Indie gems from the showfloor
The PAX gaming conference has had a rough couple years. I attended the digital version of PAX in 2020, and while it captured the spirit of the in-person show, it just wasn’t the same. PAX returned to conference halls in 2021, but finding high-quality adventure and puzzle games was a challenge as many vendors continued to be cautious post-quarantine.
Attending 2022’s PAX East and West in-person left me heartened that the conference I loved would continue. Alongside the large studios’ big-budget crowd pleasers were the hidden garden of games from indie studios that makes me feel like a kid searching for plastic eggs on Easter morning.
In anticipation of the upcoming PAX East (March 23-26 in Boston), here are the most exciting games I played at PAX last year.
We Were Here Forever – Total Mayhem Games
In February 2021 I reviewed We Were Here had an excellent time. It’s a first-person POV escape room where my partner and I worked together to free ourselves from a castle by communicating over an in-game walkie talkie (or in our case, Discord). It was one of the best video game takes on an escape room experience that I had experienced up to that point.
With those positive memories fresh in my mind, I was excited to see the fourth installment in the We Were Here series on the PAX showfloor. “We’ve come a long way since that first one,” Executive Producer Geoff van den Ouden proudly told me. And it showed.
The graphics and sound were much improved, evoking such games as Psychonauts and World of Warcraft, but the developers didn’t change the basic formula that made the previous three games so popular among streamers and escape room fans. Geoff told me that the studio plays escape rooms together; the love for puzzles is apparent.
The level I played took place inside a twisting, turning dodecahedron full of symbols and portals as the face of a mad jester taunted us from above. This is not the kind of puzzle that could be achieved in any physical escape room, and the developers have strived to push the new game in that direction.
We Were Here Forever is available now for Playstation, Xbox, and on Steam for $17.99.
Freshly Frosted – The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild
Prior to PAX I had never played a game that was created on a train, but this was an excellent one to start with. Developers Ty, Amanda, and Emily finished the prototype of Freshly Frosted on a Train Jam from Chicago to San Francisco. Over 350 video game artists, coders, and designers had cloistered themselves together for the 52 hour trip with the goal of showing off their creations once they arrived in the Bay Area. For this team, who called themselves “The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild” the result was Freshly Frosted.
No doubt inspired by the feeling of constantly moving forward on a track, they made a puzzle game where my goal was to use conveyor belts to connect donut ovens with their delivery windows. This seemed simple, until I factored in the requirement of routing my donuts past frosting stations in a particular order.
Speaking with the developers at the booth, they emphasized that Freshly Frosted is meant to be a relaxing game. You can’t get stuck. Undoing your actions is done with one button. An always-available hint system shows you where you’ve gone right.
Selected as part of the PAX Rising showcase for new creators, this honor was clearly well deserved for such a polished, clever, and challenging puzzle game.
Freshly Frosted is available now for all consoles and on Steam for $9.99.
McPixel 3 – Devolver Digital
As I stood on the showfloor playing the demo of McPixel 3, I found myself alternately facepalming and shaking my head in utter bafflement. I was tasked with guiding my crudely animated hero through one action movie crisis after another where slapstick gags and Looney Tunes logic are the order of the day.
After a few minutes I actually said out loud, “This game is so stupid, but it’s growing on me.”
What I had forgotten was that at PAX, the developer of the game is usually standing right next to you. And sure enough, Sos Sosowski, the twisted mind behind this crazy thing was right there. “Thanks! It’s a parody of a parody. You know the MacGyver parody on SNL called MacGruber? Well this is a parody of that,” Sosowski said.
Another way to put it is: What if The Secret of Monkey Island and the Mel Brooks movies had a love child raised entirely on a diet of WarioWare microgames?
Despite the insanity, there are hundreds of bite-sized adventure game puzzles to solve. The real goal of each scene is to find all the gags. I had to figure out the series of steps to get there. If you’re a fan of slapstick surprises, potty humor, or Roadrunner cartoons it’s a must-buy.
McPixel 3 is available now on Steam for $9.99.
Visit PAX 2023
With so many video game franchises sticking with tried-and-true formulas, indie games are often on the forefront of innovation. PAX has always excelled at highlighting these smaller games that take big swings, and as a fan-focused event, PAX provides a great way for these games to find an audience.
I am so happy to see the crowds return to PAX. REA writer Andrew Reynolds is headed to PAX East this weekend, and I can’t wait to see what he finds. Here is coverage of PAX Unplugged 2022: Bigger, Better, and Gamified and The Puzzle Events.
Purchase your badges for PAX East and tell them that Room Escape Artist sent you.