Comics vs. Games 2 at the Toronto Comic Art Festival

I’ve been working on a somewhat-lengthy react to Spec Ops (which I’ve finally played), but since I’m waiting on something else I thought I’d give a breakdown of some of the games I got to try out/demonstrate as part of the Hand-Eye Society, Bento Miso, and Attract Mode’s Comics vs. Games 2 and Bit Bazaar presentations during this weekend’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Where is My Heart 

This one did my head in a bit. Like all of the Comics vs. Games exhibits, this was a game that riffed on the comic aesthetic. It seems simple enough at first, with three little 8-bittish monsters running around being controlled one-at-a-time, as a sort of lo-fi Lost Vikings.

Then it changes, and the screen breaks up into comic-style panels that, crucially, are not directly spacially related to each other. You could start up in a panel on the right, move to the left, and end up in a panel above you, and then a panel below you, and then a panel on the other side of the screen, and then two panels above that one at the same time. And that’s just the start; soon you’re rotating the screen underneath one of the characters in order to get them where they need to go. It was around the point when teleporters got involved that I moved on. I want to go back, though.

(by Die Gute Fabrik, published by the Copenhagen Game Collective. Out on PSN, coming to PC.)

Framed

Enjoyable if short iOS demo. This is a murder mystery where you don’t directly control the main character. Instead, you arrange the panels that he travels through, with the story ending differently depending on how the panels are arranged. It’s got a sorta Lemmings-ish feel to it in its own way, mixed with the sort of “Siliwood” look that went away in the 1990s and that I do sorta miss on some odd level. Demo was only about three or four screens, though.

(By Love Shack Entertainment, coming for iOS and other platforms.)

Gorogoa 

This one was almost disturbingly beautiful. It focused on panel manipulation (definitely a theme here), but this time you were arranging panels on a 2 by 2 grid in order to get…fruit? To stop some sort of …monster? I don’t know, it makes sense in the context of the game. You zoom in and out of gorgeous 2D environments, and can shift around the pictures at nearly any time, trying to create serendipitous arrangements that get your character where he needs to be and get him the fruit(?) that he needs to get. The strangest part is when you move a panel and discover a layer coming off, creating an overlay that needs to be used with a completely different zoom level in a different panel. That happens a lot,  it’s not always terribly intuitive, and certain puzzles just felt annoying more than anything else. When it worked, though,  it did a good job of disrupting the sense of space and embodiment.

(By Jason Roberts, coming out later this year on PC and then later on mobile.)

Storyteller

To my intense surprise, this was the breakout hit. It was almost always mobbed with people.  it doesn’t seem like much at first, just a set of panels and some little 8-bit people to place on them to tell little comic stories. But, quickly, the game starts challenging you to create surprisingly difficult and involved scenarios involving those little people, and then continually reveals that you’ve retold classic stories (like Romeo and Juliet, or Waiting for Godot, or even Star Wars) in three panels or less.

People were ENTHRALLED. It wasn’t any longer than Where is My Heart, but while people would just wander away from that one, people would practically camp out at Storyteller. It’s not that there would be any tension or fighting, either; people would be collaborating to try to figure out how to best tell the story, and to pull off the optional “achievements” for telling the stories in non-intuitive ways.  Some of the best players were kids, too; a fact which surprised and delighted me. Daniel Benmergui has a winner on his hands; can’t wait until he releases it.

(By Daniel Benmergui, coming out later this year on PC/Mac/iOS.)

Here’s a few initial impressions of a few of the Bit Bazaar games I played as well:

Beat Patrol

A fascinating and frankly fiendish combination of bullet-hell shooter and rhythm game. The basic conceit is that it’s a one-on-one fight between a little SWAT-alike bounty hunter (that moves like a shooter ship) and a single big alien that shoots out bullet-hell patterns in time with music. His patterns become your patterns; you have to shoot back in time with the rhythm of the music yourself.

The way I described it to people was like a combination of Space Channel 5, The World Ends With You, and a Cave shooter. The game was clearly rough, and there were certain elements (like feedback on missed notes) that needed work. Still, the core is there, and it’s very clever.

(By Daniel Orellana and Patrick Rainville, release date TBD)

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Picture a cross between fl0w and FTL. That’s LiaDS. You and a friend control two little guys that have to manage something like five or six different stations between them in a little asteroid-cum-starship that’s locked in constant battle with an endless tide of killer robots or aliens or whatever. The aesthetic is awesome, like FTL but more so in the cutesy-things-shooting-at-each-other sense, and it’s wildly chaotic fun. Especially when they demonstrated the four-player mode they’d cobbled together.  Picture the shouting.

(By Asteroid Base, release date later this year)

Actual Sunlight

This cross between JRPG and text adventure would perhaps be better called “Trigger Warning”. Anybody who has even a vague knowledge of serious depression will recognize the mental state of the protagonist after bare seconds. After a few minutes of this demo, it starts hitting dangerously close to home. After a few more, it will annihilate you. I hate to even conceive what playing the full game is like.

It’s an important work, but I honestly don’t even know whether to recommend it. Be cautious.

(By Will O’Neil, and you can download the latest build right now.)

They Bleed Pixels

Yes, this one’s been out for a while, but due to my computing situation this was the first chance I’d had to play it. Pity. It’s an instantly engaging cross between Marvel vs. Capcom combat (albeit simplified),  Super Meat Boy’s unforgiving platforming, and Miguel Sternberg’s characteristic (and carefully-thought-out) shareware-era PC aesthetic. I can’t wait until I get to play more.

(by Spooky Squid Studios, out now on Steam.)

So, yeah, there ended up being a darned good crop of indies here in Toronto this weekend. The comics crowd were definitely into the Comics vs. Games exhibit, and Bit Bazaar showed how real-world interaction and engagement can still be important in this era of digitally-distributed-everything. ‘Twas a good time. Even if some jerk did reset one of the demonstration computers that one time.

(Oh, and I finally got to meet Christine Love, who lived up to all my expectations. Even if she is WAY too harsh on Persona 3.)

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