Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


Dabbling with… If Found, Please Return

The eleventh episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


The absolute best thing about going to a gaming expo is the ability to sit in front of something you know nothing about. Behind each monitor sleeps a fresh new digital mystery. It’s a special kind of magic that is not easily replicated at home because you only ever go after games you’ve heard of, which compromises it. I like to walk into the Leftfield Collection a stranger; I checked the games list beforehand just to be reassured it wasn't full of titles I already knew.

There’s no way you can have my experience. You’re reading to learn about this new thing and if I do a drive-by with “why, I found it quite stimulating, reader” that’s not going to be enough especially as you can’t play this outside of an expo yet. My job is to tell you about it, to spill some beans. Some beans is better than no beans.

So the seat was open for If Found, Please Return without a developer to gently watch over me. It had some simple instructions. I could move the mouse around. Left click to “interact”. The scrollwheel zooms. Okay. It says 40 Days Left. That doesn’t sound good.

The title screen is where we start. It looks like a hand drawn postcard, but this postcard has many layers.

It soon turned out that the left-click “interact” meant the mouse was a powerful eraser, wiping away one layer of story to reveal another, but it was always smaller, you always needed to zoom in to see it. In this way, a story began to unfold, of someone who couldn't stop sketching things around her. I suspected the story branched as at times there was more than one area to zoom into, which made it a novel way of implementing a branching mechanism. Seeing the branches exist so clearly in parallel might diminish some sense of “decision making” but if you remember all the way back to Stop Crying About Choice, I don't consider this a bad thing. Particularly as If Found, Please Return at this point felt more like developing or uncovering a story as opposed to living one out.

The rough sketchbook style was perfect although the restless, blurry nature of the text, while important, sometimes came across as unreadable. Truth was it wasn’t actually unreadable, you just needed to zoom in a little more. Something to get used to.

Of course, if I strip it down and call it a CYOA game, it doesn't sound that special - but the constant editing and zooming makes If Found, Please Return feel like a descent into a bottomless fractal. Further, I had no compass for predicting where the story was going, so I was hesitant and uncertain about what each wipe and zoom would reveal. Turns out I didn't actually reach the end of the demo, I just got lost, so I'm not sure where I was supposed to end up.

If Found, Please Return is a project by Llaura Dreamfeel and artist Liadh Young with Liz Ryerson providing music (while some people look out for Disasterpeace, my ears perk up when I hear Ryerson). Speaking to Dreamfeel the day after I dabbled with If Found, it sounds like the project is wayyyy bigger than what was on offer here, prompting me to ask about a save game option (answer: yes).

Not a clue when this one will be out. But you can find the website for If Found, Please Return on the internet.

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


Dabbling with… Gardenarium

The tenth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


Here’s one of those titles I thought I’d have a go at one day but never ever did. I think I was the first visitor to the Leftfield Collection on Friday morning - it seemed some of the games were still being set up - so out of all the games available I plumped myself down in front of Gardenarium (Paloma Dawkins & Kyler Kelly, 2015).

I always had it on my check-it-out list but something about the drawing aesthetic and colour palette rubbed me up the wrong way and I couldn’t see myself writing a post out of it. But I didn’t strike it off. It was always there... at the back of the queue.

Turns out I played through the entire experience at Rezzed, but it was clear what kind of game it was from early on. I saw it as Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013) without the procedural generation. There are characters you can talk to, an important collectible element and, uh, something else I’d rather leave you to discover yourself. Perhaps it’s best understood as an exploration game where you get to grow a musical space.

Let me crowbar in a couple of negatives. As you might be able to tell, it is short but I probably rushed a little too much at Rezzed; I’d certainly want to spend more time wandering around. The other thing is some first-person jumping is required and, later on, making a mistake means have to re-do part of the ascent. First-person jumping is rarely a good idea.

Despite these caveats, it is a really lovely thing and the ending is adorable.

Gardenarium is available from itch.io and also Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux.

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


Dabbling with… Event[0]

The ninth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


The most annoying thing about Ocelot Society's Event[0] is that I couldn’t figure out how to restart it so had to pick up from whatever situation the previous player had left me with. There were a few games on the show floor in conditions like this, where a simple restart seemed elusive or offered some had either unconventional controls coupled with a treasonous lack of direction (RK3000 was fun but sweet Beelzebub, the controls were an abomination for everyone who stopped by).

I already talked about how Rituals tickled my sci-fi B-movie bone. So if I tell you that Event[0] sees you stranded on a space station with a computer that you can talk to… well, there’s simply no hope for me, is there?

I was a big fan of Verde Station (Duelboot, 2014) a sci-fi Gone Home (Fullbright Company, 2013) on a much smaller scale but still stimulating. As I played Event[0] I was reminded of Verde Station. Especially as someone’s post-it notes were stuck on a wall with explicit instructions on how to open a door; Verde Station used post-it notes to great effect.

Whereas Rituals worked with simpler abstract graphics, Event[0] is high-fidelity. I couldn’t shake the feeling that every rendered cable had taken 24 graphics designers 17 days to create. But what makes Event[0] different from similar games though?

It appears you are forbidden to interact with the world except in one crucial way: you can interact with an AI on any computer terminal. When I say interact I mean type in free text, as if you’re playing a parser-based IF game. There’s no handle on any of the bulkhead doors so, to open them, I just asked the computer to OPEN DOOR.


Probably I’d get used to it if I played for longer, but I constantly fought the urge to “use” objects during my Rezzed trial. It was clear someone had been ripping out panels and trying to repair or hack the electronics, yet I couldn’t touch any of this stuff. Interestingly, whenever I looked at an item I would get a rough summary of what it was. I’m hoping the fact that I can’t touch anything doesn’t mean the final twist is YOU ARE ACTUALLY THE AI.

I’m not sure Event[0] was suited for an environment like Rezzed, because it seemed a slow, languid experience, where I was trying to piece together an understanding of what was actually going on here. But hey, I’m just glad I got the chance to try it out. It’s now scribbled on my list of games to watch.

Ocelot Society say the game will be released in the summer... hmm. Go visit the official site for more info.

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


Dabbling with… Binaries

The eighth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with frustration because without it most games would be just “press button to finish level” or “press button to JASON”. We’re exchanging money for frustration. It’s the bedrock of games since the era of Space Invaders.

There are, however, levels of frustration. Over in the hardcore corner, there are those games which expect you to fail again and again, so that eventually either your brain squeezes itself out of your nose trying to escape the relentless torture or you become victorious and transcend to the Godhead. You know what I’m talking about. Super Hexagon. Dark Souls. Positioning pictures in Microsoft Word.

Binaries (Ant Workshop, 2016) reached out and touched that part of my spirit I thought dead after I gathered all the VVVVVV trinkets. It is the result of a scientific experiment in which the brains of 57 hardcore gamers were boiled down into a residue of pure frustration which was then daubed onto a screen with just a hint of blue and orange colouring.

I took one look at Binaries and thought, fuck me, I am not playing that.

You have to get the orange ball to the orange exit and the blue ball to the blue exit. The only problem - and by problem I mean the frustration you are willingly paying for - is that you are controlling both balls at the same time. And at the same time I mean, you move left, both balls move left. You say jump and both balls say “How high?”

But guess what. It was early morning and the Binaries hot seat in the Rock Paper Shotgun room was empty. More gamer bias? Who knows. I guess I’ll sit down here, I thought, pass some time. I’m not going to like this game, after all. I am past this kind of VVVVVV shit, I’m done with Veni Vidi Vici.

Five minutes later, they have to drag me screaming from the controller. I KNOW I CAN DO THIS ONE. JUST ONE MORE GO.

What I saw of Binaries was beautifully tuned: the visuals are crisp to the point of brutal; death-to-restart is fast; each level is the exact translation of a developer’s manic cackle into game structure; the sarcasm that accompanies each level is just about right.

It also does not necessarily require an enormous chain of moves to be recorded in muscle memory. Ant Workshop went to great pains to tell everyone that developer Tony Gowland created this game because he was no good at stuff like Super Meat Boy or n++. He wanted to make a game like them that he could actually beat. In practice, this means a single level of Binaries is an archipelago of challenge islands, between which you steel yourself for the next one, rather than a continuous button tap dance from entry to exit.

Oh but you will also panic.

Binaries is available for purchase for PC right now, Xbox and PS will follow later in the year.

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


Dabbling with… ShadowHand

The seventh episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


The biggest game of a gaming expo is musical chairs; you’re always searching for that elusive empty seat so you can sit down and play something. During the twilight time between the early birds and the Great Visitor Crush, you can make out the shape of the average gamer’s biases by spotting which chairs are free.

On the second day, I’d been through most of the titles in the Leftfield Collection and had begun sniffing around the densely packed greenhouse known as the Indie Room. I saw empty seats in front of something called ShadowHand from Grey Alien Games. The tables were sprinkled with gold coins and a man dressed in a highwayman’s garb stood beside them. The display immediately reminded me of Plundered Hearts (Infocom, 1987) but that probably tells you way too much about how my brain works. Anyway, empty seats; I was wondering about those biases. Gamers could pretend they were playing Sonic: Generation 2016 in Mekazoo one row over.


I was happy to take the hot seat as highwayman/developer hybrid Jake Birkett introduced me to the game. It was not until after playing that I found out that it was the next game from the people who brought you Regency Solitaire which I’d heard very good things about. ShadowHand is a card game, interspersed with short narrative cutscenes. You get to play Lady Cornelia Darkmoor who, in the small section I saw, was looking for her pal who had vanished. The official blurb explains Lady Darkmoor is "a beguiling young aristocrat who masquerades as the notorious highwaywoman, ShadowHand."

I've played Regency Solitaire since visiting Rezzed and I can confirm the core card playing mechanic is very similar. ShadowHand has this collectible card metagame going on, but Regency Solitaire also had you acquiring a sort of powerup inventory as the game progressed. It seems more an iterative change in that regard, as opposed to a radical new direction.

If you've not played Regency Solitaire it's, well, a solitaire game! Pick off as many cards as you can in sequence - you only have to count up or down numerically. ShadowHand simplifies further by dispensing with the traditional deck in favour of numbered suitless cards. The cards are arranged in all sorts of layouts where only the top cards can be taken and that made me think a little of Mahjongg.

Where ShadowHand departs from Regency becomes clear after the tutorial finishes. It is solitaire combat: the card game is the battleground for Lady Darkmoor to face off against a gallery of rogues and villains, a la Puzzle Quest. (My own favourite implementation of puzzle-based combat is the Zuma-like Evy: Magic Spheres, now relabelled as Marble Duel.)


As with Regency, complexity is shuffled in gradually. Locked cards, different weapons and attire can impact how the card game turns out. ShadowHand came across as a considered design and obviously builds upon what worked for Regency Solitaire. (And Regency was based on the original Fairway Solitaire, which Birkett worked on.)

So, yeah: liked.

Critical disclaimer: After dragging Shaun and friend over to ShadowHand, Birkett offered us chocolate coins. This, together with a Steam key for Regency Solitaire, should not be construed as an ethical conflict of interest.

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


Dabbling with… The World Is Flat

The sixth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


Rezzed was truly the place to experience Aubrey Hesselgren’s The World Is Flat. In time, it’ll be available on tablets and PC but at Rezzed you could play it on the controller it was born for, the gym ball.

The World Is Flat is a game about geography. It asks little of you, merely to find countries on a world map. If you’re British you won’t get confused hunting down some neighbouring European countries, while I’m sure if you’re Japanese you probably got China and Korea all worked out. If you’re American, well, how charming for you.


In such a game, normally the world is a stationary thing, something to be explored with a pointer or an avatar. But this time around, you are round: you’re actually in control of the world. Look, think of it this way. If the game asks you to find [GREAT BRITAIN] then imagine [GREAT BRITAIN] is your ass and the game is asking you to show off your ass.

If you’re pretty good at finding the countries regardless, then The World Is Flat has more cards to play. How about finding cities? Can you find a country just from its flag? Time’s running out [JIMMY] spin faster!

Anyway, back to Rezzed. The gym ball controller, that ran on a couple of mice strapped to a deathtrap with elastic bands, was the perfect match for the game. Any worries that you were going to look silly playing a game with an oversized trackball immediately disappeared as soon as the game told you to locate [UNITED STATES] and [CHINA]. You became the ball. You became the world. I imagined it as the perfect party game, with friends screaming at you: NO NO YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY STOP CHINA IS UP GO UP NO NO LEFT [JIMMY]

Even if you have a pretty good idea where a country is (but not [ANGOLA] don’t ask me about that), it was easy for the world to spin “upside down” on the ball. I don’t know about your brain, but my brain has indexed the world map to be a certain way, with America on the left, UK in the middle and Russia on the right. Once the world is rotated a little bit, my map is all fucked.

The game was beautifully polished. Please take a look at Hesselgren’s first-class marketing video below. Hopefully we’ll all get the chance to challenge our knowledge of world geography sometime in the near future. (Readers might also recall that Hesselgren featured in last year’s Rezzed reports - remember One One One Two Three?)

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



Dabbling with… Reigns

The fifth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


Reigns from developer Nerial is an incredibly simple game. You're the king and each year you get to make a binary choice. There are explicit numeric impacts to many of these choices which are shown at the top of display - religion, population, military and treasury. If any of these drop to zero, well it's bye bye to the king (again, that's you). Now this might sound like a numbers game so dry you could put cheese on it and call it a healthy after meal snack, but Nerial has dreamt a little bigger, darling.

The numerical impact is sometimes unknown with an insipid grey question mark standing in for a number. And not all of the consequences are numerical in nature. After defeating the Vikings I had the choice of executing the whole jolly lot of them or showing some compassion and letting them run free. Well, guess what. After I let them go, they turned up again a couple of years later, back for more blood. So much for compassion.

My early impression is that it's better to treat it as a random story generator where you're trying hard to spin the story out as long as possible. From what I understand, there are a vast number of cards in the Reigns deck, which means it'll be a long time before you've exhausted its magic. But most importantly, Reigns is a funny game. By restricting the descriptions of each decision card to just a few lines, there's an inherent comic value in reducing serious decisions to a tweet-like question. From what I could tell, everyone found Reigns charming and loveable. Whether that stretches into something more strategic, I don't know. But perhaps that doesn't really matter.

Reigns is still in development. Release for Steam, iOS and Android is scheduled for the summer.

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



Dabbling with… Barbara-Ian

The fourth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


Barbara-Ian (Owlbear, 2015) is a procedurally-generated dungeon crawler where your character can take no damage. Okay, so obviously your character can take damage, but that damage leads to DEATH. I didn't know this was Barbara-Ian's conceit until I died instantly when some dungeon ne'er-do-well touched me. And it made me smile.

It has some humour about it and the joyfully greasy physics help with that; as you tromp about, it's just too easy to smash things to bits and hurl the debris everywhere. Normally in these sorts of games, you're collecting things and cleaning the environment. Not so here! Barbara-Ian makes a goddamn mess of the place. It also reminds me of Super Crate Box (Vlambeer, 2010) because it seems I couldn't escape a level without picking up a new weapon from a treasure chest, so even if you were very comfortable indeed with your mighty axe you're going to be forced into The Tome of Laser Vision at some point.

I played quite a few times and was entertained. I expect it gets nerve-wracking if you've made a lot of progress but that's just how the permadeath cookie crumbles. I never got that far. Perhaps you will.

Barbara-Ian is currently in early access.

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



Dabbling with… Sundown

The third episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


Sundown (Mild Beast Games) is an unreleased local multiplayer game which just won the BAFTA for "Ones to Watch".

I like to think of it as Screencheat (Samurai Punk, 2014) in 2D. It's a top-down shooter in darkness so the players are all invisible. Firing your weapon immediately signals your location and so does walking in front of a light source.

I played this with Arcadian Rhythms refugee Shaun Green and his friend and, putting aside some issues trying to get the game going, we had a right blast. Each player is a "moving part" of the game and it requires a lot of mental work to keep track of the players after they've briefly made their location known and try to predict where you think they might be next. Firing your weapon is often a decision of life or death - if you didn't manage to gun down one of your opponents then you're frighteningly vulnerable. Depends on your weapon, of course, because I was using the shotgun with a reload time equivalent to the length of Beethoven's 7th symphony (second movement).

We played twice, I think, once on a mansion map and again in a subway map. It's one of those games that don't really show themselves well in a screenshot or a video, but only reveal their true nature in the experience of playing. And that true nature is fun.

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


Dabbling with… Rituals

The second episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2016.


Rituals (Tymon Zgainski, 2015) has been out for nearly a year and I never heard of it until this week. When I came upon it in the Rezzed Leftfield Collection, someone had already been working through the game and as I couldn't figure out how to restart it (yup, ESC didn't work) I just went with it. Yet I was this close to giving up at the first puzzle.

Rituals is a game I have some problems with. Movement is discrete, so you're moving around a predetermined graph, choosing at each point which node to jump to. Considering how many games I've played in 3D spaces, this felt slightly awkward and I was frustrated that WASD just didn't do anything, plus the triangular movement indicators just don't look right half the time. The first puzzle I came across was just ehh. I mean, it might make sense in the larger scheme of things, but, well, having to plant an acorn and have it grow into a tree? The only reason I did it is because I literally had nothing else to do. We don't like Gabriel Knight moustache logic around here.

Now for some men, it's a woman showing off jiggle physics in a game. For me, it's exploring a secret underground complex where science has gone wrong. And that was that, you couldn't prise me from the seat. Actually it is more of a we discovered some weird shit but you get the B-movie vibe that pulls me in, right?

I also like its simple geometric look. The constrained movement was a bonus because it narrowed my search of the game's functional space, overriding some of the puzzle frustration; I didn't have to worry about whether I'd explored the environment deeply enough, because I knew I had. And sure, some of the early narrative clues were heavy handed (IS EARTH CONSCIOUS?) but I was able to deal with Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores, 2008) making people write out a "cut off their limbs" tutorial in their own blood, like a teacher giving out lines as punishment. Lines in their own blood.

All I'm saying is I'll probably end up buying it, it looks like comfort food to me.

(Don't get confused with the other Rituals.)

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