Prior to PAX East 2014, I had not heard of Midnight City. I bought both Gone Home and Double Dragon Neon and I had never noticed Midnight City before.
Prior to PAX East 2014, I only heard discussion about Videoball on the Insert Credit Podcast. Tim Rogers (Creative Director of Action Button Entertainment and founder of ActionButton.net) would describe and discuss this game as he was building it. I never saw it.
I never watched the Twitch streams of Videoball either, it was a game I already knew I wanted to play, I didn’t need any convincing.
Action Button’s track record with games thus far has been inspiring. ZiGGURAt (iOS): A fantastic game that subverts tower-defense by forcing accuracy and timing with smooth touchscreen controls. TNNS (iOS): A fast-paced, colorful, arcade exploration of physics. Ten by Eight (Vita): A puzzle/matching game that is silkier and more filling than any of the Bejeweled games.
Each one of these games was published by Action Button themselves across the different platforms. I expected the same would be true for Videoball, until I saw Midnight City.
I had no idea what to expect from PAX this year.
In 2013, PAX was host to a barrage of huge games: Tomb Raider, Hitman, Hawken, Elder Scrolls Online, Hearthstone, Assassin’s Creed IV, Remember Me, Watch Dogs, a whole bunch of Capcom reboots, etc.
I had no idea what PAX 2014 would offer. I walked into it with no expectations and was filled with a kind of excited emptiness.
As I stepped into the convention center in Boston, I noticed Bethesda’s booth showing the same trailer for Elder Scrolls Online as they did the year before. I caught a bit of their Wolfenstein trailer, and I managed to feel actual excitement for The Evil Within.
Further in, I caught a glimpse of the massive boss statue from Evolve. I had heard good things about that game, but as with nearly all games at PAX, I had no interest in trying it. I simply moved past the crowd idling, snapping photos.
I wandered around the booths for a while, wondered what was the point of both Borderlands and their particular booth (It was a dome painted like a planet). That game is pretty, but mechanically dull.
At this point I had begun feeling as if this trip was useless. What was I doing in a place where I wasn’t really excited for anything being shown? What was the point of the whole thing?
In 2013, the indie games section of PAX was nothing really exciting or notable. The only game then that caught my eye was Mercenary Kings with its Metal Slug aesthetic and 2-D open world gameplay. I kept it in mind.
In 2014, with nothing else to do, I took a stab again at the indie games section where I finally caught the Midnight City booth.
As I approached Midnight City, the first game that popped out was Krautscape (PC): A procedurally-generated racing game where you can cut through the winding, elevated track by flying from one turn to another provided you hit all required checkpoints. The game was attractive, covered in red with a touch of blue and bold, fuzzy lines that insinuated movement.
Krautscape was being played on two giant screens near the walkway by the booth, which made it nearly impossible to miss.
Even though I had little idea what Midnight City was, I already began to feel that I had stumbled into something significant and serious. It was only when I turned around to check out the other games that I found myself stunned to find Videoball.
I had heard Tim Rogers talking on the Insert Credit Podcast about attending PAX Prime and having mixed feelings about it due to the founders of Penny Arcade having dealt with certain controversies controversially. I got the sense that he probably would not be interested in supporting this event again so it was genuinely surprising to see both Tim Rogers and Videoball in this venue.
For the first time since arriving at PAX, I felt like I was somewhere I belonged.
I had never actually seen Tim Rogers in person before, I had only read his writing and listened to his voice. He was dressed as an extension of Videoball: Neon green and hues of purple. Taking that all in, it was time to finally see what this game was about.
Tim explained the rules quickly and with excitement as games went on:
1) Each team is two players and there are two goals.
2) The ball spawns in the middle of the field.
3) Move the ball by shooting it.
4) Don’t touch the ball. Don’t get shot. You will freeze.
5) Use the left analog stick to move, all the face buttons do the same thing: shoot.
6) Holding the face buttons for varying amounts of time changes your ‘shot’.
7) Level 1 Shot: Small shot. Level 2 Shot: Persistent Shot. Level 3 Shot: Heavy Shot. Level 4 Shot: Blocks.
8) Use blocks to stop balls from being shot into your goal.
9) Double Touchdowns are amazing.
10) Moving and shooting makes your shot faster.
11) There are reversals.
First, I watched others play the game. Videoball is a shower of neon pastel and geometric shapes. The balls are circles, the ships (players) are triangles, the blocks are squares, and the shots are even bigger triangles:
Normally, I do not enjoy games with abstract or minimal interfaces. I enjoy games that have a fluidity of motion and dense color which is one reason I tend to migrate towards older platformers and fighting games like Hokuto no Ken, Cyberbots, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Guilty Gear.
What all those games have in common as well, what really sucks me in, is the densities of their friction. The hits feel heavy, the characters feel fast, and everything seems to stick. There is no ‘floatiness’ or ‘wobbliness’, just a hard kind of density. Videoball has that density.
The ships don’t just zip around on the screen effortlessly. The ships feel like lead bricks propelled by small boat engines skittering around on a cold, still lake. It takes some time to build momentum and it takes some time to lose it, but you never feel out of control. There is a friction that you understand implicitly after the first time you play. It feeds into a part of your brain that understands the golden ratio of motion.
Because of the thrill of moving in the game, the most frustrating thing that can happen to a player is being frozen by either getting shot or by touching the ball. Shots from either your team or the opposing team will freeze your ship for a few seconds.
In Videoball the greatest punishment is the inability to move.
Movement in Videoball is the highest insight.
Most of my time at PAX I spent hanging out at the Videoball booth. It wasn’t until late into the second day of PAX that I realized Midnight City was incentivizing people to try out all of their games by issuing trading cards. If a person was to collect all five cards representing all five games being shown at PAX, then they would receive a Midnight City t-shirt.
All of the Midnight City games (Krautscape, Videoball, Organic Panic, High Strangeness, and Super Avalanche) were really interesting. Each of their games proposed something different both from each other and to their respective genres.
But Videoball had the strongest hook that kept drawing me back: The opportunity to expand in a competitive environment.
In this sense Videoball is a modern fighting game. You can only ever have a general idea of what your opponent will do and the flowchart you design in your mind will only be applicable if you can recognize what your opponent is doing before he gets too far along his flowchart.
In the sense of its friction, Videoball is a grimy, sticky arcade fighting game from the 90’s: Heavy and Dense.
The metagame revolves around how good a player is at shooting other players and not shooting your teammate. ‘Dogfighting’ in this game requires an incredible amount of finesse and patience as shots are slow to build. Shots are the currency of this game.
The friction of the game resembles hockey, the shooting resembles sniping, and the strategic nature and metagame revolve around the same kind of decisions a player makes in a fighting game. Videoball forces a sense of persistent motion that most resembles soccer.
Videoball takes the best high-level thinking across multiple real and e-sports and throws them together into one coherent, elegant whole.
Tim Rogers and his friend/cohort Vito Gesualdi hustled hard for this game. Tim decked out in his neon embodiment of Videoball and Vito in his mustard yellow sports (announcer) coat pushed this game harder than any other game/company at PAX. Their passion and fury was all on display.
By Sunday, Tim’s voice was faltering. He spent nearly the entire time at PAX just discussing/yelling/informing about his game.
The presentation of Videoball is part of what made it so intriguing.
One thing I noticed at this year’s PAX were the ‘pre-order’ booths. Literally booths where they would ask you to pre-order whatever triple-A game was being touted at that particular location. This struck me as slightly underhanded and manipulative: to ask people for money in an environment where they have been primed to spend money by the giant displays of flash. I don’t recall this tactic being used at PAX 2013.
The Videoball booth (and by extension the Midnight City booth) felt honest. Not only were the games exploring their respective genres in new ways, but they were honest games. The whole presentation of Midnight City was concise, clean, and enthusiastic.
Midnight City made me care about being at PAX. Videoball pulled me out of my bored thinking about games. Videoball made me want to talk about games and design again with anyone who would listen.
So many of the subtle elements in Videoball are a product of thorough analysis and a fricative coherence both strategically and aesthetically.
I actually enjoyed my time more at PAX this year than last year. So much more, that I felt a little sad at having to say good-bye to Tim, Videoball, and Midnight City on Sunday afternoon.
The power of games lies in the interaction of experience. How a person views a game in a particular time has a lot to do with what they are feeling at that time vs. what the game will give them, it’s a two-way street.
I’m not sure what holes in my mind both Videoball and Midnight City filled for me. Maybe they managed to stave off the increasing cynicism I have about modern games i.e. the sheer lack of design and thought in games today.
I came to PAX 2014 expecting nothing. I came out of it with a desire to do so much more for games.
I came out of it with hope and a desire to do something great for games, for a medium that has so much potential.
Actionbutton and Videoball are a raw expression of that potential and Midnight City, the facilitators.
Frank Lloyd Wright was convinced that excellent architectural design could solve a majority of societies problems.
I would say that good game design can solve a lot of problems that don’t need to exist in interactive entertainment, Videoball is the best proof of this…and the loudest shot against an industry that has become bloated, dumb, and self-referential to the point of total inanity.