10 Best Indie Games of PAX East 2014

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PAX East’s show floor is so dominated by the next big mainstream titles that it’s easy to overlook the small booths where independent designers show off their passion projects. Considering the sheer size of the PAX East expo hall and the amount of people packing the floor, you could make the argument that any of the games that weren’t League of Legends were hidden. I was specifically seeking these smaller booths out, and even I sometimes had trouble finding them on the expo floor, either because their presentation was minimal or because the booth itself was backed into a corner by other, much larger developers.

These are games that I almost missed the chance to play, but didn’t. I’m grateful that I was able to catch at least a glimpse of these titles before PAX East wrapped up.

1. Out There
Developer: Mi-clos Studio
Platforms: iOS, Android

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The only thing I knew before sitting down to play Out There was that you were an astronaut stuck in space. It’s a typical science fiction premise, but the game’s roguelike, choose your own adventure style action is anything but typical. You travel around space trying to conserve and collect supplies just to keep going and keep living. The stakes seem small, but when you start seeing your numbers dwindle and your fuel drop to zero, you start to panic and you realize what the game is trying to tell you. There might not be traditional combat, but it’s still a life or death simulation.

2. Gods Will Be Watching
Developer: Deconstructeam
Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android

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I always found one-room plays to be fascinating in how they can manage to keep up action and hold interest despite little to no movement. Gods Will Be Watching works in the same way, with the characters sitting around a campfire and only moving slightly as you struggle to keep them alive in a deserted wilderness. The threat of a plague lingers in the background and the only thing you can do is keep them busy for as long as you can. The draw of this game is not the graphics or the story, but the psychological impact it has on the player, all of us deteriorating into messes after one of the survivors dies or finding out that you failed as a leader.

3. Framed
Developer: Loveshack Entertainment
Platforms: iOS (plans for PC, Android)

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I almost skipped this game entirely even though the booth was covered in film noir iconography, something straight from my dreams. The attendee in front of me managed to play the game for 15 solid minutes and that was only after I got there. After playing the game, it’s easy to see how she got so engrossed. Not only is the interactive comic book design unique, where the player has to arrange panels in order to successfully complete the story, it’s also much more difficult than it looks, with my thieving anti-hero getting shot by cops multiple times while trying to cross the exterior of a building.

4. Actual Sunlight
Developer: Will O’Neil
Platforms: PC

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This booth was almost completely overlooked. It had no flair making it stand out from other games at the INDIE Megabooth and almost nothing indicated what kind of game it was. Playing though Actual Sunlight is difficult. Any game that deals so deeply with depression is going to be unattractive, and one that deals this closely with suicide is even more so. One of the most hidden games in the convention, Actual Sunlight is also one of the darkest. However, out of most of the games on this list, it’s the one that needs to be played.

5. Elegy for a Dead World
Developer: Dejobaan Games/Popcannibal Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux

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Dejobaan Games has appeared at PAX East multiple times. Being a local developer, they’re always on the radar of New England-based videogame journalists. Being familiar with their previous work, I was surprised with Elegy for a Dead World, which takes on a quieter, more serene vibe than some of their other titles. It was created in conjunction with Popcannibal, and it’s more of an interactive experience than a game. It challenges the player to be creative and get lost in the worlds of lost civilizations and it made me pensive for the literature that I may have skimmed over in college.

6. Astronaut Kitty Boom Boom
Developer: Super Soul Studio
Platforms: None announced

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One of the people I was perusing the expo hall with entered an Astronaut Kitty tournament, and considering it’s a game about button-mashing correctly enough to launch animals into the sky, it’s one of the dumbest things you’ll ever witness. You can play with up to four people and you can play either as a dog, a cat, a dog wearing a cat mask or a cat wearing a dog mask. You hit buttons, it blows up bombs, the animals go flying and the person in first place gets targeted by everyone else. It’s silly and nonsensical, and watching everyone groan when they hit the wrong button or raise their hands when they win makes no sense, but it’s a game about making adorable animals fly through explosions. I guess that’s all that really matters.

7. Avalanche 2: Super Avalanche
Developer: Beast Games
Platforms: PC

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I think the larger crowd around Avalanche 2 in the Midnight City showcase came down to nostalgia. It’s a casually addictive jumping game where you fight monsters by jumping on their heads and try to climb as high as you can, but in reality, you’re playing a version of “the floor is lava.” You have to evade and utilize randomly-generated falling furniture to get the high score in an endless level all while trying to not get burnt by the ever-rising lava. There’s a charm to a game that gets you to play something you’ve already played tons of times and update it so you’ll play it again.

8. Organic Panic
Developer: Last Limb Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux

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It’s a platformer where your characters have control over different elements that allow you to solve each level differently. You can dig through trees to knock out enemies or use water to create waves. It’s not a genius premise, but what made it stand out among all of the other indie platformers at PAX was the attention to detail. The way the avatar moves is fluid and more realistic than you would expect for a cartoonish monster, and watching the elements fly around the screen shows off the power of the physics engine.

9. Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake
Developer: SleepNinja Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android

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You can be immediately angered by the fact that monsters ate your birthday cake (those bastards) or you can get revenge. While first reactions are that it’s a casual, cutesy mobile game, there’s a lot more to this game than initial appearances might suggest. There’s a story featuring multiple unique characters with their own abilities and backstories. There’s a level of strategy and difficulty that belies your first impression. There might actually be too much going on here, if that’s possible.

10. Paperbound
Developer: Dissident Logic
Platforms: PC

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Gravity mechanics have become increasingly common in recent games and they featured into a few titles at PAX. Paperbound is a party game heavily influenced by Smash Bros. It’s made more challenging by the ability to change the direction of gravity. Your characters have a full three dimensions to work in and that raises the game from just being a Nintendo clone to being a mind-bending and sometimes frustrating experience. Plus, those friends of yours that can tout their Smash Bros. prowess will be put in their place and that makes it worth it.

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