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Discovery: The best indie games from Train Jam 2019

Discovery is our new, semi-regular segment on left-field and indie games you might not have heard of. This week, it’s Train Jam: It’s a game jam, on a train. The clue’s in the name.

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Discovery is our new, semi-regular segment on left-field and indie games you might not have heard of. This week, it’s Train Jam: It’s a game jam, on a train. The clue’s in the name.

For the past few years, as developers have been flocking to GDC in San Francisco, most have been flying into the city. But not all of them. Some have been taking a decidedly more leisurely route, and definitely more scenic, though they haven’t been relaxing.

Train jam is the brainchild of indie developer and advocate, Adriel Wallick. A fan of long, slow journeys, Adriel attended Unity’s Unite 2013 conference in Vancouver by train. From Boston, Massachusetts. Via Seattle. No really, we’re not kidding. East coast to west, and over the border to another country, on an Amtrak Empire Builder train. With no WiFi.

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Sounds like it could be difficult, but – in addition to the breathtaking views inaccessible to most other forms of transport – Adriel was also very productive. But a bit lonely.

“I loved it, it was great – but by the end of it, I was definitely lonely. I wanted to do that train ride again – but this time I wanted company. I wanted to get a ton of people together, put them on this train, and head out west. I figured out how this could work logistically, and with the encouragement of those around me, realized that this actually could be a fun idea. Thus, Train Jam was born.”

Six years on, and Train Jam has turned into a regular indie jamboree. Tickets to Train Jam sell out incredibly early and, even though this year’s ran well behind schedule – trains are often delayed, aren’t they? – it was another massive success.

Confession time: I’m often jealous of the Train Jam crew. Like Stugan in the Swedish wilderness, it’s an opportunity to devote some time to creative endeavours surrounded by like-minded, encouraging and enthusiastic creators. It’s also worth pointing out that if I were in that confined a space with so many people for the best part of a week I would probably do a lot of murders, but I still like the idea.

The output from a game jam like Train Jam is, unsurprisingly, lots of games. Here are a few of our favourites from Train Jam 2019.

Freshly Frosted

Often game jam games turn out… less than polished, would be the polite way to put it. The combination of a short timescale and limited resources means things are often cobbled together. It’s even a deliberate aesthetic. That could not be further from the truth for Freshly Frosted. This is probably the most polished game jam game we’ve ever seen. Or should that be glazed?

freshly frosted train jam

A combination of Opus Magnum’s machine-building puzzle mechanics and Donut County’s saccharine-sweet aesthetic, Freshly Frosted is a wonderful slice of gentle puzzling. You’re tasked with arranging conveyors to get doughnuts through the factory (yes, doughnuts; we’re a British English site, and if it’s not a proper noun, like Donut County, we’re spelling it the British way, thanks) and out the door for sale.

The production line gets more complicated as you move up through the levels, serving as both a tutorial and an increased challenge, and before long you’re up to some complex constructions including multiple toppings and different doughnut requirements.

Ally Overton, Ty Taylor, Amanda End, and Elie Abraham could sell Freshly Frosted right now, and it would be a hit. I’m going to address them directly for a moment: Seriously, you’re giving it away for free on Itch, but you should be charging for it! At the very least, give people a pay-what-you-like option, because they very well should be.

We expect Freshly Frosted to pop up as a premium game on mobile app stores in the future, and if it doesn’t? Give us a call. We’ve always wanted to get into publishing.

Mr Mayor tells your fortune recounts a story and offers you snacks

Mr Mayor – as we will hereafter be referring to it, because its title is very long – is something of an all-star game, as game jam games go. The joy of putting people together in this way is you form some great teams that otherwise might never have worked together.

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In this instance, Mr Mayor was created by Kate Gray (games writer, and now narrative person at Gnog developer Ko_op Mode), Eric Billingsley (indie developer, former lead developer on Cuphead), Josie Brechner (composer and sound designer for Blossom Tales, Meatpunks) and Andrew Shouldice, AKA Dicey (the person behind Tunic, AKA one of the games I’m most looking forward to this year).

mr mayor train jam

If you’ve ever stumbled across one of Gray’s Twitter bots, you’ll be instantly familiar with Mr Mayor’s twee absurdity. The titular, moustachioed Mayor performs a tarot reading of sorts. In classic fortune-felling fashion, you’re given three cards – you don’t pick them, but boy, are the animations for their production a wild ride – before Mr Mayor deciphers your fortune. He’ll then tell you a story and offer you something questionable to eat.

Do not accept anything this man offers you. We’re not even sure he’s a real mayor.

The Long Walk

There’s something really interesting about games with nothing to do. Yes, people get upset about walking simulators first-person snoopers like Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and for people who are used to their games being full of active verbs like shoot, hit, and kill, I can see that the leisurely pace can be unsettling.

There’s one game that came first, though, that really drives this point home: Desert Bus. A legendary unreleased minigame from magicians Penn and Teller, Desert Bus puts you in the driver’s seat of a bus on a perfectly straight road, and you must drive it for hours. Oh, and the bus pulls to one side ever-so-slightly, so you need to keep nudging the wheel.

The Long Walk is a bit like Desert Bus. Your car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, and you must walk for 30 miles, in excruciating real time, to reach the next town and seek rescue. You hold the right arrow to move, and that’s literally all you can do. You can’t even go left if you change your mind.

But the wide-open expanse of The Long Walk is also punctuated by a touching little narrative, told through the wandering thoughts of our character. For a game about holding an arrow key for a long time, it’s surprisingly introspective and thoughtful.

Beautiful Doom

Remember when first-person shooters got too complicated? Cut scenes and cover systems and stealth and having to reload your gun and your gun not being exactly in the centre of the screen and being able to aim up and down; it’s all frankly a bit unnecessary. If you’re of a similar mind, you probably think that it all peaked around 1994 with John Romero’s Doom 2.

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If you like the speed and simplicity of Doom 2, but wish it weren’t quite so… Martian Gothic, then Beautiful Doom might just be the answer. It’s Doom, but fabulous. That’s a three-syllable fabulous, with a finger-snap on each syllable. Fab. U. Lous.

In Beautiful Doom, there is only one level. One endless, unbeatable level. You score by shooting crystal targets, but for every target you hit, more enemies spawn in Beautiful Doom’s vertiginous play space. The more enemies spawn, the more difficult it becomes to traverse the game’s walkways and ramps, and if you get knocked off? You lose a life. Lose all your lives and it’s game over. But in this short little loop there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Did we mention that you play Beautiful Doom with what looks and feels like Doom 2’s plasma rifle, but it fires hot pink M&Ms of death? Fabulous.

Enjoy These Turbines

Most people attend a game jam as an individual, or as part of a pre-determined team. But in such a friendly and collaborative environment, new ideas sprout and new teams are formed. This is particularly true of Train Jam, where you’re couped up in a small space and stretching your legs – and your social circle – is positively encouraged.

It’s no surprise, then, to see creators crop up in the credits of multiple games. One of those individuals is already in our list: Eric Billingsley, who wrote the music for Mr Mayor, is also one of the creators behind Enjoy These Turbines. Along with Maize Wallin and Gwen Guo, providing music and audio for the game, they have produced something quite wonderful.

Again, like The Long Walk, you could easily make the argument that Enjoy These Turbines isn’t quite a game. You don’t really have any input to speak of. But what you get out of Turbines, when you consider the player has to do nothing at all? It almost seems too generous.

enjoy these turbines train jam

The game produces little dioramas, of Windows XP countryside and rolling hills, punctuated by glistening white turbines, wafting gently on the breeze. Occasionally there will be something else, like an electricity pylon. Sometimes there’s extra movement, like birds in the sky. But mostly, you just get to enjoy some turbines as dawn rolls through day to dusk. Then night falls, and when the sun rises again? More turbines.

It’s really beautiful. But then, I think turbines are beautiful. Make of that what you will.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

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