WayDown

"WayDown" is an indie game created by a developer in Bethel. 

Alaskan-developed video games are rare. This is largely due to the rural nature of most of the state and the scarcity of computer science education here relative to game development hotspots like Silicon Valley or Massachusetts.

“Lifeless Planet” and “Kisima Ingitchuna” are likely the most noteworthy games to be developed in Alaska, and both of those were made within the span of the last decade. Video game development is at best an independent affair in Alaska, and no one exemplifies this scrappy spirit quite as well as CakeNeq Games in Bethel.

“WayDown,” the first CakeNeq title I played all the way through, is rough around the edges, often extremely so. The visuals are generic and unstylized. There are non-player characters and dialogue options that crash the game. Enemies repeat the same voice lines a miffing number of times. Later levels cause screen-tearing in a 2D GameMaker game. I once accidentally pressed the wrong combination of keys and got stuck in a debug menu that let me spawn infinite NPCs and items. A lot of the gameplay even eerily resembles “Enter the Gungeon.”

By conventional standards, even those applied to indies, “WayDown” is frankly kind of bad. But does it really matter?

The game industry has been shown time and time again to be extremely unforgiving. The technical standard for video games has gradually risen to absurd heights, requiring dozens of people with years of training to make something that just meets the consumer standard. Independent game developers in the ‘90s and ‘00s served as a sort of “punk movement” relative to this — their games tended to be a lot less polished and show much more creative freedom and honesty. Though bizarre concepts still saw the occasional AAA release, games like “Bad Milk” or “Gish” were considered breaks with form.

Smash cut to today, and that freedom to innovate and express isn’t the status quo anymore. The emergence of Kickstarter campaigns and many extremely refined labors of love (“Shovel Knight,” “Owlboy,” “Furi,” “Hollow Knight,” “Celeste,” “Ori and the Blind Forest,” etc.) has led to the indie standard undergoing the same progression as the AAA standard — a drift toward worrisome perfectionism and away from creative honesty.

This is where studios like CakeNeq step in. CakeNeq’s games, while far from entirely perfect or unique in concept, are undeniably “CakeNeq” in execution

In particular, the recently-launched “BISC” and CakeNeq’s earlier “ThreeStep” are immediately vocally local in aesthetic and design. “ThreeStep” comments on loss and the impact of addiction on small communities, while “BISC” is a distinctly Alaska-arcade experience. “SiC,” “WayDown” and “TeleDodge” show their designer’s predilections and attitude beyond a choice of model, something a staggering number of indie games fail to do.

None of CakeNeq’s games are exceptionally fun or solid, but they’re steadily ramping up in competence, novelty and earnestness over time, showing a creative drive that ought to be properly fostered in Alaska. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the developer’s day job — he’s been developing games as a hobbyist since 2012 and has recounted the difficulty of juggling a job in IT with consistent game development in many an offhand blog post — so the “myth of the indie” applies to him far better than to most.

The vast majority of CakeNeq games are available on PC via Steam and itch.io, and won’t run you more than a few dollars. “BISC,” the most recent CakeNeq release, is available on Android via Google Play for free.

All this is to say you should give local games a try — you just might find something special.

Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools and has developed a number of free games. He is a neutral game reviewer.