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Sorry for the last-minute announcement, but I only just got confirmation that I would be tabling at CXC this year! Last year was great, so I'm really looking forward to it! It will be my first convention as a Columbus resident! Hope to see you there!
Greetings and salutations!
While I normally use this page strictly for my comic work, I recently had a delightful experience that has helped to recharge my creative juices, and I decided that this would be an appropriate venue to talk about it. Over Labor Day weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend PAX West 2017, one of the premiere gaming conventions! THERE WERE DRAGONS!
To begin with, a special thanks must go out to Brendan Cox and Emma Wampler, two long-time friends who generously let me take over their apartment for a week and who helped to acquire the tickets for me. They have long been two of the greatest examples of generosity in my life, and I am eternally grateful for their friendship.
Gaming has been a big part of my life ever since getting the NES as a child. I was born in 1985, the same year that this system was released in North America, and I therefore had the opportunity to grow up at the same time as modern gaming. Video games have had a tremendous influence on my art and storytelling sensibilities, and I have often considered tackling game design at some point down the road in my creative career.
As this was my first time attending PAX, I managed my time like a novice. This means that I did not get the chance to try out many of the big-name games, which had very large lines that were very difficult to even get into. Brendan and I also repeatedly tried to get into the Nindies Arcade, but we were never successful. That said, I had the opportunity to play and view a large number of games, both newly-released and soon-to-be-launched.
The rest of this post will cover the highlights of my experience. As I said, I didn't get to try everything, and some displays had a video instead of an actual demo. For fairness' sake, I will therefore be breaking this down into two lists: the best games that I played, and the best games that I saw. Also, I would like to emphasize that this is a list based on personal taste, so feel free to disagree with my assessments.
TOP 5 GAMES I PLAYED
1. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
Brendan and I approach games from very different perspectives. While Brendan favors the game challenge and the overall aesthetic experience, I tend to focus on immersion and storytelling. As a result, it amused me when, after playing this game on a separate console, he came over and told me that, as soon as this game started, he knew this was right up my alley.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a story where the unnamed protagonist loses a card game with a man with the face of a wolf, forcing him into servitude as a wandering storyteller. Your job is to explore Depression-era America as a skeletal vagabond, collecting stories and sharing them whenever you get the opportunity. With an American folk-tale feel, a dark and moody art style, and a blues-inspired soundtrack, it was easily one of the most appealing experiences at the entire convention.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is slated for release in late 2017. http://www.wherethewatertasteslikewine.com/
2. Battle Chef Brigade
Battle Chef Brigade isn't my usual type of game, but my experience with it was extremely favorable. It's a 2D action platformer with match-3 puzzle elements built in, executed beautifully with a digitally-painted anime-style aesthetic. The premise is that you are entered at a fantasy-style culinary institute, where cooking competitions occur regularly. In order to cook, you have to go out into the wilderness, hunt the wildlife, bring the food back, and cook it before the timer runs out.
Ordinarily, games of this type wouldn't catch my interest. It does somehow remind me, however, of another fantasy-themed puzzle game that I greatly enjoyed, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. Both take simple puzzle mechanics and use them within an interesting frame narrative. I have also found that Battle Chef Brigade is one of the most memorable games that I played at PAX.
The game is slated for release in late 2017. http://www.battlechefbrigade.com/
3. Spy Party
Spy Party is the only game at PAX that I actually bought. It is a two-player game where one person plays as a spy at a party while the other person plays as a sniper trying to pick the spy out from the other party guests. The spy has to complete specific goals within the time limit while pretending to be an NPC.
Brendan managed to fool me as the spy and to spot me as the sniper. Thankfully, I am quite used to losing to him, as he is a magnificent gamer. More than anything, we loved the uniqueness of the game, and the challenge appealed to both our sensibilities.
Playing Spy Party did remind me of modern tabletop games. I could see it being redesigned as a card or board game with multiple players where one character, the "spy", has special objectives and where everyone else has separate objectives that confuse the action, and the "sniper" player has to pick the right person. It could almost be a mix of Werewolf and games with traitor mechanics like Dead of Winter.
The game is open for beta, and the full release is expected in the near future. http://www.spyparty.com/
There were two games about blindness that I came across at PAX. One of them, Perception, I had heard about before. The other one, Blind, was new to me. While they are conceptually very similar, however, the execution is very different.
To be honest, I was disappointed by Perception. I had thought that it was a cool concept, but the actual game was not that interesting. With full respect to the visually impaired, I object to blindness being treated as a superpower. It is a handicap that real people have to deal with on a daily basis, and, while it is true that they adapt to use their other senses to get by, their hearing ability does not allow them to see extreme detail simply with a single tap of a cane. At one point in the demo, the protagonist actually reads a hand-written greeting card using these extra senses. To be honest, the game could have accomplished roughly the same effect by giving the character normal sight but giving them a short-range light source.
Blind, on the other hand, has much more effective mechanics. While things are still being registered visually, the details are always more vague and fade quickly, requiring you to rely on frequent tapping or your memory to proceed. The sound design also feels much better, an important detail when dealing with a game about blindness. The fact that it is a VR experience also helped tilt the scales, although as someone who wears glasses, I would have preferred to play it on a system other than the Oculus Rift.
Perhaps what really helped me enjoy Blind over Perception was the fact that it involved puzzle-solving right off the bat. In Perception, it really felt like we were just wandering in this abandoned, seemingly-haunted house with very little purpose. In Blind, we had to learn to deal with our new blindness while solving puzzles to travel from room to room. This made me get comfortable with the controls much more quickly and effectively.
The release date for Blind is not currently available. http://www.blindvrgame.com/
5. Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite
I have never gotten into the Marvel vs. Capcom series. When I tried this game, however, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it handled. I have some experience with 2D fighters, mainly because Brendan is a big fighting game fan and destroys me on a regular basis when we play. Despite having very little experience with this particular system, I figured it out and held my own extremely quickly.
While the demo did not give me a taste of the somewhat infamous story mode, what I have seen does appeal to me. One of my favorite parts of Super Smash Bros. Brawl back in the day was the Adventure Mode, which told a ridiculous story that tied all of the crossover characters together. It made the game engaging in a very different way, and my hope is that the story mode in this game would do the same thing.
Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite launches on September 19th, 2017. https://marvelvscapcominfinite.com/
TOP 5 GAMES I SAW
1. The Good Life
SWERY-65 is a fascinating game creator, and I got to hear him speak at PAX as he was announcing his next game, The Good Life. My last experience with him was with Deadly Premonition, a game with a fantastic mystery story and overall aesthetic. While the art style in this new game is very different, the type of story seems very similar. I cannot emphasize enough how much I want to see this game become a reality.
The game is currently in development. It is being crowdfunded at https://www.fig.co/campaigns/the-good-life.
2. The Church in the Darkness
I didn't get a chance to try the demo for The Church in the Darkness, but I got to speak with one of the developers and am extremely excited by the storytelling mechanics she described. The basic story is that the protagonist's relative has joined a cult in the 1970's, which has created a "socialist utopia" in Africa. Communication has been lost, and the protagonist decides to infiltrate the cult to find out what happened.
Here is where my interest was really piqued: there are two leaders of the cult, and the game randomly and secretly decides at the beginning of the game whether each of these leaders is good or evil. This decision, combined with the player's choices regarding action or stealth gameplay, dramatically change the potential outcomes of the story.
One of the most fascinating elements of games for me is the potential for multiple story paths. Traditionally, these choices go along easy-to-follow decision trees, and even widely-branching stories can be tied back to specific, obvious choices. While this is great for completionists who want to see all the branches, it does take away part of the mystery element of the story. Here, however, having several of the elements be randomly selected without the player's knowledge means that the mystery is fresh every time you play it. I cannot wait to see how this storytelling system ends up working.
The release date for The Church in the Darkness is later in 2017. http://store.steampowered.com/app/339830/The_Church_in_the_Darkness/
3. Dead Static Drive
This is another demo I missed, but the developer described it as "GTA Cthulhu", and I was immediately sold. From what I saw, Dead Static Drive looks like a cel-shaded, top-down isometric game with plenty of exploration opportunities and tentacle monsters everywhere. I mean, what's not to love?
I could find no information on a release date. http://deadstaticdrive.com/
4. Sonic Forces
Sonic games can be very hit-or-miss. My personal favorite, although this is controversial, is Sonic Adventure DX. None of the 3D Sonics that followed it quite lived up to the promise of that game, and most felt like gigantic steps back. Quite often, they felt half-finished, with broken controls, lackluster graphics, and downright stupid writing.
Sonic Forces looks like an exception. Brendan played while I watched, and I was wildly impressed. The game switches between 3D and 2D gameplay seamlessly, and the gameplay looked challenging but fair. The graphics were fantastic and colorful, something increasingly missing from modern gaming. It is my hope that this is the long-awaited real successor to my favorite Sonic game.
Sonic Forces is scheduled for release in November 2017. https://www.sonicthehedgehog.com/sonic-forces
5. Nidhogg II
I had seen elements of this game online before PAX, and I thought it was just about the ugliest game I had ever seen. This was disappointing, as everything I had seen of the first game looked like a great deal of fun. That game's simple, pixellated graphics were far more inviting, however, than the sequel's bad-claymation-like design aesthetic.
The last thing we did at PAX was watch the Omegathon finals, where the top two players of the tournament finished by playing Nidhogg II. And it was incredible. Where the graphics are lacking, the gameplay looks phenomenal. Every time one of the characters won a duel, the entire audience went wild. For each of the three 5-minute rounds, the excitement never waned.
Even without an audience, I could easily see this game being incredibly fun. I'm willing to overlook the art style if playing the game is even half as entertaining as it was to watch in that theater.
The game is already available on Steam and PS4. http://nidhogggame.com/
The Inpatient was my first game experience with VR, and I thought it was incredibly cool. I was also happy to find that the Playstation VR system is adjustable in a way that it can fit over my glasses extremely comfortably, something that doesn't work nearly as well with the Oculus Rift. It almost made my list and was only stopped by the fact that I suspect that the final game is quite short. While this is normally a good trait in horror games, the fact that VR already has a pretty expensive buy-in lessens its value somewhat. Still, it's the type of game that does make me want to get a VR system. https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/the-inpatient-ps4/
Kentucky Route Zero is highly stylized and seems like it could be an interesting game. It didn't make my list because ... well, I didn't like the demo. I see a lot of potential, but I didn't feel like I got enough from the demo to properly appreciate what they're going for. I really wanted to like this one, and maybe the full version will be better. http://kentuckyroutezero.com/
Monster Hunter World was one of the games I didn't get to try because the line was always full. I've always thought this series looked interesting, but I've never found a good way to jump into it. I'm really hopeful that this one will be able to draw me in finally. http://www.monsterhunterworld.com/us/
Coffence was quite fun, and it's a cool concept. It's a wacky fighting game where the goal is to knock your opponent's coffee out of their cup, and Brendan and I had a great time with it. It didn't make my list because I didn't see a lot of variety from the demo, so I suspect that it would get old before too long. http://store.steampowered.com/app/583240/Coffence/
And that's a wrap on my PAX West 2017 report! I hope to attend next year, so maybe I'll make these posts an annual thing. Until then, back to comic work!
Rock on, guys, and never stop drawing.
Ben Wright-Heuman hails from Richmond, VA. He received his MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2016. He currently lives in New Albany, OH.
WV Pop Culture Con 2019: September 7-8, 2019