Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


Dabbling with… Annwn

The final episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

Hey, it’s 1986 and people are loving this new title from Geoff Crammond called The Sentinel, a little more unusual than your platformer or shooty potboiler. The Sentinel places you on a 3D landscape where you have the power to extract energy from objects on the landscape – such as trees and boulders – then use that energy to create your own. The land is watched over by the fearful Sentinel; if the Sentinel sees you, it will drain your energy and end you.

To survive, you must reach a point higher than the Sentinel to do unto it what it would do unto you. But you cannot walk anywhere; you have to create repositories (“synthoids”) to throw your consciousness into and slowly ascend the landscape.

It is no longer 1986. We haven’t seen a great deal of Sentinel-inspired games over the intervening years. Psygnosis published Crammond’s PC followup The Sentinel Returns in 1998. And John Valentine created a free PC remake in 2005 called Zenith.

But at the Rezzed Leftfield Collection this year, Welsh studio Quantum Soup were showing off Annwn: The Otherworld, their version of The Sentinel. What I saw followed the same beats as the original; a watcher scanning the landscape, with the player tasked with extracting energy from trees and boulders to create totems into which you project your consciousness. And there’s this gut-wrenching tension as the Watcher turns to look at you…

…but to underline its work-in-progress nature, the demo build was unfortunately adept at procedurally-generating levels that were impossible or near-impossible to survive. I tried several times but at best I managed to climb up just one grid square. The Watcher or his hounds always got me. But lest this sound downbeat, I found Annwn intriguing and it was drenched in the kind of creepy, abstract vibe that I love too much to be healthy for a person.

I will definitely be following its progress. Annwn: The Otherworld is currently planned as a PC title and can be followed on Steam and itch.io.


Dabbling with… Staxel

The twelfth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

This isn’t really about Staxel.

I had a late, intense romance with Minecraft. I came to it after everybody else had left and its creator sold it to the Man and transformed himself from Mr. Blocks to Mr. Blocked Him On Twitter. Eventually I found my limit with Minecraft. Halfway through a Nether Express train link from one end of my explored territory to the other, halfway through building a sky city, I lost the will to go on. I never found a mesa or icy biome but somehow it was no longer enough to keep building for the sake of building. The combat update then delivered the worst Minecraft session I’d ever experienced and that was completely that.

All that Minecraft time, though, left memories so deep they were etched in bone. There's an enduring, unsatisfied hunger for another Minecraft. Of course, there are Minecraft mods and I could check any one of those out. There were also open source versions which just felt like duplicates of Minecraft with the names changed. I didn’t want a complete repeat of Minecraft again, I wanted… something else?

My conditioned reflex to blocky 3D worlds kicks in all the time. I couldn’t help myself over Rogue Islands but that’s a roguelite, blocks without the Minecraft. Over time, I came to resent the Minecraft glint, like it was a switch-and-bait. Looks like Minecraft but is actually some free-to-play MMO.

Staxel, a Minecrafty game overflowing with bright colours and cutesy looks from developer Plukit, had a row of open PCs available in the Indie Room and I planned to avoid it because chasing that Minecraft dragon always ends in the same, disappointing way. But I was hovering around the area and I was free. Like I said earlier in the week – take the chance, take the opportunity.

Of course Staxel didn’t fill that Minecraft-shaped hole in my soul. It’s an online multiplayer game channelling Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon. Some readers may recall I abhor Stardew Valley so you can imagine how this went. The demo started in your a farm and an NPC wanted to show me around the village. After a few scripted stops around the village, I abandoned the NPC and marched off into the surrounding forest.

I don’t know. It was the last game I played at Rezzed and I was already tired but I had this feeling I was leaving “the real game” behind. The forest continued and I didn’t see much variety in the flat forest; maybe I just needed to go further. At this point, Staxel wanted me to focus on the village, but it is always the wilderness that I hear calling to me. I returned to the village and the NPC wanted me to plant some seeds and water them. If I do not water them every day, they will not grow.

I put down the headphones and walked away. I couldn’t tell you if Staxel was a good game or a bad game. All I can tell you is that it was not what I was looking for. If only I knew what I was looking for.

Staxel is from Plukit and available as an early access title on Steam and Humble.


Dabbling with… Shift Quantum

The eleventh episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

Hey, remember Shift? It was a big Flash puzzle game in the days when Flash was where the exciting stuff was happening. We’re talking about the year known as 2008 BED (Before Electron Dance). It was a time when puzzle-platformers were innovative, edgy and cool. These envied beasts roamed free on the wild digital savannah

It was a few years before Andy Nealen ranted this:

"If I see anyone flip gravity again, I'm gonna fucking freak out."

Shift was a stark puzzle-platformer developed by Anthony Lavelle, walls were black, space was white. All you had to do was make it to the exit which was impossible unless you shifted: the screen would flip, Andy Nealen would fucking freak out, and you’d now be standing inside the walls. By continually shifting perspective in this way, you'd eventually make it out. I don’t know if I finished Shift. I admired the ideas of puzzle-platformers but can't be sure how many of them I actually enjoyed. You'll find a bunch buried in my back garden.

Until I started writing this preview, I was unaware the Shift story had continued beyond the original Flash game. There was a Shift 2 and Shift 3 released in the same year, 2008, and a Shift 4 the year after. Then there are the console ports like Shift Extended in 2011, Shifting World in 2012 and Shift DX in 2016: a whole pile of Shift.

And now it’s back again with Shift Quantum. Fishing Cactus is working on this latest iteration which closely follows the Shift formula.

It retains the iconic black-and-white style and there will be a story involving the protagonist whose silhouette is a dead-ringer for Neo from The Matrix. Let me just get this out of the way: shifting feels awesome. When you shift, Neo-guy punches through the floor into the inverted world. I just wanted to sit there quietly and shift back and forth. Honestly, that is some good Shift right there.

I played through a number of puzzles and, yeah, it was fine; as I alluded to earlier, I’m not sure it’s the game for me but history has proved Shift has an audience. It looks neat although the faux Japanese backdrop irritated me as half the text is reversed. Maybe that was deliberate to represent the weird shifting reality, but it was all over the promotional material and I doubt your average player would notice. I Shift you not, those players will be too busy punching through the floor repeatedly. And if you fancy it, you’ll also be able to build challenges for others.

Shift Quantum will be released end of May to Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Steam.


Dabbling with… Outsider

The tenth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

There are too many games... to remember. I’d noticed puzzle game Outsider last month and shared the trailer on Twitter with the comment that the trailer was too dark. It was an interesting-looking puzzle game. And then I forgot about it.

I spotted Outsider at Rezzed and the memories came rushing back. Ohhhh, it’s the game with the too dark trailer. Turns out it wasn’t the trailer that was too dark, it was the game. Although to be fair about it, the interactive elements stand out and are completely legible. It’s just the background that seems too murky; the scenery.

You start with a broken robot and must solve puzzles to bring the robot online. What was surprising was exactly the thing that was surprising about the trailer: Outsider doesn’t keep iterating on a particular puzzle mechanic until it’s exhausted but rather keeps throwing out new types of puzzle. I was told that in the full game, each puzzle template would be explored more thoroughly but once you’d finished the set, that type of puzzle would not be seen again.

This structure makes it more like Myst, where each challenge is unique, rather than Cosmic Express or Stephen’s Sausage Roll. It follows that this is a relatively expensive game to develop, as each new puzzle type requires its own set of graphics and animations.

Very interested to see where this one goes. Outsider is being developed by small Portuguese studio Once A Bird. Launch date currently unknown.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!


Dabbling with… Landinar: Into the Void

The eighth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

I visited the Lake Ridden area multiple times hoping for a seat to free up because it always seemed to be busy. Opposite Lake Ridden was Landinar: Into the Void and I wasn't sure if it was really for me. I'm not usually down with a game where the UI is stuffed full of technical readouts and players are expected to become well-versed in intricate in-world systems nonsense, thematically-appropriate words papering over numbers and groups. Landinar gave off that sort of vibe. But if there's one valuable piece of expo advice I have for you: take the opportunity to try everything, not just the low-hanging brain fruit.

A Landinar seat emptied and put my butt on it. The tutorial started inside my ship and I did a quick circuit. It took about ten seconds; it was a diminuitive vessel, the kind of place where you probably wouldn't swing a cat, not even for big bucks. My first goal was to find the cockpit. Not the hardest thing in the world but as soon that was done, the the view zoomed out and I assumed the role of the ship, rather than its captain. A tiny grey brick travelling through the depths of space.

I had a job to hunt down some guy and destruct him to tiny bits. It wasn't too difficult but my handle on the controls was weak verging on non-existent so it took a lot of shooting. Was I some sort of bounty hunter? After bad guy bit space dust, I was summoned to a space station. With the ship in cruise mode, this also didn't take too long. The worst bit was docking because I couldn't figure out where to dock (until the hand of your friendly neighbourhood developer pointed it out).

The space station seemed, well, pretty big. The developers talked to me a little about the game being an open world, and they showed me the universe map, but I couldn't quite comprehend how much structure there was to that map. How many stations? How many star systems? The mode of the game had shifted from space combat sim to something that felt more like a point-and-click adventure. And I wasn't a bounty hunter; seemed I was gettin' in with an underground resistance that was fighting against an all-powerful empire. They wanted to flip this station as a first strike but that was going to take some effort...

I built a new ship and tried but failed to talk someone into giving me access to a higher-up. I walked away at that point, realising this was a lot bigger then I'd expected, unsure when I would ever feel like I'd "fully explored" the station. One day, maybe. One day.

Landinar: Into the Void is the next game from Convoy Games who previous game was Convoy, a post-apocalyptic truck game based in the FTL mould. Launch date currently unknown.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!


Dabbling with… Lake Ridden

The seventh episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

"Story. Mystery. Puzzles. A supernatural puzzle adventure." Whoa, there goes the GUILTY PLEASURE ALARM.

Lake Ridden is an first-person explore-y type game with puzzles from the studio Midnight Hub. In the demo, there were runes and stone tables everywhere; the developer who was standing guard at the time cited Myst as one touchstone for the game. In Lake Ridden, your name is Marie and you're looking for your sister who ran off into the woods after an argument - but the demo strongly hinted you were probably to going to release a great evil.

What I saw cautioned me not to ask too much of the story; it looks like a by-the-numbers notes and journals piece with some broad strokes in places. I found the inscriptions on the nose; I can't recall the precise wording but very much like "unlock the door and evil will be released". If you're interested, Midnight Hub have a dev blog about their writing process.

But this kind of thing is my bag, baby. Moth to a flame.

Midnight Hub, however, richly deserve a round of applause for the top-end headphones they brought to the expo. I was stunned after slipping them on: they completely cancelled out the raucous noise of the Rezzed environment and I could enjoy Lake Ridden as intended. I took the headphones off a couple of times while playing, just to check the contrast. Mood pieces often have a hard time in an expo because you can never hear the subtle ambient background noise; the delicate titles of the Leftfield Collection usually suffer from this in a big way. But, boy, did I really hear Lake Ridden.

Lake Ridden is due to be released on Steam and GOG soon.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!


Dabbling with… Above

The sixth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

Mighty Moth is a small Danish studio working on their first title Above: a flying game that has been in development for several years, mainly during the team's spare time.

It's a flying adventure with a focus on fun rather than simulation, sporting a vibrant colour palette that reminded me of the 16-bit era. Lest it sounds too "fun", the plane's handling was more about elegance than a 90s action piece and it was lovely to lazily weave around and loop-the-loop across the sea.

The world map in the Rezzed build was on the slim side: it only included your home island and one other place, marked dangerous. There are creatures out there in the sea. I buzzed around one, trying to gain its attention until it evenually saw fit to snap at my plane. I went down.

It was difficult to see how the full game might play out but there was enough here to feel the heft of it. We should be able to reclaim salvage from the sea using a hook and also build and upgrade our plane.

No definite release date as yet. Visit the Above website for more details.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!


Dabbling with… Hidden Deep

The fifth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

Hidden Deep is the sort of project I find fascinating.

In development for three years, Hidden Deep is a labour of love for its sole developer Łukasz Kałuski. He was brought up on the Atari 800XL and Amiga and, like me, followed up with a short burst of game developement creativity. But he put those gamemaking dreams to one side, unconvinced it would pay the bills... only to return to them many years later during the second era of indie development.

His original idea was to make a mining game in which players would utilise all sorts of machines, but Kałuski became doubtful players would find this interesting. What he did was merge the mining game into his love for sci-fi horror such as Alien and The Thing.

So now we have this 2D game which channels Another World, featuring four marines descending into a fully destructible mine rich with machines... and nameless horrors. There's even a little lifesigns readout for each marine and a Prometheus-inspired mapping orb.

The marines die easily; one mistake with a grapple gun and your man has been smashed against a rock face. It's a deadly game. Which brings me to my concerns about the project.

A friend of Kałuski's worked very hard on the Rezzed stall, talking each player through the careful set of actions needed to get through the demo section of the mine. I saw a gulf between the complex, harsh and slightly unreadable environment... and a satisfying play experience. While the technical structure of the game may be in place, a chunk of vital design may be missing to turn it into something that players can work with alone and this may push back the eventual release date to resolve. Or worse: scale back the ambition.

I wish Kałuski luck on his continuing journey into Hidden Deep. I hope he makes it back to the rest of us, because I want to see this project shipped. Check the website for more details.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!


Dabbling with… Blind Drive

The fourth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

Tel Aviv-based collective Lo-Fi People has been working on a driving game called Blind Drive in which you are blindfolded - and forced to drive.

Yes, this is an audio game. The idea is quite mad: you must listen out for approaching vehicles and swerve left or right to avoid them. Now, it's not exactly driving, because the game only cares if the player moves left or right in response to sound quickly enough and players will realise Blind Drive doesn't care where you are on the road or even your trajectory. Nonetheless, it is effective and the audio is really well done, often making you feel like you've just missed that car or bicycle. Or ice cream truck. It reminds me of abandoned audio-only game Three Monkeys which I encountered at the Eurogamer Expo in 2013; Blind Drive, in contrast, feels much closer to a finished product.

The minimal visuals cleverly evoke a dashboard without actually being one and the focus of the display is a set of white bars that shudder with the roar of the engine, swerving left and right as you do. I don't know how far the concept can be extended - there were several changes to the scenario as I played through, some of which made me laugh. It's held together with dialogue between "you" and some omniscient bad guy using a voice scrambler. It's here that Blind Drive seems off, as if uncertain whether it wants to be a Hollywood thriller or black comedy.

But most importantly, I came away from Blind Drive with a smile.

Blind Drive will be coming to mobile, PC and Mac.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!


Dabbling with… Cultist Simulator

The third episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

You know, I don't think I've played anything Lottie Bevan or Alexis Kennedy have put their hands to. Both are ex-Failbetter Games (Kennedy founded the company) and Failbetter is mainly known for Fallen London and Sunless Sea. The fine architecture of these games is constructed from words. If you do not like words in your games, then do not play them. I like words in my games but I also didn't play them. Sunless Sea was the talk of the town after it was released.... but somehow I never got around to it.

Bevan and Kennedy now work under the guise of Weather Factory and their debut title is someting called Cultist Simulator, which they obtained funding for through Kickstarter. Now even though I follow Kennedy on Twitter, I had never quite figured out what Cultist Simulator was all about. It was a card game of some sort? Lovecraftian? When I heard it was at Rezzed, I knew I had to go seek the truth, no matter where it led me. I had to make up for all those years I hadn't played Sunless Sea.

I'd describe Cultist Simulator as "Lovecraftian card panic". The game presents you with an empty canvas - a desk surface upon which just a few cards and actions lie. Although I'd like to say you "use actions on cards" it feels rather reverse; you pull cards into actions. Through this apparently simple interface, you will embark on a journey into a Lovecraftian world, attempting to become the kind of cultist people want to hang out with. Maybe you can make your Lovecraftian nightmares flesh. Or maybe you can make someone's flesh a Lovecraftian nightmare.

It's as much a survival simulator as anything. You'll be worrying about making ends meet in the beginning, as your funds run out and you descend into starvation. But at the same time you will be studying the Elder Lore, investigating dark conspiracies and developing a following. All from moving cards into actions.

As the game progresses, more actions become available: Dream, Study, Explore, Talk and they keep on coming. The canvas becomes covered in cards. There's one extra ingredient though. Where does all the panic comes from?


Like my beloved Cart Life, things are always happening whether you're clicking things or not, such as the aforementioned starvation and death. Cards will decay if they are not used. You will character will become despondent if you do not make progress.

Initially, I took it slow. My first character lost his job then quickly died of starvation. I tried the scenario a second time, made more progress but my character was still unable to find new employment thus died, once again, of starvation. I then chose a different character, one who came from a wealthy family. I tried to relax but then dearest Papa perished which left me with limited funds that inevitably ran dry and I died. Of starvation.

Bevan, who was overseeing the fresh acolytes like myself, explained that the game does not yet have a decent tutorial so it was not surprising we were all dying like flies. I was still struggling to put together the pieces, but the game was presenting as a puzzle and this hadn't been frustrating. All this failure had made me want to understand where I had gone wrong and what I didn't understand. It made me want to learn. For the new player, it is confusing. The board rapidly fills with new actions and cards and without imposing some order on the table you will be overwhelmed.

The only negative was this: I couldn't shrug off the feeling that there's a subtle paradox at its heart. You want to bask in all the wicked words yet the time panic reigns supreme. Whilst you can use the pause key to halt proceedings and examine closely everything before you, somehow that feels like a bodge. Eventually, I imagine you begin to recognise certain cards and will no longer feel the need to pause for reading. But I doubt that point will come early as I expect Cultist Simulator will be stacked full of the weird and strange.

This is a minor quibble though, because I admit I was rather smitten. Cultist Simulator is due for release on May 31 and can be wishlisted on Steam.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!