With Day of the Devs now largely becoming a streaming event for the world to enjoy, some part of me does miss the old warehouse event spaces. In previous years of Day of the Devs, I would go early in the morning, take a little notebook, and play a bunch of indie games that could potentially be one of the breakout games that everyone would talk about in a few years. This year, we actually did get a chance to play a lot of the games, but the different structure limited my time with each one to just a few minutes.
Because of that, I didn’t get a chance to really demo these games as much as I wanted to, so here are some brief thoughts about why each of these games I tried was fascinating. Note that these were only games I played at Play Days, not every game listed in the Day of the Devs — sorry, I wanted to play Choo-Choo Charles, too.
Time Flies is half-speedrun and half-Untitled Goose Game from the jump. After putting in my country of origin, which the game utilizes to use the life expectancy from that country and convert it into seconds, I was tossed right into the game. I was given a “bucket list” of items like “Get Rich” or “Make Friends,” and flew a little fly around to do them. The goal is to essentially do it all and die old, as opposed to getting caught in a fly trap or drowning.
But Time Flies is more like a little art piece that pontificates on the shortness of life. We all have these internal lists of things we want to do before our time on Earth is over. Time Flies reminds us that, unless we dedicate ourselves to doing only those things and with multiple attempts to do them all, it’s probably not possible to do everything we want in life. And if you do them, did that actually make you happy, or did you merely check the boxes you think you were supposed to?
Halfway through my demo of Desta, I turned to the developer demoing the title and asked, “This game is going to make me cry, isn’t it?” The tactical RPG is about learning how to talk to people again after the death of your father and trying to come back to talk to all the people in your life. They might be friends you ghosted but didn’t mean to or a teacher who was helpful to you during your grief but for whom you never found the right words to thank.
The act of reconnecting is going outside and throwing a ball around with them, aided by the people you have reconnected with, just like your character and their dad did before he passed away. This ball-throwing, however, is under the guise of tactical RPG mechanics with party members, skills, and more. I can’t wait to actually check this game out, because the concept alone seems extremely creative and likely simultaneously depressing and affirming.
A bit under a decade ago, I packed up all my stuff and moved to San Francisco on a whim. There have been ups and downs, but there were also periods in which I felt extreme loneliness and thought about returning home. Birth follows a fairly simple idea in evoking those same emotions of being lonely after moving to the big city, but with a solution I admit I did not think of: building a friend out of organs and bones you find lying around.
It feels like a wildly inventive idea your best goth friend would come up with. What makes it interesting beyond the premise, however, is that Birth doesn’t tell this story through a visual novel or extended cutscenes. Instead, you participate in WarioWare-style minigames to gather the various pieces of a potential friend together and proceed with your dark, though oddly heartwarming, science.
Roots of Pacha
It’s easy to look at Roots of Pacha and think, well, that’s just Stardew Valley with cavemen. The main reason why it’s easy to do that is because the developers at Soda Den have outright made that comparison. But the qualifier “with cavemen” actually adds an interesting layer to the farming/community building genre that other games, by definition, can’t really have: fundamental discovery.
That is to say, things you might take for granted in Stardew Valley — for example, knowing what time it is — are different from the beginning in Roots of Pacha. Until you figure out how to create a sundial and then actually build one, your only sense of time is a vague idea that it might be getting late or that you’re waking up early.
The same goes for things like irrigation, figuring out what the hell to do with corn, or what plants are actually good or bad for you. The developers say they have done their research to try and match what actually makes sense as a prehistoric discovery and what early people had to do to get to where we are now with farming.
Created by people who make actual escape rooms, Escape Academy is the distilled form of that gnawing feeling that you might not be smart enough to solve an escape room giving way to the accomplishment of actually finishing it. In my demo, I was tasked with escaping a flooding tower by making my way up through puzzle rooms to avoid the rising water at my feet.
What intrigues me about Escape Academy is that it has zero interest in stressing me out or making me feel bad about taking my time to figure things out. An actual escape room needs to put time pressure on me because I am occupying a physical space that its organizers need back to get more people in and make more money. While I am not sure what happens in the video game when I let the water rise above my head, I was told the timer is merely a suggestion for grading purposes and I can take as long as I need to solve a puzzle.
Love to have an escape room that makes me happy to be done with it without also being overwhelmed by the sense I have escaped the dread of a ticking clock.
A Little to the Left
In A Little to the Left, the player tries to arrange everyday household items in a way that resembles normal human organization. As a habitual “I’ll just leave this here” messy bitch, it’s a whole new world of things I do not do. The most relatable part of it for me was the cat that kept getting in your way.
But what makes the game interesting is that there’s no one solution to organization. In one puzzle, stacking books from smallest to largest worked, as did other methods of arranging them. It’s your bookcase, who cares what other people think? In a puzzle that ostensibly wanted me to remove a high number of stickers from fruit, I instead just turned the fruit to the side so I didn’t have to see the stickers. It didn’t work, but the developers with me said they were going to add that solution.
My partner, who also demoed the game, removed all the stickers from her fruit immediately, mirroring how we’d actually do this at home.
The shadow-based platformer is, even in a room of games with chill vibes, a game with extraordinarily chill vibes. As a little shadow frog, you jump from shadow to shadow, occasionally activating objects — like, say, a bicycle’s bell — to add or move shadows to get to the goal. And that’s what’s actually interesting about Schim: it’s not goal-oriented despite having an end goal.
The fun in the game isn’t simply solving a tough puzzle to get to the next area. Instead, it’s found in the joy of seeing what kind of shadows you can leap to next, and how everything in our world reflects these flat paintings on to it to create objects and images we never really pay attention to. It’s an interactive tableau that also happens to be an interesting game to boot.
Bear & Breakfast
The very first thing I asked the developers of Bear & Breakfast was a question I’ve had on my mind for a long time: Why isn’t this game called Bear B&B? The answer was, “I don’t know, it’s not, but that’s good.”
Aside from having clearly the wrong name, Bear & Breakfast is exactly what I expected and wanted from the concept. As a bear, you realize humans will pay exorbitant fees for any old shit bed & breakfast in the woods, so you open one. When you get guests in, you realize they actually need things besides three hots and a cot, so you begin picking up litter — which the guests leave everywhere in the woods — and trade it to a nearby raccoon for things like decorations.
In my demo, we put up three identical bear paintings in the bedroom to get the point across. This is a bear house.
One of the more impressive reveals in the Day of the Devs stream was Animal Well, a pixel-based 2D Metroidvania that’s light on combat, medium on death, and high on puzzles. The playable character is a sort of jumpy, ineffectual blog that, for the first ten or so minutes, does nothing besides jump on switches and avoid spikes. Eventually, you get access to firecrackers, which can scare away ghost-like creatures early on.
Animal Well is fascinating because it is immediately relentless in its quietude. It doesn’t tell you where to go and it doesn’t suggest backtracking to save because a ghost is about to kill you; it just lets you figure out your way and make your mistakes. I imagine this level of friction will be anathema for some and catnip for others. I’m not quite sure where I fall yet, but I definitely want to play more to find out.
Play Days is part of Fanbyte’s Hot Game Summer coverage, where we’re bringing you recaps and commentary on this summer’s game presentations like Xbox’s showcase, the PC Gaming Show, and the all-encompassing Summer Game Fest hosted by Geoff Keighley. If you’re interested in seeing all of Fanbyte’s coverage, check out our Hot Game Summer 2022 hub.