I’m Dexter Woltman, a Game Writer / Designer here at Brunette Games. On the weekend of September 13th and 14th, I had the pleasure of representing our narrative design company at PixelPop Festival. For those who aren’t familiar, here’s an official description of the event:
PixelPop Festival is a game conference and expo in St. Louis, Missouri, that celebrates unique games and the many people who make them possible.
PixelPop Festival features independent tabletop, digital, and experimental games produced by local and national game creators. Two full days of diverse conference sessions from industry professionals are curated to equip you with creative tools and resources to make remarkable work that makes a difference.
There are two main components to PixelPop. The first is the expo hall, where dozens of designers show off their creative visions in gaming, whether that be video gaming or tabletop gaming. The second is a series of talks coming from industry veterans that cover a wide range of game design topics.
This was my first time attending PixelPop. Aside from stories of past years, I didn’t know what to expect. I put on my Brunette Games shirt, filled a pack with notebooks, and went in with an open mind. The first thing I saw when I entered the expo hall was an overarching sense of community. Not only were there dozens of faces I recognized from classes and industry appearances, but everyone was actively engaged with one another. They were talking, laughing, and, most importantly, playing games together.
The community of PixelPop was filled with visitors from various cities across the country, like Chicago. Many local St. Louis developers also attended. As for the presenters themselves, some were part of companies with personal IPs to showcase, and others were independent developers demonstrating their design skills. Everyone was there to be part of something and engage in a supportive atmosphere.
As for the expo hall itself, it was a large room to accompany the dozens of stations and tables inside. Oddly enough, I noticed a strange lack of prominent lighting in certain areas. As the day went on, I realized this dim lighting lead to an explorative atmosphere where the games shined.
In the hall, imagination flourished in small-scale indies. While some presenters told a story with their games, others displayed gimmicks. Both concepts were equally as entertaining. I went from playing a game where you slap a fish controller in a dual fighting game to a narrative tale focused on the discovery of Earth’s roundness.
Coming from a narrative design company myself, I couldn’t help but wonder about the story behind each game I played. I asked the developers what their inspiration was for their games, as well as the messages they’re trying to convey. One particularly adorable dog shelter management game, To the Rescue, had a darker, more hidden message. It called attention to the ongoing issue of kennel euthanizations, something players in the management game could do when their kennels got overfilled. Of course, this mechanic was optional, especially for younger audiences.
Beyond that were a plethora of narrative-based games. I spent over an hour playing a fun tabletop roleplaying game called Thalassophobia. The game was described by its creators as Dungeons and Dragons meets The Thing. My friends and I were each given occupations and were tasked with investigating reports of missing patients at a nearby hospital. I received the role of doctor. Coming from a narrative background, I constantly strived to push motivation onto my character. The end result was an obnoxious doctor who heals critical injuries with band-aids and who probably but definitely doesn’t have a real doctor’s license.
I also can’t forget to mention the roleplaying game, Starry Messengers, where I could only communicate with other players through handwritten letters. The setting may have placed me centuries ago, but I still found ways to put modern-day memes in all my letters. There was also the occult choice game, Hills & Hollows, that features tarot cards as a decision device. I’m proud to say I’m one of the lucky few who discovered a hidden ending and somehow summoned the Devil. Last but not least, I found a texting game called We should talk, where I texted my in-game girlfriend from a bar. Again, I discovered a rare ending that definitely got me broken up with.
Throughout these many narrative-focused games, others also relied on the amusement of gimmicks. I probably spent too much time at Hellcouch, a game where an actual couch is a controller. A previous professor of mine and an active member of the St. Louis Game Developer Co-Op, Rob Santos, also presented two incredibly fun games. One featured an Infinity Gauntlet as a controller and put players in the shoes of Thanos. The game was a parody of the recent blockbuster hit, Avengers: Endgame. An endless runner, players used Infinity Stones to avoid being caught by Ant-Man before the superhero flies up Thanos’ personal “endgame.” Santos also showed a mouse cursor battle royal. There were computer mice scattered around the table, and players scrambled to find an active cursor to move around and shoot others with.
Beyond the expo hall and games was an impressive line-up of industry talks. While I didn’t attend every talk of the festival, I did pay special attention to the ones with a narrative focus. The first I attended was a talk about visual novels. They spoke of the various ways to go about writing a visual novel and how to deal with branching choices. As someone who recently worked on an interactive novel with many, many choices, I was particularly interested in their organizational methods.
There was also a talk on depicting mental health in games. This can be a sensitive topic, and I admit struggling with it in my own game writing. The talk focused on ways to approach mental health respectfully and realistically. The largest takeaway for me was that writers must consider mental health as part of the character, rather than merely a status ailment.
Lastly, I attended a talk on procedurally generated storytelling in the real world. It was all about how designers can use sounds and images in the real world to influence the story of a game. Not only was this a very intriguing subject, but it opened my eyes to various ways in-game environments can convey stories beyond just typical dialogue and cutscenes.
Oh, also there was a mini talk about Bad Tetris. Someone intentionally made an aggravating version of Tetris that moves a character around based on regular Tetris block movements. The comments the developer received for sharing the game online were just as funny as the game’s actual existence.
Throughout all these games and talks, PixelPop taught me that no one has to forge the gaming industry alone. This festival builds a community. It’s about finding reliance and mutual interest in ideas and mechanics. It’s for people trying to bring awareness to their creativity. It was an honor to be part of the festival, and I hope Brunette Games is even more involved next year.