I reckon I've spent three entire months of my life wandering the halls of video game conventions, engulfed in the noise of big game marketing. But sometimes, I get to attend events that are less like gaudy commercials, and more like art installations.
Day of the Devs is as simple and sweet as a game convention can be. Held in San Francisco last weekend, it’s a bunch of pods lined up in a warehouse-like space, showing 70-ish independent games. Mostly, the games' creators are in attendance, running demos and getting feedback from players. These are not the paid guides of E3, parroting scripts. They are artists showing off their work.
Day of the Devs is noisy and crowded, for sure. But there's enough space to get around in a couple of hours, and play or see most of the games.
I went on Saturday and came away fortified by the charm, skill and originality of so many of the games on show. Organized by Double Fine and iam8bit — both of which are known for embracing artful and personal work — it was a moment in time to celebrate gaming's ability to surprise and delight.
In the way of a reporter attending such an event, I went in search of a unifying theme. I'd say that every game I saw offered one or more of the following qualities, which I believe signify all that's best about games being made by solo artists or by very small teams.
These games offer a coherent beauty, a sense of visual style, and feel personally crafted. They are often reverent about games and ideas that have come before, while at the same time offering twists on the canon, dabs of originality that sublimate classic gameplay techniques. And finally, they are apt toward a quirky sense of humor or mischief. They are, distinctively, works of human observation and perspective.
Here's a selection of games that were on show at the weekend, and how they're leaning into those qualities of excellence.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, I investigated an abandoned ship, seeking clues about the fate of its disappeared or dead crew. It's a mystery game, but crafted in a stylish monochrome that draws comparisons to classic Macintosh games. Return of the Obra Dinn is by Lucas Pope, best known for Papers, Please.
The Gardens Between takes place on a series of beautiful little islands, each with their own secrets and oddities. Its juxtaposition of giant artifacts offers an element of surrealism, which is exploited further through a backward and forward time-based puzzle mechanic that reflects a story about friendship.
We've been intrigued and charmed by Gorogoa for a really long time. Developed and hand drawn by Jason Roberts, it's a lovely point-and-click adventure that makes merry with shapes, colors, perspectives and physics in order to tell a story about belief and magic.
I had a ton of fun playing Ape Out by Gabe Cuzzillo. It's a top-down combat game in which a gorilla thumps and sneaks its way through enemy-infested mazes. Its distinctively brash art style merges with an inventive score to create a mad world of stylized blood and gore.
Dead Static Drive is a fine-looking road-trip role-playing game, in which the player is invited to explore, undertake strange side-quests and fight weird monsters. Developer Mike Blackney describes it as a "Grand Theft Cthulhu."
A lot of games that were at Day of the Devs are loving tributes to classics of yore. But rather than simple mimicry, they offer sometimes astounding twists on established gameplay mores.
Way of the Passive Fist looks like love letter to early-’90s brawlers. But there's a major departure point. Players do not have offensive moves, only defensive, parries and counters. According to developer Jason Canam, players will need to really learn how their opponents fight, and will be punished for button mashing.
Minit, a Zelda-like exploration game, is rightly gaining a lot of attention. The neat trick in this top-down RPG is that each life lasts only one minute. Players must use what they learn in those 60 seconds to progress, eventually building up a sense of an expanding and sparsely illustrated world.
In similar vein, but artistically a million miles away, is The Swords of Ditto. It's a cartoon RPG in which each life is an individual hero who dies and leaves their items for the next hero. Their adventures also shape the emerging world.
I spent a good chunk of time with Rhythm Doctor, a music game that starts off demanding that I hit the button on every seventh beat. This is ludicrously simple, until some in-game story hitches make it more difficult. It takes a lot for me to get into music games, but I found it hard to drag myself away from this little gem.
I'm looking forward to Ooblets, a life simulation game that mashes up Pokémon elements along with Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. The world is inhabited by human characters and cute creatures. Created by Rebecca Cordingley, it's coming out on Windows PC and Xbox One next year.
Comedy is just about the toughest genre for game-makers. But there were a bunch of indie games at Day of the Devs making an attempt at that summit.
Chuchel is from Czech outfit Amanita Design, best known for luscious point-and-click adventures like Machinarium and Botanicula. It's the cartoon-like story of a blob that falls in love with a cherry that's been swiped by a monster. Packed with puzzles and japes, it's out early next year on Android, iOS and Windows PC.
Flipping Death has a Tim Burton vibe, offering up dark humor and provocative characters. It's a platform-puzzle mix in which a dead person inhabits the living, switching between the real world and the afterlife to solve puzzles. It makes innovative use of objects, from a Grim Reaper scythe to an ice cream cone.
Everything is Going to be Okay by artist Nathalie Lawhead is part game, part personal horror story, part satire. It takes a darkly humorous look at our messed up world, our weird fixation on hurting others, and the power of simply surviving. It's an intensely personal, provocative and original piece that's widely relevant. It's out now.
Harold Halibut is a handmade, stop-motion adventure, starring a janitor on a spaceship that's landed on a nautical world. Everything in the world is made by hand, right down to the tiniest detail, and then scanned into the game's engine. It's a puzzle-adventure with a ton of weird humor.
If whimsy is more to your taste, you might enjoy Mineko's Night Market. It's a heart-warming resource-gathering, exploration and crafting game set in a world full of charming cats. Kittenish exploits include trading, minigames and even growing your own feline friends. If you can't smile at cats, what can you smile at?
Like so many games on display at Day of the Devs, Mineko's Night Market looks like a world where I'd like to spend some time. These games are personal fantasy worlds uncompromised by marketing concerns or loot crates.
Like all games, they promise an escape from reality, but they are also an escape from the status quo of gaming, a place where we can go and be entertained by people who've put so much of themselves into these unique works of art. Thank goodness for independent game development.