Three Days in Busan, Day 2: BIC Fest's Korean Indies Tackle Everything From Metal Slug to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Three Days in Busan, Day 2: BIC Fest's Korean Indies Tackle Everything From Metal Slug to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Cosplay, Korean retro, VR, and still more indies as Daniel Feit's coverage of the Busan Indie Connect Festival continues.

Following my previous story, I’m here in (South) Korea at the Busan Indie Connect Festival to see what independent game creators in this region are preparing to unleash on the world. After a long first day I was surprised to arrive at the Busan Cinema Center on Saturday morning to see lines of visitors waiting to be admitted. Turns out the public days of BICFest don’t begin until noon, giving me a lot of time just to observe people setting up their wares.

On the subject of wares, one major new addition to BIC Fest this year was the Retro Game Market. While the location was a bit out of the way on the far side of the exhibition stage, completely opposite the registration area where most visitors were waiting to enter, it was a like a miniature flea market with old consoles and monitors set up for visitors to enjoy at their leisure.

One fascinating aspect of the Retro Game Market for me, as a non-Korean, was seeing the different consoles and hardware Koreans considered "retro." I never had a Viking or a Cy-Frog growing up, that’s for sure, nor any hardware with copies of games already installed. Whatever your thoughts on piracy, there were plenty of legitimate video games and accessories on sale in the market area, all laid out neatly on sheets, most of it from the nineties onward but some offerings dated back to the eighties. Very little of the consoles or games were specific to Korea, they were largely imports from Japan or the United States.

Since Saturday and Sunday were open to the public, Day Two kicked off with a stage event that drew plenty of kids: a group of local YouTube personalities were on hand to play indie games in front of an audience and sign stuff for their fans. The game they selected was Akuto Mad World, a multiplayer deathmatch arena where everyone has a sword and a gun (with limited ammo) and the last voxel man left standing wins.

Lovepreet Singh, the sole creator of Akuto Mad World, later told me that movies like Kill Bill were his primary inspiration for making his game. It was originally a Ludum Dare game jam creation which he hopes to expand and put on Steam Early Access before the end of the year. He found out his Greenlight campaign was a success the day he arrived in Busan.

Stage events continued throughout the afternoon to keep a steady flow of people, particularly young people, hustling in and out of the Busan Cinema Center. A live art battle took place on stage (and streamed online) with two contestants given a theme and twenty minutes to draw, the winner being decided via online votes. Cosplayers were welcome, another first for BIC Fest, though I must admit I rarely knew any of the characters I saw.

My first game of the day was a showdown of a different kind: me vs VR. The VR future I was promised twenty-five years ago hasn’t materialized yet because every VR game I try to play makes me feel ill. Not run-to-a-bathroom ill, just dizzy and all-around uncomfortable, although sometimes my mind does consider the bathroom option. As VR grows more popular with both platform holders and indie devs, each trade show I attend becomes a mini-duel: do I put on a headset and risk nausea, or pass and risk missing out on something new and fun?

At BIC Fest there was a dedicated "VR Zone" where indie devs with VR games had enough room to let players stumble safely inside away from passersby. As he was setting up, Jake Kim called me over and asked if I wanted to try his game Cranga (a portmanteau of "crane" and Jenga). I told him my VR story and he promised his game wouldn’t upset my equilibrium. He was right!

Cranga is a puzzle game where you take apart a stack of shipping containers using a giant crane. It works in VR because it allows you to casually inspect the tower from any angle. Your "character" never moves, you’re just a camera. The crane moves but it’s just an abstract sphere, a contact point that touches the tower. And the premise is so simple that the appeal is immediate. The effect convinced me so completely that I started reaching out with my hands to try and feel the tower - I ended up smacking a wall instead (neither party was harmed).

"It’s fun to make VR games," Kim said, having first created Cranga for a one-day VR game jam last year. Development is ongoing - he said that multiplayer and options for colorblind players are in the works - but he hopes to have Cranga ready for PC by December this year, with a PlayStation VR version to follow in 2017.

Other games that grabbed my attention on day two:

  • Earth Atlantis is an underwater shooter with a handdrawn look, as if the entire game was ripped from a pencil sketchbook. The monochromatic nature of that aesthetic makes it difficult to discern enemies from background elements, not to mention foreground elements, but it still looks slick in motion and the creatures have a lot of detail. Director Anucha Aribag, heading a small team in Thailand, told me the game should be available on PCs, mobile, and consoles in 2017.

  • Babel The Forbidden Tower was almost a slam-dunk recommendation for me: a Metal Slug-inspired run-n-gun shooter with good pixel art and animation. The only catch is that it’s being made for mobile so it uses an innovative but still flawed virtual controller that made it hard to aim, move, and shoot at the same time. Developer Cheol-Hwa Hong, who is making this game with his brother Jong-Seok, told me they went mobile first due to the popularity of smartphones in Korea. He says a version for Steam and even consoles is their next goal once the mobile version is complete, hopefully by year’s end.

  • Tarotica Voo Doo is an adventure game that’s been making the rounds at Japanese game shows for years. Created by Ixy Togo, it’s a literal MSX game that runs on a PC using an emulator. At BitSummit this year he had it running on authentic MSX hardware, though he declined to haul his retro console all the way to Korea for BICFest ("Too heavy," he said). The entire game is a single screen of hand-drawn art, with enemies and puzzles popping in to a window when necessary. The PC version, which was recently Greenlit, includes a digital version of Togo’s hand-written notes explaining the systems and history of the game. It’s all in Japanese of course, but he hopes to have it translated into English, Chinese, and possibly Korean by the time he launches early next year.

  • 21 Days is an overtly political PC game concerning the Syrian refugee crisis. In the game you play a refugee in Germany trying to earn a living to send money back home to your family while awaiting a decision on your residency status. The version shown at BICFest was entirely in Korean so I had to rely on two members of the development team - all university students - to explain their project. "We wanted to deliver the message [about Syrian refugees] to Koreans who don’t care about asylum seekers," said scenario writer Eunbi Ko. Programmer Jin-Hyung Kim told me that much of the details - release date, localizations, ports to mobile, even whether or not to charge for the game - are still up in the air as the team finishes work on the project.

  • Lobotomy Corp is another game I had to observe without playing due to the language barrier, but based on the premise alone I’m very excited to see more. It’s a "monster management" simulation where you must care for monsters else they break free and terrorize your facility and staff. Ji-Yeon Kim and Yu-mi Lee told me that the game was inspired by the film Cabin in the Woods. Visually, Lobotomy Corp resembles Fallout Shelter except most of the rooms are containers occupied by monsters that you must accommodate. The monsters run the gamut from humanoids to animal hybrids to full-on eldritch horrors. Some even have cute smiling faces but they can still kill all your employees. The game is still in development but some English promotional material can be found on the game’s website. The team hopes to have Lobotomy Corp on Steam Early Access by the end of the year.

As the sun set on day two of BICFest there was no party but instead more games were set up for the public to play outside the booth area, all on big screens or in large areas so that spectators could easily enjoy them as well. For the most part these games were already available titles like Johann Sebastian Joust, followed by another Arena Gods tournament as there had been on Friday night. I took my leave of the festivities and returned to my hotel room in anticipation of the third and final day to come. Likewise, another story on BICFest 2016 is yet to come.

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