Founded by Penny Arcade in 2010, PAX East has been Boston’s premier gaming convention for a decade now. Hosting games of all genres, platforms, and console generations, this year's showcase had something missing — Playstation developer Sony Entertainment. Sony canceled its appearance and pulled "The Last of Us 2," a game about a deadly virus, while the world grappled with the spreading coronavirus. Despite its absence, the convention floor hardly felt at a loss as smaller international studios more than picked up the slack.
The U.S. and Japan host the most prolific developers with names such as Nintendo, Rockstar Games, and Square-Enix routinely pumping out quality content. However, there is much to be said about the smaller studios popping up across the flat earth, creating virtual worlds for us to lose ourselves in and get away from our lives for a while.
While attending the showcase last month, I set out on a mission to explore past “Animal Crossing” and “Final Fantasy” to talk to the little guys, the international studios changing the game — of well — games.
First on my trek through the wild west of gaming was a sharp turn to the far east with Nodding Head Games’ “Raji,” an action platformer inspired by Hindu Mythology. You play as the title character, “Raji,” on a quest by the gods to slay demons and save your brother. The game possesses a traditional shadow puppet art style during cutscenes and a familiar top-down perspective during gameplay. When most people think India, they think more along the lines of outsourced work rather than game development. This is something that Art Director Shruti Ghosh is keen to change, addressing that while Norse and Greek pantheons are over-represented, you rarely see Hindi lore in gaming. “Raji” seeks to change this by combining the cultural styles of the Hindu world with game mechanics prominent in western games.
I then stopped by the Indie Games Poland Foundation, a super-booth of Polish dev’s dripping with Slavic swag. Big-name developers such as CD Projekt Red have blown minds recently with the announcement of “CyberPunk 2077,” but it's not all augments and androids up in Warsaw, as proven with Klabter’s “Help Will Come Tomorrow.” The game is set following a train crash during the boiling point of the October Revolution, you must keep a cast of revolutionaries, aristocrats, and non-politically minded survivors alive in the harsh Siberian wilderness. Though my survivors ended up considerably less alive than when I decided not to play the tutorial, there was fun to be had finding balance in the survivor's clashing personalities and managing resources to keep everyone alive to see if the game's title holds true.
Lastly, I met with Astragon studios, a German developer who primarily makes simulator games. While most American gamers would rather mow through zombies, over in Germany, laid back simulation titles such as Astragon’s own “Bus Simulator” offers a unique experience perfect for rounding out your day. While I was skeptical going in, expecting something along the lines of the playable meme, “Surgeon Simulator,” a title in which you enact surgery while heavily intoxicated, what I found was a calming ride through metropolitan Europe as your friendly neighborhood Busfahrer. While American audiences see simulators primarily in their meme potential, European audiences see them as a mellow alternative to the chaos of titles like “DOOM” or “Battlefront.” While years of “GTA Online” compelled me to immediately try for vehicular homicide, I quickly found myself enjoying the simplicity of simulating a bus.
Video games, like literature or cinema, are an art form and like any other regional tastes and cultural ideals play a role in what we look for. That being said, there is a shared love for the craft of game design that keeps events like PAX happening so that we can come together to celebrate how similar we are within our vast differences.