The indies ran the floor at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, showing off everything from classic role-playing experiences to frantic spaceship repair.
PAX is typically a big event on the video game industry’s calendar, as many heavyweight companies will show up to get the hype train rolling for their next release. This year, however, many chose to sit the show out, due to travel restrictions or the Delta variant.
The lone representative from the “triple-A” games industry was Bandai Namco, which had a huge booth devoted to promoting its upcoming Japanese RPG Tales of Arise.
That left a wide assortment of independent developers to fill the gap, many of whom were showing off brand-new games. I’ve been describing this year’s PAX to people, half-seriously, as the Seattle Indie Expo Deluxe, with more of a garage-band feel than past years’ shows have had.
(The actual Seattle Indie Expo runs this month as a virtual event, with streams every Saturday in September. Notably, the only game that’s set to appear at time of writing at both PAX and SIX is the Canadian cyberpunk cooking simulator Neon Noodles.)
Many games at PAX this year were the product of first-time developers, including several studios from the Pacific Northwest. I made a point of tracking as many of them down as I could, to get a good look at the PNW’s post-pandemic indie scene.
Aron’s Gift – Inktale Studios, Seattle, Wash./Atlanta, Ga.
What first got my attention about Aron’s Gift was its art style, which reminded me of Edward Gorey at first glance. In motion, it’s got a feel like an interactive storybook, with sprites and backgrounds that are first hand-painted, then animated in Maya.
It’s still very early in development, but Aron’s Gift is planned to be a short, replayable action-RPG. You can get up to three spirit stones per run, out of a total of 27, which will give you an array of different abilities to experiment with every time you run through the game.
You play as Aron, a 12-year-old boy who’s out to save your mountain village from a curse. One of your primary tools is the ability to travel back in time to the year Aron was born, before the curse took hold, to create changes that will affect the present day.
The husband-and-wife team at Inktale Studios, Joseph and Kristin Baugh Shiraef, have been working on Aron’s Gift for the last five years, adapting it from a book they were writing together. Joseph handles programming and 3D animation, while Kristin, a physical artist who’s had gallery showings around the world, writes the music and creates the game’s original artwork. They currently split their time between Seattle and Atlanta.
Cricket: Jae’s Really Peculiar Game – Studio Kumiho, Redmond, Wash.
Studio Kumiho is the sole returning developer from GeekWire’s last PAX roundup. Its previous game, the zombie survival game show A Sound Plan, was successful enough to pay for its work on Cricket, which was previously known as Project Chang’e.
Jae is a sheltered kid whose mother recently died. When a girl named Symphony tells him about a place on the moon where wishes are granted, he ends up joining her on her quest, even though she might very well be crazy.
Cricket is a sort of jam session JRPG, taking a lot of the best features from the classics of the 16-bit era. It’s a little Chrono Trigger and a lot of Super Mario RPG, but the most obvious comparison here is 1995’s Earthbound. Both games are about a group of kids going on an adventure through a surreal world, although Cricket doesn’t play much like Earthbound did. Still, if you’re looking for a ’90-style console RPG fix, Cricket‘s got that flavor and then some.
It’s also responsible for the single fiercest moment of emotional whiplash I experienced at PAX. The playable demo consists of about 20 minutes of shenanigans, where you beat up a bunch of evil flowers in an attempt to save your town from a plan to fatally aggravate everyone’s allergies, and then it suddenly gets really sad. Cricket is the 16-bit video game that Judy Blume never had the chance to write.
Grim Tranquility – Poorly Timed Games, Redmond, Wash.
Some game developers will try to keep their games from being overtly political, but Chris Wright, the studio head at Poorly Timed Games, is deliberately heading in the opposite direction. Grim Tranquility is a turn-based strategy RPG where humanity has managed to emigrate away from a dying Earth, but still has to deal with late-stage capitalism.
In Grim Tranquility‘s world, climate change rendered Earth uninhabitable 150 years ago. Several generation ships made it offworld, carrying millions of humans to uncertain destinations. You (or your ancestors) were aboard one of them, and after a long search for a new home, they’ve found a habitable planet, called the “Garden of Wolves.” You must find a way to settle it despite your nearly-depleted resources, the hostile wildlife, and being exploited by the dregs of galactic civilization, many of whom regard humanity as an invasive species.
In play, Grim Tranquility is an old-fashioned strategy RPG where you move your team of characters around a hex-based grid during combat. You can create and recruit extra characters to fill out your roster, picking from several available classes and styles of play (melee vs. ranged, fighting with drones and psychic powers vs. weapons), but those new recruits are also subject to permanent death.
Wright was a senior test manager at Bungie until 2019, when he left to pursue the project that became Grim Tranquility. The 20-person distributed team at Poorly Timed Games also includes Jay Howell, writer on Camouflaj’s Iron Man VR, and programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen, the project lead behind 2018’s all-star indie adventure Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.
Grim Tranquility features a cast of high-profile voice actors, including Alexandra Grey (“Empire”) as the protagonist. Notably, many of Grim Tranquility‘s developers, including Wright, identify as LGBTQ+, and its protagonist, like Grey, is a trans woman. Wright explained to me at PAX that one of his goals with the project was to create a diverse setting for Grim Tranquility, where a broad variety of identities are present in the narrative, but bigotry decidedly isn’t.
Harvest Hero: Origins – Gemdrop Games, Vancouver, Wash.
Described by its developer as “the prequel to a game that doesn’t exist yet,” Harvest Hero: Origins is an 8-bit arcade throwback where you must defend your home in the forest from waves of slimy purple “groobles.”
The only mode of the game that was available at PAX was Survival, where up to two players can cooperate to smash increasingly numerous and varied waves of groobles. Your primary weapon is a big hammer, which gives the entire thing a sort of frantic Donkey Kong flavor, and you can unlock a blessing that gives you access to short-ranged projectiles.
You can lose health by getting hit, but it’s far more likely that your game will end when the groobles burn your house down, which happens if you let too many of them reach the left side of the screen. It’s all about zone defense, and especially in two-player co-op, can get crazy. It’s one thing when the groobles are simply rushing you down, but then one shows up with a laser cannon.
Clay Paris, out of Vancouver, Wash., began full-time work on Harvest Hero in April, and wrote it in the Rust programming language. While he had the game’s art and music made on commission, Paris is the sole consistent employee on the game, which will ship with a story mode and several extra characters for players to unlock. He plans to bring Harvest Hero to PC via Steam at some point in the next few months, then focus on making a mobile version.
Minotaur Princess – Bunnies4Peace, Bellevue, Wash.
This might’ve been the newest game I played at this year’s show. Minotaur Princess‘ demo on the floor was an alpha, in version 0.11, and its developers only got its multiplayer mode working on Sunday night during PAX. You normally don’t see games at major cons that are this early in their development process, but Minotaur Princess was working well enough for hands-on demos.
Bunnies4Peace, a team of five first-time game developers working out of the project lead’s home, made Minotaur Princess as a deliberate homage to the Puzzle Quest series, which blends match-3 puzzle games with RPGs’ feel and style. As a princess who’s gotten body-swapped with a minotaur, you must fight your way back home while getting used to life as a giant bull-headed axe-wielding maniac.
The combat in the game is conducted via a matching puzzle. You can line up at least three gems on a grid to line up a series of corresponding effects like lightning spells or healing potions, which fire off in order and real time during your next turn. Between rounds, you can also swap out items on the grid to change up what actions you can take, or use consumable items to tilt the fight in your favor.
Republic of Jungle – Gerdoo Games, Seattle, Wash.
Moein Pahlavan and Kasra Rahimi quit their jobs at Microsoft and Twitch in May 2020 to co-found Gerdoo Games. Both were huge fans of social deduction games like Secret Hitler, and made Republic of Jungle in an attempt to both fuse together and fix their favorite entries in the genre.
Republic of Jungle, which reached its funding target on Kickstarter on Sept. 1, is a game for 5 to 10 players who are the trusted advisors to President Puma. Most of them are Loyalists, who want to keep a tight lid on Puma’s scandals, but a few are Leakers, who send the information to the press in an attempt to sink Puma’s administration.
Naturally, Loyalists want to figure out who the Leakers are and expose them, while Leakers want to bring Puma down. You can play Republic with a video call app or in-person, using a TV and browser-enabled phones or tablets.
At time of writing, Republic has hit its second stretch goal on Kickstarter, which adds character animations to the planned final version of the game. It was also one of two PNW-made games that made it into this year’s PAX 10, a collection of indies selected by PAX’s panel of judges that were placed front and center in the WSCC’s Expo Hall during the convention.
The Wild at Heart – Moonlight Kids, Portland, Ore./Spokane, Wash./Atlanta, Ga.
As happens sometimes at PAX, one of the most visible games at the show wasn’t there to promote its imminent release, but has actually been out for a while. The Wild at Heart came out in late May, after doing a few laps around the international indie circuit, and is currently available on Steam and the Xbox Game Pass. Like Republic of Jungle, it was one of this year’s PAX 10.
Moonlight Kids is a distributed team of four developers who are spread out across Portland, Ore., Spokane, Wash., and Atlanta, who’d been working on the game since Sept. 2018. It’s an adventure/puzzle game about two kids in the ’90s who run away from home to live in the woods. In so doing, they end up falling through a portal, where they befriend a local race of magical creatures called Spritelings. From there, it’s a team-up where the kids use their Spriteling buddies to solve puzzles, circumvent obstacles, and fight evil.
Humble Games, the publisher of The Wild at Heart, did show off a new line of merchandise for The Wild at Heart at PAX, including two new pins and a t-shirt. Moonlight Kids also confirmed that PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch versions of the game are on the way, and are expected to be available by the end of 2021.
Lords of Vegas – Lone Shark Games, Sammamish, Wash.
Lone Shark Games‘ Mike Selinker was everywhere at PAX this year. While running or at least appearing on multiple panel discussions, he still found time to spend a significant amount of time in the expo hall, where he ran many demos of his games while dressed in a shark costume (above). As Selinker told me at the show, it was all part of an attempt to create a “carnival atmosphere” at the show, and bring entertainment to the people who attended this year’s PAX.
As such, even though Selinker isn’t working on a video game that I know of, it feels wrong to not mention him here. Lone Shark previously helped produce games like Apocrypha, The Ninth World, and Penny Arcade’s Thornwatch, and recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter for a 10th-anniversary version of its casino-building game Lords of Vegas.
Lone Shark also has tentative plans to continue expanding Lords of Vegas with as many as five new additions, which may be collected into one product under the name Lords of Vegas: Americana.
Rivals of Aether – Aether Studios, Seattle, Wash.
In a similar vein, while Rivals of Aether isn’t a new game at all, there’s a lot going on with it behind the scenes as its developer continues its growth.
Aether Studios was formally founded earlier this year in order to continue work on the Aether franchise. It’s currently expanding in what Aether community manager George Rogers calls “every direction at once,” although many of its current internal projects are at least a year away from debut.
Its flagship game, the 2015 platform fighter Rivals of Aether, has a new season of its professional esports league starting later this month. More visibly, three years after Rivals creator Dan Fornace claimed the guest character Shovel Knight would be the last addition to the Rivals roster, Aether announced earlier this year that four new characters are coming to the game.
These four – Mollo, Hodan, Pomme, and Olympia – are “graduates” from Rivals of Aether‘s Steam Workshop character-creation feature, which made its debut in 2019. Each of the four new characters were originally made by fans of the game, and their creators have since worked with the developers at Aether to make them into full-fledged characters in both the original game and the wider “Aetherverse.” They were available for play at Aether’s booth on the expo floor at PAX.
All four characters, in addition to four new stage skins, will be added to Rivals on Steam and Switch as a free update in February 2022.
Rogers also confirmed at PAX that an open beta will start “soon” that adds rollback netcode to Rivals of Aether. It’s big news in the fighting game community, where even many of the biggest games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are still using much more lag-prone “delay-based” netcode. Rollback predicts or simulates a player’s inputs in order to smooth out online matches, which allows players to play against one another from opposite sides of the world without noticeable slowdown.