Good Vibes, Weird Hardware at the Game Devs of Color Expo

In the few short years it has been around, the Game Devs of Color Expo has already cemented itself as one of my favorite video game events to go to. And not just because it’s conveniently located in Harlem. GDoC gathers game developers who, shocker, aren’t white and has them show off their work to an appreciating public. Along with game demos there’s a whole day’s worth of panels full of smart speakers discussing what it’s like to be a person of color in this industry. Rewatch the panel I hosted last year!

To me this year’s GDoC, the biggest one yet, was more like an old friend than a radical new experience, but that’s just because I’ve gone so many times now. A rhythm game by Geneva Heyward about dating roller derby girls called Skate & Date? Sure! How about SweetXheart by Catt Small, a day in the life of an anxious Black woman? Sign me up! This show even saw Humble (owned by parents Ziff Davis) offering a publishing grant to developer Ethan Redd for his upcoming sci-fi game Blazing Legion.

What did stick out to me this year though was the cool amount of weird hardware on display. One of the best things about a video game expo is seeing demos and prototypes of bizarre devices that aren’t at all concerned about mass production and distribution. You get some of this with homebrew tabletop games, but with video games people can tinker on a really strange machine if they only need to make one of them. And knowing that you can only play them at shows like this adds to their alluring, bespoke, mysterious, live concert quality.

Sashimi Slammers by Furious Fish Friends is a fighting game where two players control flopping fish trying to push the other into boiling oil. Like Divekick, there are only two buttons. One button moves you forward while another button attacks. But attacking also pushes you back toward your own oil, which is where all the risky positioning strategy comes from. And on top of all this, the buttons are embedded in a floppy physical fish toy you furiously slap the whole time.

Robot Slow Dance by Dietrich Squinkifer is an “animatronic diorama game” where two players control two Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em style robots with a joystick. Instead of fighting though, players try to sync up their movements to the music, emulating an awkward couples slow dance. The robot dialogue even changes based on your performance in this exploration of queer relationships.

HyperDot by Tribe Game is more of a traditional video game. Players control dots trying to dodge waves of debris in short frantic multiplayer rounds that feel like contained shoot ‘em ups without the shooting. But the plethora of control options from normal controllers to eye tracking to the Xbox Adaptive Controller proves that you don’t need rigid requirements for a fun challenge.

And even some of the bigger names at the show continued this weird hardware trend. Nintendo showed up, presumably in honor of famous Black former president Reggie Fils-Aime, to demonstrate the creative fun and game dev potential of Nintendo Labo to the kids.

Meanwhile, I got to go hands-on with Playdate, the indie handheld with a physical crank along with buttons and a d-pad. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it well enough to get to my robot date, but spinning the crank to move freely through time in Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure is the sort of bonkers gimmicky fun games don’t do enough of these days.

So as always, the Game Devs of Color Expo proves that when you celebrate cool and different kinds of people you get cool and different kinds of video games. Who would’ve guessed?

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