This week during the Game Developers Conference, I attended a gaming event called The Media Indie Exchange — The MIX. It's a buffet of indie games with their devs standing close by, each one eagerly waiting to introduce you to their lovingly crafted experience.
Covering an event like this is hard. You have dozens of people vying for your attention, and there are simply too many games to see even a fraction of them with any real depth. It's heartbreaking, but you walk past a lot of good games. Unless, as in my case, you walk past and a developer literally screams for your attention.
This is how I met Auston Montville and Don Thacker of Imagos Softworks.
Montville and Thacker are two members of the team working on a Kickstarted game called Starr Mazer. It's a "retro-sexy" point-and-click adventure game that combines action sequences with narrative and shoot-'em-up elements. You fly around space and you shoot things. You solve puzzles and do battle with key items in your inventory. You play through the game's shifting narrative (more on that later).
If the game's premise has you stoked, you've got nothing on Montville and Thacker. When I spoke to them at The MIX, their excitement seemed to transcend scream space and time itself.
"WE'RE GONNA CAUSE TEARS WITH THIS, AMONG OTHER EMOTIONS LIKE LAUGHING," Montville yelled. "SO YOU PLAY AS THIS GUY, BRICK STONEWOOD —"
My pen paused. "Wait, say that name again?"
"BRICK M. STONEWOOD."
"THE M STANDS FOR METAL," Thacker helpfully interjected.
"Are you saying RICK or BRICK?" I shouted back, as per fact checking duties dictate.
"BRICK," Thacker roared. "BRICK. METAL. STONEWOOD."
"THE ELEMENTS THAT MAKE A STRONG HERO, RIGHT?" Montville added.
"YEEEEEAH," Thacker boomed.
Ah. Of course.
Brick M. Stonewood, Montville and Thacker vigorously explained, is A MAN'S MAN — a BALLS-TO-THE-WALL kinda guy, even. He's used to solving his problems with his gun and his nice hair. But after being frozen in cryosleep for 130 years, his callous behavior doesn't fly anymore.
"BASICALLY, HE COMES OFF AS A GIANT BIGOT, AN IDIOT, AN ASSHOLE," Montville yelled. "SO, THE ENTIRE GAME IS ABOUT BECOMING A HERO."
Not just any hero, but a modern day hero, Montville continued. Brick's journey to herodom is plotted through an episodic system the team calls "open-middled gameplay," better known as "OMG," Montville and Thacker joyfully exclaimed together. Montville says it's like watching your favorite TV show — you know, one you've got all these emotions and stuff about — but experiencing it anew by mixing up episodes and changing the outcome of the narrative. Characters, events and all else reacts accordingly.
If you're confused on how all these elements can work together in a cohesive way, you're not alone. I posed the same question, perhaps a bit foolishly, to Thacker.
"I'M GONNA USE AN ANALOGY," Thacker explained with a patience I've never experienced from a screaming man before. "ARE YOU READY FOR MY ANALOGY? GOD, I LOVE THIS ANALOGY.
"SO, SUPER MARIO BROTHERS, THAT'S A COOL GAME, RIGHT? IT'S A GENRE, A PLATFORMER. FLAPPY BIRD. YOU KNOW FLAPPY BIRD? THAT'S NOT SUPER MARIO BROS., IT'S ITS OWN THING. KIND OF A GENRE IN ITSELF.
"WHAT IF I WERE TO TELL YOU THAT I WANT YOU TO MAKE A GAME WHERE YOU TAKE SUPER MARIO BROTHERS AND FLAPPY BIRD AND SLAM 'EM TOGETHER? THAT SEEMS HARD. HOW ARE YOU GOING TO BLEND THESE DIFFERENT GENRES AND PUT THEM TOGETHER?"
And then, to my shock, Thacker quieted for a moment.
"Well, here's a trick," he said, leaning in as though to tell me a secret. "You've played Super Mario Brothers, right? When you jump in the water and swim — "
Oh God, a pause. The moment is stretching into eternity. It is hanging in the balance, and I'm on the cusp of an incredible wave of emotion, and if he doesn't speak up right now I'm just going to —
"YOU'RE PLAYING FLAPPY BIRD," Thacker exploded. "OH IT HAPPENED ALREADY AND YOU DIDN'T EVEN KNOW. THAT'S INSANITY."
I have arrived at insanity mountain. There is nothing left to ask.
Starr Mazer is still in preproduction for Linux, Mac and Windows PC, but Thacker expects the team will have something playable in a few months. In the meantime, for people hoping to get a look at the project, Imagos runs "Starr Mazer TV" every Saturday on Twitch.
"WE PLAY GAMES, AND ONE OF THE FIRST GAMES WE PLAY EVERY SATURDAY IS A BUILD OF OUR OWN GAME," Thacker happily explained.