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What’s NEXT for gaming: Inclusivity takes centre stage at PAX AUS 2018

 

Far removed from the flashing lights and booming announcements inside the main hall of PAX AUS 2018, a different kind of exhibit took place. Attendees jostling past one another down the concourse of the MCEC might have been surprised to see such a large display in the main thoroughfare of the convention. It was here that the inaugural NEXT exhibit took place. In contrast to the immense scale and spectacle of the AAA games inside, NEXT set out to showcase indie titles made by underrepresented developers and tell stories about serious or overlooked subject matter. The brainchild of Ally McLean and Liam Esler, NEXT exhibit brought together six unique titles that might have not have found space on the main show floor. Which is why it’s so important that they were featured here, because these are certainly not ordinary games made by ordinary developers.

Games that set out to convey a serious subject matter often allow traditional gameplay to take a back seat to the story. However, An Aspie Life, by Brisbane developer Bradley Hennessey, is a bold attempt to take the nuances of living with Asperger’s Syndrome and craft engaging game mechanics around them. The game is an insightful, sometimes confronting but ultimately uplifting look into the everyday life of someone living with autism. Speaking with Bradley at the exhibit it was clear the amount of passion and personal experience he had poured into the project, which is the culmination of years spent teaching himself coding. He also created all the art for the game. An Aspie Life is free to play on Steam.

Though all the games featured at NEXT were beautiful in their own way, perhaps none were so visually striking as She and the Lightbearer. A collaborative effort between Indonesian studios that might not otherwise receive wide attention for their art, this point and click adventure showcases an amazing hand drawn aesthetic and draws the player through a story inspired by Indonesian folk lore. Creator Brigitta Rena has struggled to achieve her goals in the games industry because of family and cultural pushback in her native country. She and the Lightbearer is an attempt not only to bring knowledge of traditional Indonesian culture to a wider audience, but also create opportunities for fellow women in Indonesian game development.

Despite recent strides forward in LGBT representation in games, there are still very few stories being told specifically about transgender people. Underneath the charming cartoon art-style of Florescer lies a confronting look at the everyday struggles of a teenage transgender girl named Bia, as she attempts to fit into a new town. It evokes a strong emotional response by highlighting that even simple tasks like shopping or using the bathroom can create conflict when the public is ignorant and afraid about the reality of being transgender. Florescer was developed by Pugcorn with the support of a Brazilian NGO that houses transgender women. The game is available for download via itch.io.

Anamorphine is an excitingly unique story driven experience from award winning developer Artifact 5. In the game, a young man named Tyler is struggling with PTSD after his wife Elena suffers an accident that inhibits her creative outlet. The player travels through and physically pieces together the fractured memories of their relationship, which have been designed to bleed into one another seamlessly. This, combined with the lack of an action or dialogue button, serves to create a surreal sense of being nowhere and helpless in your journey to understand Tyler’s fragile state of mind. The game is a beautiful attempt to convey the guilt and helplessness that can come with caring for someone with a disability. Anamorphine is available now on Steam for PC and VR devices.

One title at NEXT 2018 stood out as less of a reflective journey and more of an absurdist parody of both dungeon crawlers and visual novels. Boyfriend Dungeon, from Montreal developer Kitfox Games, is a genre mashup that sees players romance their weapons in open-ended dialogue based cutscenes before descending into “the dunj” with their new squeeze for a rollicking action-RPG adventure. Though dealing with comparatively lighter subject matter than the other titles at NEXT, Boyfriend Dungeon is a showcase of the unique and entertaining titles that can be released when an incredibly diverse group of developers are given the proper funding and support for their games. Boyfriend Dungeon is due for release on Steam in 2019.

Rounding out the NEXT line-up is Before I Forget, a story driven first person game about living with dementia. Players control Sunita, who upon exploring her house finds objects that trigger memories and bring colour back into her world. Though this process players can help reconstruct her past to better understand her present. Sunita’s condition means that she is often unable to understand or remember the details of what she is remembering or where she is, and the game is an attempt to convey the confusion and loneliness felt by people with early onset dementia. Before I Forget was made by 3-Fold Games, an all-female team of UK developers. It is a worthy title to be showcased at NEXT as not only does it represent an often overlooked and misunderstood mental illness, but also highlights the gender imbalances in the games industry and the need for equal financial support for female developers. Before I Forget is due for release in 2018 on PC and Mac.

If anyone still doubted the passion and sincerity brought to Melbourne by the team behind NEXT after playing these six amazing games, they need only talk to its co-creator Ally McLean. Since founding the Working Lunch mentorship for women in games, Ally has built up an impressive trophy cabinet and is in a position to lend her voice to any number of worthy causes within the gaming community. I sat down with her and chatted about why campaigning for accessibility and inclusiveness in games development appealed to her specifically.

“Last year I was going around the world with a game that I made with my team, going through the experience of being an indie developer on the other side of the world. There was a showcase at PAX East of Australian games and I thought something that brings games from all over the world was missing from PAX AUS, and it would be worthwhile to feature games that were diverse and from underrepresented creators, but without all the pain and hard work of them having to showcase it themselves.”

With a huge amount of applications to the exhibit, there must have been a heartbreaking process of whittling down to the final six games. However, Ally and her team had some help in this regard. “A jury of diverse game developers looked at all the applications and played the games. I think the North Star of deciding whether a game belonged at NEXT is what does this game have to say and what can it show people that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. Each of the games has a message that we felt was important and that people otherwise wouldn’t have experienced.”

As we spoke in the bustling concourse, people continued to pour out of the main hall and filter into the comparatively small and relaxing atmosphere of the NEXT exhibit. This, it seems, was all part of the plan to ensure as many people as possible saw these unique titles.

“It was a conscious decision to have it out here in people’s faces, for accessibility as well as visibility. You don’t need a PAX pass to come and see these games, and the booth was purposefully designed to be physically accessible to everyone.”

In addition to the message of inclusivity spread by NEXT, accessibility for those with physical disabilities was also front and centre. Exhibit sponsor Microsoft supplied funding for the exhibit and ensured that several of their new Adaptive controllers were available for anyone to use. The controller is designed to be used with any part of the body, as well as having multiple universal ports for support of custom made controllers to suit individual disabilities. Whilst using it, I struck up a conversation with a random PAX goer who had consulted with Microsoft on its development and used it at home to play racing games with his feet.

“The way that people are interacting with the games, people are coming and spending 45 minutes playing, turning to the stranger next to them and talking about it, then getting their phones out and following the developers on Twitter. I’ve been going to conventions for 10 years and I’ve never seen that before,” Ally said of the reaction of the public.

Showcases like this are never without their hiccups, but by all accounts, NEXT 2018 was a roaring success and everyone involved is keen to see it expand and highlight even more deserving developers in the future.

“I’m very happy with how the exhibit turned out. I was worried it would be very loud and crowded. We wanted it to be a chill and comfy environment which is why we designed it the way we did. But people’s reactions have been surprising, coming out of the main hall it’s almost like an oasis for some of them to just come and relax and play some games and I think that’s really helped.”

“We would love to take NEXT further. Highlighting the work of underrepresented developers is something that everyone here strongly believes in and especially removing the stress and other barriers to showcasing their games. We would love for it to get bigger. We learned a lot about the way that people interacted with the space that I think would help us come back and showcase even more games next year.”

Article by Dylan Cook

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