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Jerk cats, furniture assembly, subway systems: How gaming is making the mundane fun

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As video games continue to soak into all aspects of modern society, often eyes are on how some form of gaming is become a sort of high culture: interesting, sometimes bizarre, often provocative interactions that delve into things like post-traumatic stress disorder, amputation and food as intelligent beings.

But the continued metamorphosis of gaming has a much more mundane side as well.

At this year's PAX East gaming convention in Boston, indie developers and the games they made were the biggest element at the show, taking over a massive section of the crowded floor. Among the common themes of escapism, exploration and adventure were a number of games that seemed ... well, boring at first blush.

But talented developers managed to make designing subway systems, building cheap furniture without instructions and a first-person cat simulator, fun.

One of the surprising hits at the show was Home Improvisation, a game which players kept calling an Ikea furniture simulator and developer Josh Faubel made sure to tell them had nothing to do with the Ikea trademark.

But you can't really blame the gamers.

In Home Improvisation, players are tasked with putting together the pieces dropped from a flat pack box to create the furniture shown on the front of the box. The twist is that you don't have any instructions and once you open the box, you don't have the image to look at anymore either.

"It was inspired by Ikea," Faubel said. "But they haven't acknowledged it yet, so it's unofficial."

The game opens with a box drifting onto the screen which shows the unassembled piece of furniture on the front. Once a player clicks on the box, the contents spill onto the floor, and the box and its image float away.

Working off of memory, players have to pick up the pieces on the ground, rotate them into the right positions and snap them together. The game will let you assemble the pieces however you want. You finish the level not by necessarily correctly assembling the furniture, but by using every piece out of the box to create something.

As with most games, the difficulty increases as you progress through the game.

Initially, I had to put together a simple desk. Then came a floor lamp with three flexible necks. The third level had me assembling a park bench, though I forgot to examine the image before it drifted away and was left with a rectangular stool and an extra batch of parts.

While the concept might sound a bit boring, even the opposite of fun, the clever execution makes the game feel like a smart puzzle title.

That was the goal, Faubel said.

The game, developed by three grad students from Georgia Tech and one from the Savannah College of Art and Design under the studio name of The Stork Burn Down, was created at this year's Global Game Jam.

The game jam is an annual event that asks game makers to create or start a title in one week. This year's theme was "What do we do now?"

"We looked at things where people look at something and think that," Faubel said, referring to the game jam theme "Like when you have a pile of parts and have to assemble them.

"I think our concept was meant to be ironic. We wanted to make a game about something really mundane and really frustrating, but make it in a way that was fun to play."

The team hopes to add more furniture packs, more rooms to build in and even things like online multiplayer and joints. There's a free demo of the game, which is expected to go on sale for $10 in May, on Steam.

"It's a really fun building engine," Faubel said.

Another surprising hit at the show was Mini Metro, a computer and tablet game, that has players designing a subway system around the increasing demands of its customers. The game is easy to understand. Subway stops are denoted using symbols and customers appear as the symbols for the stops they want to go to. To play, gamers have to connect the stops with lines, ensuring that customers aren't left standing around too long.

As the game progresses the complexity of your subway increases, as do the demands of your riders. Eventually, they get so fed up that you lose.

Robert Curry, who created the game with his brother Peter, said it was inspired by how much time he spent while working in London, trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B on the tube.

"I thought it would be fun if you actually built the subway instead of just riding along in them," he said.

The game's austere design — it's simply symbols and lines — was as much a product of necessity as it was an artistic choice, Curry said.

"We aimed to make it a very minimalist strategy game," he said. "The most minimal game we could think of.

"We didn't have artists on the team at the time, so we wanted to make something look good so we went with squares and lines and dots."

The game, which was originally created for the 2013 Ludum Dare game jam, is available as a work in progress on Steam for $6.99 and should hit Android and iOS devices this July. Once complete, the game will sell for $9.99 and include 10 maps, each set in an iconic city, like London, Paris and New York.

Then there are the jerk cats.

Catlateral Damage bills itself as the "premier first-person destructive cat simulator," a game that has players becoming a cooped-up house cat that likes to knock things onto the floor.

"The point is to be a cat and to be a jerk and to use your claws to knock everything on the floor," said developer Chris Chung.

Catlateral Damage is a fairly straightforward game to play. Viewing the world of chunky, colorful graphics from the perspective of a house cat, players use the keyboard to move around and the left mouse button to swat with the left paw and right to swat with the right paw. Pressing the middle mouse button swats straight ahead. There's also a button for meowing, which doubles as a way to pick objects up with the cat's mouth. The goal is to roam the room or rooms of a level and try to knock everything to the floor, racking up a big score, before time runs out. There's no way to die or even lose, though levels will have goals, such as getting a certain score or knocking a set number of items to the ground within the time limit.

Chung says the game also throws in random events occasionally, like removing gravity for 30 seconds or having a mouse pop up in the mix. And of course, there's a distracting laser pointer.

The game was created in 2013 at a game jam dedicated to making interesting first-person games.

"I'm a big cat person," Chung said. "I grew up with a lot of cats. When I was thinking of what to make for this game jam I realized I never saw a game where you are a cat, so I decided to make one and it turned out to be really fun.

"And apparently the internet really loves cats."

Chung, who is getting married this month, hopes to have the game wrapped up before then so he can have a distraction-free honeymoon.

Already 2,000 people have added the game, which will sell for about $10, to their Steam wishlist, he said.

"A lot of people have cats as pets; they are very personable and owners tend to project human traits on them," Chung said. "When people are playing they say, ‘Oh my god, my cat does this,' it's like they're projecting their cat into the game."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and News Editor of Polygon.