There are a lot of AAA game developers haunting the halls of Moscone Center every spring looking for fresh gamer blood to harvest, but if you ask me, GDC is for the indies.
And few things are quite as indie as a game jam. As a creative exercise, they hark back to the roots of what coined the term “indie games” in the first place, emphasizing the smart use of limited resources over the flashy and expensive antics of publisher game design. The term “indie” itself may be shifting (these days, it seems more likely to denote a small, low-budget studio rather than one without outside financial backing) but the thrifty ingenuity integral to the community’s foundation remains. This year GDC was home to the fourth annual Train Jam, a two day event held from Chicago to San Francisco. Organized by indie developer Adriel Wallick and Darkest Dungeon community manager John Lindvay, the participating devs hopped aboard a train to San Francisco from Chicago and were given roughly two days to create a new game. With only 48 hours to work, this diverse and talented group of designers (including everyone from Overland creators Rebekah and Adam Saltsman to Creatrix Tiara, of Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers) produced 86 games between them, some silly, some thought-provoking, and all an earnest celebration of the intersection of code, innovation and creativity.
Choosing ten games to play out of the dozens available was hard; if I’m honest, it’s a completely arbitrary process for me, based mostly on what looks fun and goofy and has a cool looking avatar. Titles are a big part of it too. Some of the games didn’t make a good first impression whereas others practically begged me to play them. Determined to make my way through a respectable chunk, I decided to break down each demo session into two minutes. It’s not a long time to get acquainted with a game. But given that I spend dozens of hours on games that took years and years to make, I think the math works out. Here are ten Train Jam titles I checked out during GDC 2017.
Hecko the Dolphin
A play on Ecco the Dolphin, this game actually has very little in common with the series. It does star a titular dolphin, with a small pixel art side-scrolling background depicting the ocean. However unlike our docile, puzzle solving hero of the past, Hecko has one move and one move alone: cannon blasting a bunch of jelly fish.
And that’s it, literally. If you play long enough the cannon on Hecko’s back turns to triple cannons and you can shoot even more jelly fish all at once. There’s no score keeper and no user interface but between the music and explosions, it was my jam (hork hork hork). I did however feel robbed, and a bit unsatisfied, as a mere few seconds of dolphin cannon blasting is hardly enough.
As best as I can tell this is a game about breakdancing on a train. Or at least, that’s what I got out of it. It plays a lot like DDR on a keyboard, so that part was fun. The art style of the opening screen is edgy and appealing. Was this inspired by late night dance battles between devs as they crossed country to GDC? I like to think so.
What the $ Do They Need Now? A Game About International Travel in An Uncertain Age
As the name suggests, this game was inspired by the increasing travel restrictions on visitors to the US. Written by a Bangladeshi female game developer who is based in Australia, it works as an excellent illustration of the frustrations of immigration and international travel, the game mechanics serving as an allegory for the many obstacles and complications that arise and walking the player through the emotions and thought processes of each. It takes place in a single room, as the protagonist must make decisions about how to pack their suitcase based on the rapidly changing information coming from their radio, social media accounts, and tv. As an autobiographical expression of the designer’s own experiences, it very adept at evoking empathy for the perspective of those in similar situations. I plan to follow up with her on that later.
This game delightfully monopolizes on the latent “shooters at sundown” fantasies of every red-blooded American to ever watch a Wyatt Earp movie. It’s a simple “Western draw” challenge; a honky tonk “pianee” player plinks away in the background as the player waits for an opponent to appear in the saloon’s swinging doors. Some will draw a gun, others won’t. If you shoot them and they’re unarmed, the game ends, you go to jail, and you are a BAD HOMBRE. I like this game and would play a “full” version of it but admittedly it works as-is.
Bear Gryllis vs Teddy Roosevelt
I chose this game for the sheer hilarity, and sadly, the gameplay didn’t live up to the premise as well as I’d have liked. An outline for the game’s basic mechanisms was absent. But it’s pure comedy nonetheless. Meant to be a simple two player fighting game, its greatest appeal is its theme. Various pickups are scattered across the screen, some of which are harmful, others bestowing some kind of balloon sword that seemed to be the only available weapon. I admit I play the wackier games because game jams have always facilitated that kind of short term silliness, and of course, broader, more thoughtful games are hard to create on such short notice. It’s also very rude to judge a game jam game as you would a game that has more than 48 hours of development time. Still, I wish this one had been a bit more playable. The thought of Bear and Teddy duking it out is hysterical.
Whose House Is This
This one appealed to me because of its blueprint aesthetic, and I was sad to find out it was one of the more underdeveloped games of the batch. Players navigate a small triangle through a house scattered with various objects. At some point an objective is given, and the triangle must be steered through each room to collect items related to the goal: I played a few rounds where I was told to rob the house, and had to collect money and valuables. Other times I was told to flee due to a wildfire outside of the house, and had to gather IDs before leaving. If the timer runs out before the player has collected the items and exited the building, they lose.
The visual theme of Whose House Is This intrigues me and I’d like to see more done with it.
Of the many games made during Train Jam, Trippin Fish is among those with potential for a full game. Set in a pond on a rowboat, the sole objective is to catch fish. The mechanics are a lot like the fishing game from Stardew Valley, with a sliding bar at the top of the screen that holds an icon, representing the fish. Players use the spacebar to maintain the position of the lure and keep pace with the icon as it slides around the bar, loosely representing the actual process of catching fish with a rod and bait. Unfortunately I found it difficult to figure out if I was catching the fish or if they were supposed to be catching me, but not bad for a two day game.
This is another title I feel has strong potential as a full release game. It reminds me of Just Shapes & Beats (or to a lesser extent, Bit Trip Runner), where the player is sidescrolling at high speed while avoiding obstacles and moving to the music. Like Just Shapes & Beats it also relies on quick response times and multiple tries. Beams of colored light stream from left to right, carrying “listeners”, who you have to catch with your own beam. Once listeners from each beam color are collected, they are turned in for points.
With a simple but appealing premise and pounding, catchy music, I hope to see more of this game in the future.
Train Jam Theme Announcement Simulator
I picked this one because the name made me laugh, which admittedly is not the best reason to play a game. Nonetheless, I wish Train Jam Theme Announcement Simulator was as amusing as its title might imply. This one seemed to be a Tetris sort of game, with a four way split screen and a phantom puzzle outline on each, bidding the player to select and place pieces to build a picture. I wasn’t good at it and I got nothing done in time. The premise has merit. My ability to quickly catch on to a new game without having my hand held, however, does not.
As fond as I am of the many silly and absurd games on the Train Jam list, uncomfortably is the one I’d most like to see fleshed out into a full game. Thoughtful, mysterious, and beautiful, it’s more of a literary experience than a game-ified one. A paragraph of prose is laid over a vibrant background depicting a rocky wilderness, and as the player progresses, it shifts from sunrise to twilight. Each sentence is highlighted with several words that the player can click on, opening up a new paragraph to explore. The segments are out of sequence, so I didn’t really have enough time to figure out the story but I like it anyway. It feels like a dream, each scattered fragment tumbling out of your hand as you try to assemble them in order. It’s an effect I hope to achieve some day with my own writing and thus, uncomfortably, while more of a visual short story, was my favorite of all the Train Jam games I played.
I only had a short time to check out Train Jam 2017 but you can check them all out yourself over at itch.io.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.