Bit Bash at MSI Blew Our Minds
What a weekend! Bit Bash made its triumphant return this weekend at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). It was truly amazing to see Bit Bash in and around one of Chicago’s most iconic museums. Bit Bash at MSI saw two of our most favorite Chicago institutions come together for the purpose of video games—and it was every bit as glorious as you can imagine.
This weekend, Bit Bash filled the entire west wing of MSI with over 80 games—from video games and tabletop games to lots of alternative control games running on custom hardware. There were even field games, though most of the action seemed to be relegated to inside the museum due to the off-again-on-again rain over the weekend.
The first day of Bit Bash had the most going on, with games on display to the public starting at 11am, and the bash extending into the evening, well past museum hours. If you stayed from open to close, you’d be Bit Bashing going on 12 hours. Luckily, there were food and drink vendors to make sure the attendees weren’t hangry. With food and beer, there was no reason to stop playing the games, of which there were many. As an added bonus, once the clock hit 8, there were live bands accompanied by visual artists that turned the gaming party into an A/V spectacle.
Bit Bash would just be “Bash” without the games, and they occupied the entire space filling two theaters (one big, one small) and three floors. The space was great: despite the sheer number of things to do and see, it never felt cramped or crowded—which makes playing the games feel more casual. There was also less of a queue for the games, as there were just so many to play–it felt like you could just jump right on a game after a short wait. This also made it feel like you could take more time with each game.
And there were a lot of great games this year. I mean, a lot. Bit Bash has traditionally highlighted independent games made by single developers, or those working in small teams. Some of the games highlighted local Chicago talent, but there were games from all over the world. They’re not what you may think of as “mainstream” games, and while there are side-scrollers and shooting games, each has a visual style, control method, method of storytelling, or other quirk that makes it unique. We won’t have room to talk about every game we saw, but we’re going to try to give you a sampling of the games that stood out to us for various reasons.
While some of the games we encountered at Bit Bash are still in development or were made for the exhibition specifically, many are available to purchase or even play free on various consoles and gaming platforms, and we’ll give you info on how to get your hands on them here, too.
What the Golf
What the Golf is a delightful golf-like game for “those who don’t like golf.” The developers have seemed to go out of their way to subvert expectations at every turn. Before you know it you’ll be putting everything from golf balls to golf carts. In the demo we played there was even an homage to Super Hot. It’s really crazier than I can describe, and it’s something I’ll be playing when it releases in the future. Look out for it here.
Deru: The Art of Cooperation
Deru: The Art of Cooperation looks simple, but that’s a deception. Cooperative to its core, Deru will expand your mind and test your friendship. In it, you play as two triangles, each separate colors. Help your partner get past obstacles while they do the same for you. It’s easy to pick up, but extremely challenging, with beautiful, abstract art. Find out more about the game here.
Even in Arcadia
Even in Arcadia is an often surreal look at future where humans have moved on past earth, and embraced a culture of consumerism so rampant, that entire planets are abandoned—discarded—in favor of newer, shinier models. The game takes place during the grand opening of one such planet, and you can walk around, listening to conversations as they unfold around you, much like sci-fi game Tacoma. You can check out Even in Arcadia here.
In Cache-Cache you and a partner work together to explore a diorama to uncover hidden objects—but there’s a catch. Each of you have different monitors, and are looking at different versions of the diorama. Its colorful art, and whimsical nature combined with its cooperative mechanics make it a treat. You can download Cache-Cache here.
Capy Hoky is a party game where you take on the role of capybara—or various other animals—and face each other in a two versus two round of field hockey. The controls seem intentionally imprecise, as in order to swing your stick you must spin completely around. It’s charming, and great fun for any group of four friends to play. You can check it out here.
Baba is You
Baby is You has been sitting in my Steam library for a while, but now I regret letting it sit on the back burner. This amazing block pushing puzzle game takes everything you might know about pushing blocks and flips it on its head. In Baba is You you literally alter the rules of the world to solve puzzles. It’s an interesting take, and definitely something I’ll be playing past Bit Bash. Find out more here.
Screenshot: Midnight Ultra
Midnight Ultra is a first person shooter, but its art style really sets it apart. Interstitials use a VHS-style effect, and the actual gameplay has a sort of neon pink monochrome visual filter over it, making it several shades of neon pinks and violets. It’s all very surreal, but extremely cool. The gameplay is like something from early shooters, like Quake—but the high contrast visuals actually lend to the horror aspect. It’s definitely something you should check out.
Everything is Going to be Okay
Using short videos and gif-like animations to portray a sort of darkly silly nihilistic outlook on life, Everything is Going to Be OK is about how everything isn’t going to be okay at all. In fact, Everything is Going to Be OK at first, looks like an extremely weird, but silly, light-hearted narrative. In fact, it’s an extremely heavy essay on depression and takes some pretty dark turns. It can be downloaded for free here.
Consume Me is a super cute, stylish adventure game. Billed as a darkly humorous game about food, it’s so much more than that. Consume Me takes you through one girl’s quest to get fit, but speaks to so many different issues, and does it all with the sort of wry humor that can frequently make you actually laugh out loud. It’s incredibly relatable to anyone who’s ever struggled with disordered eating, the pressures of looking a certain way, balancing diet and exercise and the struggle to stay motivated. It also talks about the extra pressures on Asian women. It accomplishes all this without having to go out of its way to point out what it’s doing, while irreversibly endearing you to the main character, and serving up an array of adorable mini games that will have you balancing your meal à la Tetris or dragging your unwieldy body through different yoga poses. Mechanics emphasize the humor, too. When you have to weigh in, it’s a herculean task just to drag one foot on, then the next. Consume Me is one of my absolute favorite types of games–one you genuinely enjoy playing, but also makes you think. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of it in the future. Keep an eye on its development progress here.
SLAMBURGERS! Is the type of game that just makes you smile when you look at it. It’s a perfectly executed silly concept, with fantastic physics that emphasize the humor. You’ll play as a double cheeseburger in the ring duking it out with other noodly armed double cheeseburgers in a sort of sumo wrestling showdown. Things undulate, quiver, slam and bash, and it’s delightful. It’s uncomplicated, well executed and goofy enough to be hard to resist trying your hand at. Watch the developer’s website for more on this fun title.
Roger Meatball is a game for anyone who enjoys silly co-op–something that’s close to my heart. It features asymmetrical gameplay, with one person performing semaphore (and yes, actually performing semaphore, with their arms and motion controllers) and another trying to safely land a plane on an aircraft carrier. It’s got enough difficulty to cause actual frustration, but enough of a ridiculous factor to turn frustrated grunts into full on laughs. When it works, and you safely land the plane, there’s a real sense of satisfaction, too. You can download it now and name your own price.
We Should Talk
We Should Talk is another game where what you say and how you say it matters immensely. In fact, that’s the whole point of the game. Each time you interact with various people in the game, such as your partner, your friend, the bartender or an ex, you’ll need to choose your words carefully. It’s Choose Your Own Adventure Social Life Edition, and all it takes to make things worse is being too forceful or not forceful enough. It’s enough to induce anxiety, but it’s also an interesting concept for a game, executed with a moody, modern art style I really liked. Download it here.
Dream Hard is a ‘90s style beat ‘em up that turns the genre’s standard themes on its ear and brings it to a queer space. You’ll fight alongside your beefy companion (who can be a real co-op partner or an AI companion) and battle it out in the dance club, defeating fascism and homophobes, protecting dancers and summoning Madonna for help. It’s pixel perfect nostalgia with a fantastic soundtrack, satisfying gameplay and a brand new perspective and it’s more than worth checking out.
Bury Me, My Love
Bury Me, My Love is an affecting text message based adventure game about Nour, a Syrian woman who is fleeing the only country she knows to gain asylum in Europe. Her partner, Majd, must stay behind to take care of his mother, who can’t make the journey right away, and the action of the game lies in the conversations and storytelling between the couple. You’ll communicate using selfies, emojis and text prompts, navigating down different roads depending on your answers. Though some have criticized the game for making a refugee’s journey seem like a fun adventure, others have praised it for shedding light on a current world issue and on the often terrifying plight of those seeking asylum. Some may disagree but I thought the game very clearly identified just how stressful, scary and dangerous the journey is, and its interaction allowed you to be involved in a way you otherwise couldn’t be. Uncover the tale here.
Bit Bash at MSI also featured a good amount of games using specialized hardware, controllers, or alternative control schemes. Yee Haw Agenda was a spaghetti western style stand-off simulator using light guns. Quantum Garden was a hit, using what looked like door stops and LEDs to create a psychedelic combination of colors. And HELLCOUCH used an entire couch as its controller.
RotoRing was especially fun. It’s a puzzle game using LEDs, a single button, and a knob. It was one of the most fun games at the event, and it’s extremely satisfying to play with on a tactile level. Some levels were slower, and contemplative—get the blue light to the dark square. But, eventually, moving obstacles and other hazards kicked in. I’ve never had so much fun staring at LEDs before.
The Book Ritual
The Book Ritual is an interesting thinkpiece that can get quite intimate and personal. It’s also meant as a sort of exhibition piece, though it can also be played at home, assuming you’ve got a book that’s at least 162 pages long and a shredder or wastebasket. You’ll use the physical book and wastebasket or shredder as you follow along with the game’s narrative, and make changes to the book by drawing or writing in it as well as cutting things out or outright shredding pages. The book you choose becomes the main character in the narrative, and you’ll help to uncover how the situation came to be in completing the various activities within its chapters. The Book Ritual was a bit of a hard sell out of the gates, as it at first seemed like a sort of generic psychological probing exercise, but by the end, managed to be deeply affecting, especially given the physicality of interacting with the book itself as you complete the tale. It might be worth the time to explore, and in fact be quite memorable if you’re willing to participate with it. Get your shredder and a book and download the game here.
Line Wobbler is another great piece of alternative game art. It takes the concept of a dungeon crawler, and rather than expanding on it, distills it. Using a custom spring controller, an upside down shoe tree (in some cases, though at MSI it was strung along a stair rail) and an ultra bright LED strip, it manages to convey all the action of a standard dungeon crawler using only lights. I wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to pick up, but even as an observer you can easily translate traversal, item collection,combat, boss battles and death, and it really helps you frame something as tried-and-true as a dungeon crawler in a new light. Learn more about it here.
Tabletop games were given an entire room unto themselves at Bit Bash at MSI, and we saw some really great ones.
The Reject Squad is another great looking card game that marries some great (and some not-so-great) superpowers with some unfortunate circumstances. For example, you might have the power of flight, but you’re also a banana. This Reject Squad then takes on various crises, which may also have strange and hilarious twists, and attempts to overcome them. The game seems to have a good sense of humor about it, and would certainly be a great party game with friends, so it’s one to keep an eye out for. Check up on its development team here.
Queering Spacetime is a dating sim card game focusing on girl-girl relationships and featuring a racially and sexually diverse cast. Its main premise is that you’re “destined lovers” across all of space and time, and as each millenia passes, you keep finding each other again. Finding each other is the easy part though, as the gameplay consists of navigating the various forms you find each other in each time. Your ultimate goal is to adapt to this new but old relationship and make your partner as happy and comfortable as possible, in each new iteration of themselves that you find, making sure to take care of each other. It’s a genuinely sweet game with the sort of hearts-and-stars art that recalls a more simple, straightforward love, and seems to genuinely bring smiles in play. Get in on the action here.
We saw familiar faces in the tabletop room too, with Earworm by VSTheUniverse frequently drawing crowds of dooters, hummers and boopers hoping their team could suss out what song they were attempting to represent in 30 seconds with no lyrics. The cards can fall your way, making this an easier task, or really put you over a barrel, making for some hilarious musical meltdowns. We first ran into Earworm at the 2018 Playtest Party at the Logan Theatre and they’ve since had a fully funded Kickstarter come to fruition and began producing the finished product, which is colorful, fun and creative just like the game is. It’s another party hit that should be popular with any audiophiles you know and love. Find out more here.
In the program for Bit Bash, artistic director Rob Lach talks about how they wanted to create something truly amazing—well, Bit Bash was special this year, and it went beyond amazing. Walking into the MSI to see the Bit Bash banner with Johann Sebastian Joust being played in the main rotunda was absolutely magical, and something I won’t soon forget. We can’t wait to see what the Bit Bash crew comes up with next.