ‘art’ becomes almost irrelevant. This is not art, this is commercialism at its grandest level. It’s a team of talented people who have discovered how to push enough of the stereotypical white male’s buttons to ensure that their sales margins will deliver. This is not art, it’s an industry of addiction.
On the come down from E3 it’s remarkably easy to stumble down this alley of discontent. Nearly every trailer that is flung across the internet will assuredly feature guns, or an unimaginative sequel or if we’re lucky a vaguely promising regurgitation of old ideas. Nearly every trailer pinned with a blatant statement of capitalistic intent, an ‘only on Xbox One’ here or a ‘Exclusive content on PS4’ there. It’s a sinister market of men in suits reaching for our wallets.
So, I guess that’s why I was a little jaded as I wandered into Radius festival, a flashy revamped version of the Etoo festival that popped up in London last year as an indie backlash to the events in L.A. It’s a tiny room just off of Leicester Square filled with excited gamers playing a bizarre range of games with budgets that top flight studios would devour in minutes. I quickly stroll around the area, taking it all in when a lady calmly sidles up to me and whispers in my ear ‘Would you like to play a dating sim where the main characters are pigeons at a high school?’.
How do you turn that down?
So the first game I find myself engorging upon is Hatoful Boyfriend. I soon discover that this rather eccentric take on the popular Japanese visual novel genre is actually a remake of a cult classic game of the same name, now published by Devolver digital and Mediatonic. You play as a human high school girl in a world of pigeons, just trying to make her way through the year. In the demo on display there is only a single route to run through, leaving a disappointing lack of choice, but it still illustrated how cooing mad the idea is with pigeons flirting, fighting and eating lots of puddings. Perhaps the most surreal element is the static photos of your sexy sweetheart birds that appear in front of rendered backgrounds, apparently a tribute to the original which the developers refused to alter.
Pig Eat Ball
Standing up and moving swiftly away from a pigeon who has seemingly ascended to another plane of pudding-related existence, I turn to spot a group laughing around a big screen. Intrigued I step forward and am thrusted a controller, they are one short of a full roster. In the first round of this mad arcade game I am a pig chasing a roving circle, smashing other pigs out of the way. The pig remaining in the circle the longest at the bell brings home the bacon. The next round we’re tasked with collecting eggs, next some rudimentary form of football. According to ‘a guy who knows the dev’, there are more modes than he can remember ‘because the dev is mad and just keeps adding them’. Good stuff! Pig Eat Ball is a mental rush of adrenaline and great fun for a party, there’s even a single-player mode for those times you can’t interest your friends in porcine-style activities.
Trotting onwards I sniff out a rather interesting hack and slash roguelike adventure by the name of Tiny Keep. What instantly drew me to the screen is the wonderful chunky aesthetic of the characters reminding me of Dungeon Keeper, what made me hang around and play was the developer bandying around deliberately attractive terms like ‘insta-death’ and ‘procedural generation’ and ‘Dark Souls’. There’s not much to the game at present, your character sprints through a wonderfully looking dungeon hacking and slashing at creeps, releasing prisoners and finding the blue key. It’s a game that has promise if the unfinished content lives up to what is on display here, the fighting feels more dynamic and physical than your average brawler and certainly requires more skill. My favourite moment was leading a hapless brute onto a spike trap (that had caught me unaware earlier) then, alas, I got crushed by a horde of skeletons.
Chuntering away next to Tiny Keep, a small queue had developed around a game featuring crazy little machines hurtling around a luminescent landscape, shooting each other and breaking into pieces. TerraTech’s novel idea seems to be a modular approach to building these vehicles. Players can attach whatever junk they find lying around or blown off other machines to their own slowly growing monstrosities and the results can be rather hilarious and often completely useless as the spin around in circles or flip over. It is still early days for this interesting Lego-like experiment but, according to one of the developers standing next to me as I look baffled at the creations on screen, there are plans for players to be able to create bases, semi-intelligent drones and even persistent world servers which could play out like a grand survival RTS. In a way it reminds me of a more advanced version of the long forgotten but still brilliant Warzone 2100, and that is no bad thing.
A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build
Time to calm down. Time for a little relaxation. A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build is a simple concept puzzle game with a beautiful artistic style, where our strange faceless hero is charged with building snowmen with cute names. Like the best puzzle games, such as those from Bart Bonte or Stephen Lavelle the premise is simple, but the solutions can be extremely taxing. Using just directional controls the player must push snowballs around, growing in size as they roll across the snow-covered floor, and then place the balls on top of each other to form a lovely snowman. Brought to us, in part, by the clever guy who made Sokobond, A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build is a wonderful idea that neatly fills the niche of short and simple puzzles that there is always a need for. Hopefully out in time for Christmas, yet one wonders if it will still sell when the snow melts in spring...
If you beat one of the creators of a game on your second attempt, and then destroy the other straight after are you a genius, is the game flawed, or are they simply letting you win so you feel good about yourself? This is the thought I come away with after playing Kingdoms, one of those games that you feel should be as old as chess, yet somehow has only just been invented. The concept is elegant, you place tiles that expand from your king with the goal of claiming the opponent's king on the opposite corner of the board as your own. Your land must always be connected to your king, so the aim is to separate your opponent's tiles, claiming them as your own and gaining extra turns in the process. Players can fortify positions to stop this happening, but at the cost of a move. The fantastic clean aesthetic holds this iOS game together, but it’s hard to judge from the limited experience whether the concept can reach that elevated tier of ‘easy to learn, hard to master’.
As gravity flips and my character falls towards the ceiling, something dawns on me. I made this game. No kidding (only well, I didn't literally make this game). As I play through the demo on display here I spend the whole time in some weird world of deja vu. Clicking on a wall or ceiling flips gravity in that direction and the player uses these powers to bypass traps and solve puzzles. The aesthetic is minimalistic, with lines marking the ground to give players some form of guidance, the ethereal soundscape reacts to the player’s actions and there are many secret areas to discover. I could have been writing that about my rather broken mess of a game that only five people probably played… so I am not sure how I’m supposed to feel about this, but in a way I’m glad that a developer with competence has pulled the same idea from conceptual space and created a far more polished and commercially viable version. As I stand up and walk away with my head spinning the developer, who has been watching my suspiciously speedy progress, asks me what I think. I tell him my story, he says ‘yeah there’s a number of games around that have taken this approach’. I feel slightly humbled. There’s a Kickstarter right now too.
Not entirely sure which way is up anymore, I wander away from those minimalistic lines that are echoing around my mind. I pick up a gleaming tablet on the table next to me and drift away into space. Several minutes later I realise I’m still drifting and I’ve built up a remarkable score on this endless runner-esque jumping game named Beyond Gravity. The core concept is simple: use the gravity of little comets to launch yourself between them collecting point-scoring cogs and screws along the way. It’s an enjoyable little romp and one of those simple ideas that can easily kill some idle minutes on the commute. The developer, again lurking somewhere behind me, commends me on my score as I stand up and points out that I didn’t even use the double jump or the hold skills. Well no-one told me that…
Radius festival offered a fair few more games that this little selection, but at this point I’d had my fill and the room was full to bursting with queues flowing out from every game. Stepping out into the hectic streets of Leicester Square I spot a small theatre plastered with posters for a play I had never even heard of. And I realise something. It is so easy to get caught up in the unstoppable branding machine that steamrolls across the fields of gaming. Yet beneath this leviathan lies an endless crop of undiscovered entertainment. Out there in the real world there are games, or shows, or films, or musicians, or art forms that will keep us sane as we trundle through our lives. It’s not all unremarkable Pop-pap. The trick is taking the time to find something else, something new, something different. Well done Radius and congratulations to all those involved.