Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


Dabbling With… Annwn, Again

The sixth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

I already brought up Quantum Soup Studio's Annwn: The Otherworld last year after its appearence in the 2018 Leftfield Collection.

A remake of a 1986 title called The Sentinel, your goal is to take down The Watcher on each island. The Watcher hovers at the highest point of the island, its gaze searching for you. In the Otherworld, you have no physical presence: your soul can only exist inside of a motionless totem. You soul cannot "move around" but you can generate more totems to transfer your soul into. You need energy to build totems which you must drain from trees or existing totems.

The constraint is that you can only build on or drain from island tiles that you can see, so any part of the island that's above your totem is out of reach. You have to use the totems as stepping stones to climb the island gradually - once you reach the top, you should be able to drain The Watcher's energy and end the level.

Last year, Annwn's procedural generation was producing islands which were very difficult to defeat and it made for an uncomfortable few days at Rezzed for Quantum Soup's Chris Payne who watched players struggle. This year, however, the problem has been licked and the demo on show in the Tentacle Collective room was much tighter with three islands of progressing difficulty.

I was impressed with the stress this relatively simple design exerts on the player. As Payne has commented, The Sentinel was "so simple and elegant that it's hard to riff on the core gameplay". It is drenched in tension. You feel The Watcher's gaze inch closer and closer, yet to look behind to see how close would waste precious time and possibly lead you to ruin: I cannot help thinking this is a natural Orpheus and Eurydice mechanic. You can grow a new totem quite fast yet it feels like an absolute eternity.

The complete game is currently available on itch.io for PC but has not been released on Steam yet. Payne is still making adjustments to the game based on Rezzed player feedback.

Here's the game blurb:

Annwn: The Otherworld is a surreal stealth strategy game, played across an archipelago of mysterious procedural islands. Venture into the celtic Otherworld, a realm of dark gods and wandering souls, in search of your lost love.

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


Dabbling With… Ape Out

The fifth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

Confession: Sometimes I do not check out the stuff people say is definitely cool.

Soooo... I hadn't even seen a trailer for Ape Out (Cuzzillo, Foddy & Boch, 2019) before seeing it out in the wilds of the Devolver Digital room.

Confession: I didn't play it. But I wished I had.

In Ape Out, you're an ape escaping from captivity, no doubt in line for some nasty experiments. Its closest cousin is probably Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games, 2012) in terms of being a hyper-violent game where you play a protagonist who can be killed easily so must kill or disable all enemies quickly. Hotline Miami is fast, requires memorisation, and a single mistake can end your run; Ape Out is procedurally generated so requires reaction not rehearsed dance and is, necessarily, a little more forgiving.

Ape Out, however, is a genius fusion of game feel, sound and visuals. Everything is silhouettes and jazz and the effect is best described as Saul Bass Title Sequence Simulator 2019. Paint the corridors red... until the game palette changes and then you could be painting in orange or purple.

Ape Out has been in development for five years; it was a runner up in the student category in the 2016 IGF and it had already been worked on for two years at that point. Jesus. I'm tempted to buy this right now and make it game shortcut #120 on my desktop.

From the Devolver page on Ape Out:

Ape Out is a wildly intense and colorfully stylized smash ‘em up about primal escape, rhythmic violence, and frenetic jazz. Build up nearly unstoppable momentum and use your captors as both weapons and shields to crush everyone on your procedurally generated path to freedom.

Ape Out is available on Switch and PC (Steam, GOG, Humble, itch.io).

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


Dabbling With… Empire In Ruins

The fourth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

The last proper tower defence game I played was Defense Grid: The Awakening (Hidden Path Entertainment, 2008) so it's been awhile. Enter Empire In Ruins from Hammer and Ravens.

On the surface, and I stress on the very surface, Empire In Ruins looks like classic tower defence. You build towers, aggressors come at you along defined paths. Towers can be upgraded, but they also find themselves under attack and need to be repaired. You have powerups at your disposal which provide a temporary boost, but take time to recharge. Super.

Hammer and Ravens themselves call it "the bastard child of 4X and tower defence" and it's certainly not straight up tower defence. There's a huge amount of tweaking that can be done to each tower, in terms of their behaviour, all of which will be too much for the first-time player. I didn't need to drill down far to get through the demo level. You have limited builders to make the new towers and, if they're out on the field when the new wave rolls in, they can get killed, which makes it feel a little RTSy. I was shown some enemies carving out new paths along the map; I'm told they can also tunnel to escape your towers.

There's a campaign map in which you are reclaiming lost territory (hence the "empire in ruins") and losing a battle will set you back. I did not get to see this in the demo, but you have to manage your reclaimed territory carefully - you can be betrayed and each region is vital to keep resources flowing to the front line. There's also a tech tree to research.

Empires in Ruins has been in the works for several years and is still in development. Do check out the website if it sounds like your kettle of fish.

From the website:

Empire In Ruins is a new take at strategy that merges the Tower Defense genre’s detailed, recognizable gameplay with elements of Turn-Based Empire Management, in a hybrid never before seen.

Conquer, build, defend and lead the grumpy Sgt. Hans Heimer in his own personal vendetta against “the system”.

  • Plot driven campaign – betrayals, diplomacy and nasty twists
  • Turn based strategy – quell the rebellion, kick back the enemy and restore the law.
  • Empire management – conquer back the provinces, strengthen your command, chose your best governors and grant your military campaign a steady flow of resources
  • Tower defense-based combat – fight your battles in a new, advanced tower defense style that winks at advanced real time strategy
  • Arcade play mode. Because… FIGHT!
  • Low brow humor, low brow humor everywhere! – Don’t smile, it’s punishable.

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


Dabbling With… Becalm

The third episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

Down in the Leftfield Collection were a number of "chillout" games whose job was to make you take a moment. The one that I found resonated the most was Becalm (Colorfiction, 2018). I would guess I sat in front of it longer than most - because it was frickin' lovely.

If you want to know whether there's levelling up, how many bosses you have to beat and the range of weapon combos available, well. You're in a boat. You can look around. That's it.

The boat coasts lazily through one of three environments: tall reeds, alongside a river bank and an ice field. The abstract, painterly style selects from a vivid colour palette. which gives a strong impression but refuses to define. It reminds me a little of Eskil Steenberg's Love. The music and ambient sounds do a great job in transporting you somewhere else.

Becalm strikes me as the kind of thing you could leave running in the corner of the room while you go about your daily tasks. Try it.

From the blurb on Colorfiction's website:

Becalm is a short 5 minute meditative experience where you drift in a sailboat through magical waters. This is a special boat, you won't have to steer, worry about logistics, capsizing or pirates. In this trip the goal is to relax and... becalm!

You can download Becalm from Steam for free but also get it from itch (PWYW). You can also follow colorfiction on Twitter. (Current version on Steam has some VHS filter applied and you can throw bottles; I think it's better without the filter... and the bottles. This was not the version on the Rezzed floor.)

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


Dabbling With… Doggerland Radio

The second episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

I heard the birth of Doggerland Radio three years ago.

Under the comments of Into the Black: The Movie, Amy Godliman picked up on my criticism of TheRaptureIsHereAndYouWillBeForciblyRemovedFromYourHome (Connor Sherlock, 2013). She wrote:

I’m glad you bought up TheRaptureIsHereAndYouWillBeForciblyRemovedFromYourHome as I had an interesting experience with that myself: I started playing not knowing exactly what it was so I found the spoken excepts fascinating, little surreal snippets of narrative with no beginning or end that added really well to the game’s atmosphere and gave this really well suited feeling of everything being suddenly interrupted. Then I realised I recognised one of the stories, and that they could all be collected one bit at a time by following the right colours, and all that atmosphere just evaporated.

Anyway, great video essay, and in my case useful video essay too as this subject is pretty much exactly what I’m exploring for my MA at the moment, so I’ll probably be re-watching this quite a few times over the next two years. Thanks.

I highlighted the key phrase. Two years later, Godliman hits me up on Twitter about her mysterious Doggerland Radio, produced for her MA degree, referencing our brief comment exchange:

It took a little longer than two years, but I'm done now.

You're welcome to attend the opening this Friday, or any of the five days the show is running. Though I'll be carrying it about to any games event that'll have me from here on.

I couldn't make it.

Fast forward to Rezzed this week. I'm talking to Alan Hazelden in the Leftfield Collection and, over his shoulder, I see a desk in a darkened corner. There's a radio squatting on it. My eyes spied the title above the table: Doggerland Radio. Oh my GOD. This is IT.

Okay, so I was excited because I knew what kind of project Doggerland Radio was. It was what Godliman wanted TheRaptureIsHereAndYouWillBeForciblyRemovedFromYourHome to be.

Power up the radio, slide on the headphones and turn that dial carefully like a safecracker to find broadcasts orphaned in the static. Maybe you'll catch a little opera, the sound of a steam train pulling into the station... or maybe even the shipping forecast.

On a purely personal level, it reminds me of childhood. In the UK, radio is now digital, and I'm not sure how many children these days play with radios. I had no television and certainly no computer when I was young, but I did have a tape recorder with a radio. I spent a lot of time twiddling with the radio, trying to find a station I hadn't heard before. Hiding underneath the crackle, I'd occasionally catch the semblance of something unfamiliar and, if I turned the dial just right, I might be able to make it out...

Godliman revealed, to my surprise, that the Doggerland Radio stations are always running regardless of whether you're listening. I expected the software behind the box to trigger audio files as you hit the right spot on the dial. No, it is much smarter than that, so it always feels like you're tuning into the middle of something, conveying a fragmented impression of the fictional Doggerland.  (There is a real Doggerland but don't expect to find clues from a submerged landmass.)

There's more. On the table is a map, some stones - and an old novel. I ignored the novel initially and, as I was ready to leave Doggerland Radio behind, I opened the book. It was out on loan from the Doggerland Library and... had passages censored. Wait, what's this? An envelope tucked in its pages? I half-expected it to contain some love letter from a dead age, "Dear Joan, My heart is bereft without you..." blah blah. Now there was something inside, but it wasn't a letter. If you happen to drive through Rezzed this weekend, I'll let you find out for yourself.

While I was a little sad that the radio needle did not move as I turned the dial, the work done by Paul Hayes on the engineering and coding here is superb. It effortlessly evokes the sensation of fiddling with an old radio; you come across these little spots where the static hums and roars violently - for no apparent reason. Wonderful touches.

Look, I don't know what I participated in but I loved it. And I'm afraid you won't be able to grab Doggerland Radio in the shops or even download it from Steam. All you can do is hope Godliman brings it to a games expo near you.

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


Dabbling With… Omno

The first episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

First up is Omno by Jonas Manke. Literally so, as this was the very first game I played at Rezzed today. Omno is a work-in-progress but everything points to it being an easy-going exploration adventure game.

The graphics and sound are solid, I really liked wandering around. Stomping, dashing or teleporting is delicious. You stomp to get energy from rocks or creatures - fortunately, the creatures aren't hurt by this, but they get so frightened they drop white blobs of energy. Although I have to admit to feeling a tad cruel.

There's a faint collectible aspect to the game - it tells me when I've discovered creatures, explorer rocks or new areas. I don't mind this too much provided it doesn't power the action or overpower the experience.

It's part discoverable systems because I was a little lost for a couple of minutes, but it was good lost. From what I gather this is not representative of the full game however what there were a lot of jumping puzzles which involve having to go back to the start if you've made a mistake. The dash jump takes some of the pain away. However, I was getting better at knowing whether to jump or dash jump as I moved through the demo. Maybe a little muscle memory is all that is needed.

No evidence of narrative at this point but apparently we'll be able to read glyphs in the real game.

I didn't see anything here that was brand new but I'm in. Looks like the kind of game you'd chill out with at the end of the day.

Blurb from the presskit:

OMNO is an atmospheric adventure about a journey of discovery through an ancient world of wonders. Taking players through lush forests, across a sun blasted desert, over a frigid tundra, the power of a lost civilisation will even carry the hero to the clouds. Along the way there will be creatures great and small to observe and interact with - shy rock-like crabs, helpful turtles, maybe even a friendly dinosaur to ride?

The world of OMNO is filled with puzzles, platforming challenges and hidden secrets. The player’s magic staff is the key to powering forgotten relics, and will allows players to dash lighting fast across platforms, glide over land, sail above the clouds and more.

Check out the game's site or look it up on Steam.

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


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!