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Digifest: TOJam Arcade & First Person Show

October 30, 2011

This has been an exciting weekend. Digifest, taking place this weekend in various parts of Toronto, is a festival of digital media and creativity. Being a game enthusiast and exploring a career in indie game development, I took the opportunity to check out a few events that focus on video games, namely the TOJam Arcade and First Person Show.

TOJam Arcade

First off, the TOJam Arcade, held yesterday at OCAD University downtown, was a chance to play some of the games made at this year’s TOJam, an annual three-day-straight game-making event. The goal of the jam is to make a good game in three days: think of it as a condensed NaNoWriMo for game designers. There’s not meant to be any sense of competition, but instead an atmosphere that encourages developers to take what they know and create and–most importantly–finish a good game in three days.

My friend Teresa tagged along, and we tried about a dozen games, and they varied in quality: from the ad for the Arcade on the TOJam website: “Some games are brilliant, many are strange, others don’t work!” Too true. I’ll go over a few of the games we played and what I thought.

Shuriken Skies art

The artwork from Shuriken Skies

First was Shuriken Skies (the website currently only has a placeholder image of the game, but it’s also an IGF entrant, so you can find out a bit more at the game’s IGF page). A game for 2-4 players, you each take the role of a ninja falling from a crashing airplane, with only one parachute between you. As you all hurtle towards the ground, you fight with one another in mid-air, trying to grab and then hold onto the parachute until it’s time to deploy it. However, you can’t fight if you’re holding the parachute, so your strategy is either to dodge your friends’ attacks, or else wait until the deployment time is near, and make a last-ditch effort to rip the parachute from the current holder’s hands and save yourself. It was fun, if simple, and features beautiful art: an excellent game, considering that the game was made in only three days.

We played several bizarre games after that, some of them entertaining, but most others either confusing or embarrassing (though forgivable, considering the time limit). Yet one strange game captured our heart: Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. And we aren’t the only ones to think it’s great (more links here if you’re not convinced). The game was designed by 5-year old Cassie and her father, Ryan Henson Creighton. It features artwork and voice acting from the two of them (most Cassie, though), and it’s just a delight to play. And you too can play it on the game’s site (link above).

Ponycorn screenshot

An example of Cassie's hand-drawn artwork in Ponycorn.

I think it’s superb that Ryan took the chance to involve his daughter in making a game. Maybe in the future we’ll see more of Cassie’s work! For now, I’m going to move onto today’s events and will also discuss an upcoming game from Ryan’s company, Untold Entertainment.

First Person Show

Held at the brand new Gaming Incubator at 333 King Street East, First Person Show was a meet-n-greet with various game developers (mostly indies, but Ubisoft was there, too). And indeed, I both meeted and was greeted. But before I get into FPS itself, I should give a little background about the Incubator.

Freshly opened and unwrapped (EDIT: The office space doesn’t actually open until December 1st; thanks to Samantha Fraser for the info), the Gaming Incubator was created by George Brown College to give independent game developers some office space in which to work (instead of either working from home or having to seek out larger, more expensive spaces). It’s a cool idea, and many of the developers with whom I spoke were really excited to be working in an office (separate from home) that’s filled with game designers.

Now, back to FPS. I wandered in and out of several offices, chatting with designers, PR people (some companies were a bit larger and didn’t actually work out of the incubator), and a couple of audio guys. And now here I hold a fistful of business cards.

I had the chance to play some demos of a few games, and also chat with their creators. I’ll detail two of the most interesting games that I saw.

Spellirium, from Untold Entertainment (Ryan Henson Creighton’s company, as mentioned above), really piqued my interest, though there was, unfortunately, no demo yet (but soon, I was promised). The game is set in a post-apocalyptic (or “postapo”, as I’ve grown to call it) world where books, words, and numbers have been outlawed. You happen upon a device that, in effect, lets you do perform magic by spelling words. On the surface, it may sound a bit silly, but I’ll pass on the explanation of how things work (remember: the demo’s coming soon!) as it was explained to my by an intern working on the game. Suppose you encounter a sheep and you want to collect some of its wool. Well, you use the device on the sheep, and try to construct words (in a Boggle-like fashion) like “cut” or “sheer”. Or when facing a two-headed dragon, you need to construct palindromes.

Spellirium main characters

The main characters in Spellirium

I think a demo will help to make the game sound more exciting (I fear that I have done it little justice). But suffice it to say that it looks really interesting, I’ve been assured that there’s a huge focus on a good story, and the game’s artwork is beautiful. I look forward to hearing and seeing more of this game.

Guacamelee! title screen

Guacamelee! Title Screen

The second game, which has thus far received some great media attention–and is an IGF entrant this year–is Guacamelee!, a Metroidvania-style combat platformer inspired by Mexican lore. You play as a Mexican wrestler out to save El Presidente’s daughter, and on your way you do battle with various foes by employing all sorts of mêlée moves and combos. Additionally, you can switch between various dimensions, such as The World of the Dead and The World of Nightmares at will. You may, for instance, have to switch worlds in mid-air to jump from one platform that exists only in the current world to land on another platform that exists only in the other. Check out the trailer. As you can see, it is a gorgeous game, and it seems like the music is going to be a real highlight of the game.

Guacamelee! combat

Beating up the undead in Guacamelee!

And, I should mention, I got to play a demo of it. It’s tons of fun, let me assure you, and I’m really excited for its release (which Graham Smith, one of the guys working on the game (I’m unsure of his specific role) and COO of Drinkbox Studios, said won’t be for about another year from now). The demo was sort of a proof-of-concept for the game, and now they’re going to work on developing the world, the story, and the meat of the game. Graham figures it’ll be about six hours in length. Needless to say, I’ll be buying this as soon as it’s out.

Finally, I also played a bit of They Bleed Pixels from Spooky Squid Games, and talked to the game’s programmer, Miguel Sternberg. The combat is fun and the pixel art style works well for the game. You should definitely check it out.

They Bleed Pixels screenshot

An example of the excellent pixel art from They Bleed Pixels

Exciting Things Ahead

In the past two days I’ve had a very encouraging glimpse into the world  of indie game development in Toronto. And let me tell you, it’s a lively and large community. With events like TOJam, the office space offered in the Gaming Incubator, and two game developer associations (the Hand Eye Society and the Toronto chapter of the International Game Developer Association), there’s a lot going on in Toronto, with tons of support from fellow developers. Seeing what I’ve seen this weekend has me really excited to explore the indie dev community here and get involved in game development.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2011 7:44 pm

    Glad you had a blast at some of the Digifeat events. Thanks for coming out to them! Just wanted to clarify that our gaming and digital media incubator at GBC doesn’t actually open to tenants until December 1st. Can’t wait to be surrounded by local talent as we work hard on Digifest 2011!

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