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Preview: St. Louis’ PixelPop Festival Features Fantastic Indie Games You Shouldn’t Miss

Summer’s fading, there’s still a pandemic out there, and if you’re like most, you’re probably wondering what you’re going to do with yourself when it’s less warm and sunny and more rainy cold or snowy. Maybe you have no more Netflix wish list to speak of and you’re documentaried out. Maybe, like a couple of us here at Third Coast last week, you’re missing the convention scene and the chance to let your nerd flag fly free. 

There’s a lot not to love about 2020 but one of the things that it does bring us is the opportunity to participate in events we otherwise might not have been able to make it to. Conventions have hit the internet hard, with tons of panels and programming for everyone to indulge in. 

That’s why this week we’re excited to get a chance to experience an amazing indie games conference out of St. Louis, Missouri. PixelPop Festival is a two day event celebrating games of all types. Best of all it aims to be inclusive, intimate and impactful. 

Co-founded and directed by Carol Mertz, who is also the co-creator of We Should Talk., PixelPop has been around since 2014. Originally held at Webster University, PixelPop Festival’s first year focused on indie gamedev, traditional gaming and game music and each year finds a new aspect to focus on from education and experimentation to unique games and the people behind them. Each year as it’s grown it’s continued to add more and more great speakers and featured even more games.

In 2017, PixelPop Festival even set a record as the 14th largest Global Game Jam site in the world out of 701 international sites. When PixelPop Festival was being held in person, it kept expanding and eventually landed in its current home location, the Saint Louis University Busch Student Center. 

This year’s event will take place Saturday, September 12th and Sunday, September 13th via Discord, and will feature an impressive array of indie titles, including a few familiar faces from here in Chicago. In many cases featured games will be accompanied by live Q&A sessions or video presentations with the devs.

PixelPop also features amazing panel discussions that run the gamut from how to create low stress games for a high stress world,mindfulness and its applications in game development, and of course address current challenges presented by COVID-19, with a panel we’re eager to attend called Apart: The Socially Distant Virtual Reality Art Show, which will discuss the amazing exhibit Apart, a social distancing themed community poster show and multiplayer virtual gallery space featuring 150+ works from designers around the world that’s permanently accessible in VR and on web browsers and which is raising money for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 relief fund.

Planned programming also includes discussions of sex positive mechanics in games, player agency, and designing board games for inclusivity

Cold Calling at the 2019 Logan Playtest Party. Photo: Marielle Bokor

PixelPop Festival’s featured games kick off almost every hour of the programming on Saturday and Sunday, which begins at 11am CDT. Many of the games featured will also have Live Q&A sessions so you can ask the developers any questions you have about their creations. And, if you’ve been to a few of Chicago’s local indie games festivals and events or read about them here, you might recognize a few names. 

We had a lot of fun with Even in Arcadia at the amazing Bit Bash at MSI event last summer, and have been cheering on Waking Oni’s Onsen Master since our first encounter with it at the Logan Playtest Party, and we’ve been keeping track of Cold Calling from the Playtest to C2E2 and beyond. Both Cold Calling devs Can’t Get Enough Games and Even in Arcadia’s Phoebe Shalloway will have video presentations while Waking Oni’s devs will be doing a Live Q&A session on Sunday from 11:15 to 11:30 am. 

Homing. Michelle Lega

Chicago has one more featured game at PixelPop Festival we hadn’t yet had the pleasure of exploring, Homing by Michelle Lega, a ‘low poly epistolary’ game with a beautiful art style that has you navigating a messenger pigeon through a city to deliver letters you’ll also get to be privy to, including some more emotionally fraught fare, like the relationship between a woman and her ex-wife. 

Don’t stick to what we’ve seen in Chicago before though. St. Louis is the host city after all, and what PixelPop has built is an amazing community full of devs and gamers from just about everywhere, in a city that’s thriving and quickly becoming a hub for entrepreneurs of all kinds, including developers. 

There are a ton of fantastic games to check out. You can see the full featured games list here, but if you want a few suggestions of interesting things to look out for, here’s a few ideas:

A Lozenge is part of developer Party for Introverts’ anthology of emotion driven interactive short stories. about motion sickness, dedicated to children of divorce that may help those who’ve been through it process. It’s brief with simple mechanics but has a gorgeously grey-sky art style that underlines the complex subject matter. 

 

If you love dogs and have a bizarre sense of humor, you should definitely make sure to check out and wishlist An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs which will have you laughing all the way through a series of increasingly strange fetch quests for a bunch of dogs who are currently running the place while you’re trying to find your fiance after the destruction of your home world. You don’t speak the language but you can pet and talk to the dogs to try to find your way back to your loved one.

 

If you love cats too then you might want to check out Calico, a day in the life community sim where you get to run your own cat cafe. You get to decorate, stock food and pick kitties for it and watch it thrive. It hits all those Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley sort of vibes with a coziness and cute colorful world full of interesting cats, dogs, bears and a whole array of interesting people and seems like the exact sort of relaxing game that’ll do nicely on a rainy afternoon or really any time.

 

With a great soundtrack and gorgeous neon style, Flux is another to look into. It features a series of “limited difficulty” minigames that’ll have you doing a number of different types of things from rhythmic typing to hack and slash and beat ‘em up style fighting to create a title that allows for twitch-based gaming fun as well as some more relaxed fare all in the same universe with the same style–and it has a series of amazing cosmetics you can earn from playing, so we’re sure there’s potential to get addicted quickly.

 

There’s also Hot Pot for One by Rachel Li and Qin Zin that explores themes of loneliness and isolation and the comfort of making food from home inspired by the designers own experiences as international students living abroad. Even the trailer tugs at heartstrings, and the themes of isolation within echo some of our own feelings during a time when almost everyone is experiencing these feelings to some degree. 

One of our favorite things about the games scene in Chicago is its focus on games as art and its encouragement of exploration and PixelPop Festival seems to be a great opportunity to expand our horizons from the Chicago scene to St. Louis, take in some truly thought-provoking panels and find new games to explore. 

Pixel Pop Festival will be held via Discord this weekend, Saturday September 12th and Sunday September 13th from 11 am to 4:15pm CDT. You can check out the full programming schedule here and peruse the list of featured games by clicking this link. In fact, if you’re as excited as we are for this event, you can join the Discord server now and get to know everyone ahead of the weekend’s festivities. We’ll see you there!

 

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