Three Demos from NextFest 02/2024

After a bit of a demoless dark age, game demos are back, baby! Well, in the indie space anyway; I don't think it's likely we'll get a free, curated, self-contained sample of the next Assassin's Creed anytime soon. But I'm increasingly convinced that indie games are where are the interesting stuff is happening, and when a AAA game does something novel it's a weird accident.

Either as a cause or effect of the Indie Demoissance, Steam Next Fest is now a semi-regular thing! I played a lot of demos, picked using the highly scientific method of clicking on interesting thumbnails, and have returned to recommend three of them --- Synergy, Balatro, and News Tower.

Note: this post will cover the content of the demos exclusively. The full version of Balatro is now available at time of writing, and News Tower is available in early access. I've purchased both (and recommend you do the same if either seems up your alley), but I won't go into anything not in their demos.

1. Synergy

Synergy is a post-post-apocalyptic city builder. Please allow me a brief diversion to explain what I mean by that, and to sneakily make this a post about my favorite game.

In the post-apocalyptic genre, the focus is primarily on what was lost to the Bad Thing and/or the possibility of returning to the world as it existed before. In the post-post-apocalyptic genre, the effects of the Bad Thing are a prologue and foundation for something new. The focus is on the future rather than the past.

I think one good example of the contrast between post-post-apocalyptic settings and the "merely" post-apocalyptic is the Interplay/Obsidian Fallout games and the Bethesda-produced ones. Both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas center on the macguffin of clean water, but in FO3 it's pursued for distinctly reactionary reasons: purify the water, restore the wasteland, go back to Before The Bombs. FNV has its axis of conflict centered on Hoover Dam and its functionally boundless supply of clean water, but it's not really about water in the same way FO3 is; Hoover Dam is mostly an excuse for the various factions and personalities to come into contact, and its in that kaleidoscope of conflicting perspectives that you'll find the defining question of the post-post-apocalyptic: Now what? How do we move on from here?

Anyway, back to Synergy: it's about post-apocalyptic subsistence in the same way FNV is about clean water. That's the object-level goal, and most of your gameplay decisions are tied in some way toward eking resources from a sparse landscape, but the implicit goal here is to not just survive, but thrive by negotiating a whole new kind of co-existence with that landscape.

If most city management games implicitly cast you as Robert Moses, this may as closest thing to a Jane Jacobs simulator that's possible while keeping the core mechanics of the genre recognizable. I got the feeling that the Optimal City in Synergy on a pure gameplay level --- the layout that maxes the good meters and minimizes the bad meters --- would actually be a pretty great place to live, for the post-apocalypse anyway. The solarpunk movement is a clear influence, both for the approach to city building as a sustainable, conscious action and on incentives for designing the physical city itself. Public squares are essential infrastructure, and each building's stats are influenced by the proximity and type of the nearest community spaces. Stripping the land of vegetation gives a quick infusion of resources while screwing over your future self; the long-term optimal strategy is to cultivate and harvest from sustainable green spaces. And when all that is rendered in the games's limited palette of pastels, you get a pretty dang beautiful wasteland!

The English version has some typos and localization glitches (the developers are French) but nothing that poses an obstacle to understanding. In fact I found the awkward turns of phrase pretty charming when combined with the obvious care put into refining the art and gameplay.

2. News Tower

You know that stock media trope where the intrepid reporter, inches away from exposing a city-wide conspiracy, gets called into the publisher's office at the top of the third act and told they're off the story? And it's implied, or possibly stated outright, that Important People have put pressure on the paper to silence the truth? In News Tower you play as the publisher in that scene. It's fantastic.

The setup: It's New York in the late 1920s, and you've just inherited the newspaper founded by your father and uncle (you can choose the paper's name, and since I am emotionally seven years old, I of course chose to helm the Penis Times). The nearest comparison I can think of for News Tower's mechanical foundation is Game Dev Tycoon or the like, where you assign tasks to your workers (reporters|programmers) but have little direct control over how they carry them out; mostly you're managing the efficiency of the overall logistics pipeline by modifying the environment. Put the typesetting and assembly departments next to each other to minimize travel time between them, don't make reporters write articles in the noisy and stuffy printer room, that sort of thing. The more interesting bit, though, is the interplay of gameplay incentives that led to my turning the once-venerable Penis Times into a tabloid rag in the pocket of orginized crime.

Not consciously, of course --- it's not like there was a pop-up dialog or something to confirm that I wanted to sink into corruption. But running a paper costs money, you know? All that talk of the Third Estate and Democracy Dying in Darkness is worthless if you can't afford newsprint. The mob representative is offering a lot of dough... maybe just this once you can stop worrying about journalistic integrity so much. Actually, more often than not it's not even explicit bribery that tempts you. Accusations against that beloved public figure, even if they're well substantiated, might bring protests --- can you handle the flak and still make the interest payments for your loans? Sure that's some nice reporting on the new tax bill, but will it play in Peoria Flatbush? Circulation is already down in that market, maybe run a puff piece on the Mets instead. Truly, evil prevails when good men rationally follow their incentives1.

News Tower is very much in the pre-release stage and it shows: there's some janky animations and quite a few typos, and the employee comfort system is either bugged or just poorly explained. Still, it's a great example of the unique ability of games to explore systems through simulation, and I'm excited to see how that plays out in the full game.

3. Balatro

"Roguelite Deckbuilder", as a genre, really only has two core requirements:

  1. Gameplay is chunked into "runs" with randomized challenges. Failing in a run causes you to restart from the beginning.
  2. Over the course of a run, your strategic choices revolve around adding, removing and upgrading "cards" in your "deck" (really just stand-in tokens for whatever the theme dictates)

That's quite broad, but for the most part the genre has settled on the template set by Slay the Spire. Sometimes there's a neat spin on the concept (1 2 3) but the core elements --- especially the combat metaphor --- remain pretty constant. I love StS as much as the next guy, but it's a game that already exists!

I like to imagine the design process for Balatro began with the developer2 hearing that there's a genre called "roguelite deckbuilder" and deciding to make one of those with zero further research. The result is something fascinating, unique, and very fun to play.

On each turn, you draw cards from your deck to create poker hands --- two pair, flush, straight, those kinds of hands --- which are then scored by the hand's rank plus any modifier effects you might have. If you fail to meet the minimum score for the combat encounter (or "blind") within its turn limit, you lose, and get booted back to the start. It's a simple concept, but Balatro uses that core in the same way StS and its progeny use the basic "strike for damage/block for defense" starting setup. It's the plain tortilla upon which you can construct your own huevos rancheros of balance-defying combos and synergies, and man oh man can you pull some broken stunts in this game.

Your starting deck is 52 regular playing cards, but since this is a deck builder you can of course modify it in the shop between rounds in ways that would make Hoyle have a coronary. Cards can have bonuses and modifiers attached (foil three of spades? Why not?). Tarot cards work like powerups for a unique one-time bonus. You can "level up" the score received for certain hands and make a build focused on chasing flushes or full houses. Jokers provide passive bonuses like StS relics, but you only have space for a handful at once, leading to some interesting tactical decisions on what to bring with you.

There's no combat metaphor, or any story to speak of; it's purely abstract and vibes-based. The vaporwave inspired soundtrack and visuals combine with delicious dings and flashes as your score is tallied to form an experience that's satisfying on a deep lizard-brain level. This is the only demo I played that I chose to keep replaying after the first time, partly to try out new decks and tactics, but also partly in the same way you might enjoy a glass of wine after a long workday without caring that you've already had that particular vintage before. It's just nice, and it puts your brain into a pleasant space to unwind.


I didn't come up with that line, it's stolen from a post or tweet I saw once but am now unable to find again.


And yes, it's made by one person! I love indie games.