Since the heyday of Game Boy, handheld games have experienced an explosion in popularity far beyond the realm of proprietary handhelds made by big console manufacturers; to the consternation of some and the joy of many more, gaming’s vista has expanded dramatically into the screens of phones and tablets throughout the world. Their lightweight, low-cost nature has also made them fertile ground for independent developers, even solo designers, but the genre still fights for respect and recognition in the wide world of gaming.
Enter PAWS, the Prime Alien Watch Squad, the brainchild of Andreas Katelanos, Christina Antoinette Neofotistou, and Nathan Mitton with its bold combination of cuteness and strategy.
PAWS is a turn-based strategy game set on a hex battlefield that follows the quest of your anthropomorphic team to recover world landmarks stolen by mysterious aliens. Front and centre are your team of four—Spiffy the Tigress, your combat specialist and squad leader; Bobi Sue the Squirrel, a maven of ranged attacks; Dusty the bear, your healer; and Tycho the Tortoise, your tech turtle. In an interview with the Border House Neofotistou, who is the game’s artist and animator, said that it was important to her to have characters who transcended the crude stereotypes that often make their way into even independent and casual games. “there was no way I was going to have one objectified token female character in there as an afterthought,” she said. “I want to see female characters in games, I want games to pass both Bechdel Tests, and I hate the more insidious kinds of sexism like damsel in distress in Mario or Bioshock (why make a super-powered character that is incapable of handling herself?) or the ableism and sexism in Fat Princess.” This is her clear and unambiguous answer to the tired old “make your own game!” charge.
But the team’s goal was also to create a hybrid strategy/casual game that would be the best of both worlds, to create a streamlined strategy system that would be easy to learn and enticingly challenging to master, but also use an aesthetic that is often devalued because of its feminine associations. “We’ve heard a few comments like ‘your graphics are too cute for a strategy game,’ even from a major publisher at GDC,” Neofotistou told us. But, she says, a game’s enjoyability “isn’t and shouldn’t be tied to how much it panders to (currently still very sexist and heteronormative) mainstream art styles and character depictions.”
Neofotistou says she’s trying to create a “Mid-Core” market that will bring the tactical joys of strategy games to the already wide audience for much-ballyhooed casual games and its streamlined system, designed by Katelanos, is designed to open up an interesting new front in the world of handheld strategy gaming.
She describes the tactical system thusly: “In PAWS there’s only one stat: the strength number. Much like chess, each unit can move up to the number of points that their Strength Number dictates. However as in most tactical games, each unit has an attack stat and a hit points stat, which again are the same Strength Number. Spiffy has a strength number of 4. When it’s her turn, she can move up to 4 cells, or she can attack using up all 4 of her strength, or do a combination of both. When she’s attacked, her strength number acts as her hit points as well, so if she’s hit for 1 point, she is left with a strength number of 4-1 = 3. Having sustained an injury of 1, she now can only move, attack and defend with 3. The whole theory of the singular Movement/Attack/Health system came from the desire to create the ideal Mid-Core combat game.”
I would be quite interested to see how it plays, to say the least. This sort of ludological bridge building is what we need to see more, not less of, in the world of game development. The blending of genres and delightful melange of aesthetics displayed here is certainly a happy picture of what this sort of independently-funded game design can produce.
It’s also very much worth adding that this is one of the first indie games from Greece being developed by an LGBT and feminist activist. Ms. Neofotistou herself told us, “I openly identify as a trans woman and a lesbian, and I advocate for trans rights, intersectional feminism and queer theory here in Greece,” and sees her activism as a way of giving back to a supportive community that made her current life possible. She can be added to the bright constellation of trans sisters doing it for themselves in the world of independent game design.
The game’s kickstarter launched this month and though it has only a few days to go, there’s still time to put a little stocking-stuffer in their small but dedicated team’s till to make this game a reality.