Above: 'Old Man's Journey' screenshot courtesy of Broken Rules
The bigger game expos—like Gamescom and E3—can be overwhelming. The noise. The crowds. The colors. The sheer amount of impending releases you're supposed to peek at in order to form an early but ultimately editorial-influencing opinion. Case in point: If I'd based my thoughts on Dishonored 2 solely on the context-redundant slice of it I saw at E3 this summer, I'd not be playing it whenever a free hour opens up right now.
IndieCade Europe, in Paris for its first year, is so different—for better, and ever so slightly for worse. There's but a handful of games to play in comparison to its more cacophonous peers, held in venues more cavernous than the Musée des Arts et Métiers.
Its objective, its MO, is one of celebration, not commercialization: The emphasis is on innovation and individuality within the independent sphere, with games on show plucked from both well-studied and radar-avoiding strands of development, strange student projects rubbing shoulders with releases that have already racked up reviews aplenty.
So here's the precision one-on-one fighter Furi from domestic outfit The Game Bakers, a game that landed on PlayStation Plus earlier in 2016, and Dutch studio Digital Dreams' uniquely perplexing platformer Metrico+, sharing a small, just-walk-up-and-play floor with games that are completely new to me.
My eye is immediately caught by Winter, by Belgian studio Happy Volcano. Its isometric perspective and instantly appealing palette are evocative of Monument Valley, but this isn't a relaxing puzzler. Rather, it's an exploration of loss, and what it means to be alive, its events unfolding in the immediate second before the protagonist dies—or, depending on decisions made, doesn't. It looks beautiful and comes out in early 2017.
Winter shares its Salle des Textiles spot for the festival—IndieCade Europe's biggest space—with another incredible-looking title, which ultimately won the Developers Choice award at an event-closing ceremony. Shrug Island, or more specifically Shrug Island 1—The Meeting, is a hand-animated graphic adventure from a two-person Danish studio, Tiny Red Camel.
The pair's intention is to make "whimsical, artistic and musical experiences", an ethos that feels perfectly at home at this event, content to stay far away from the usual choices of AAA development. Shrug Island, coming soon to Steam, is slow and meditative, open to interpretation as its characters— the shape-shifting humanoid "shrugs"—change the landscape around them.
Another game that's in no hurry to get from point to point is Old Man's Journey, from Austrian team Broken Rules. Using a touch screen device—though art lead on the project, Clemens Scott, tells me it works just as well using a mouse—you manipulate the world around the titular elderly gent to allow him to move from the beginning to the end of each short stage.
The artwork is sumptuous, everything set on a layered 2D plane, enabling the old man and moveable objects alike to switch between foreground and background and every step in-between. "It's not meant to be hard," Clemens tells me, explaining that it's as much an interactive picture book as a puzzle game; and as I try one of its not-so-tough later stages, it's clear that the point is to reach the end, to feel what the character has been experiencing. To look back on their life and reflect a little on what your own history might be. The work of a team of six, with music by Oxenfree and Galak-Z composer SCNTFC, Old Man's Journey is out in 2017.
One of the (few) problems with this IndieCade Europe debut is its layout. When you can find a room full of games, it's easy to lose a couple of hours trying everything you can, discussing the backgrounds to each title with on-hand developers.
But they're so spread out across the Musée des Arts et Métiers, and not-so-brilliantly signposted, that there's no easy route for exploring what's on offer. No doubt changes will be made for 2017, but the haphazard placement of stalls means that the few VR games on show barely attract a crowd, hidden away up two flights of stairs in a building a couple of courtyards away from the other attractions.
Positioned right beside the entrance point of the Salle Blanche is AER: Memories of Old, from Sweden's Forgotten Key. It's being made for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but has some definite Wind Waker vibes about it. Designer Robin Hjelte tells me he's a massive Zelda fan, and the game certainly takes aesthetic cues from the GameCube title. He's been talking to Nintendo about bringing the combat-free game—which features a woman protagonist, Auk, flying between floating islands, solving puzzles and uncovering clues as to this fantastical place's fate—to the Switch. It looks and feels Nintendo-ready, in that indescribable way that the best Nintendo games just do, so that's something I'd love to see happen.
Not everything I see, and enjoy, is permanently set up for the full two days. Strolling through the Salle des Textiles, a young man attracts my attention and pulls a laptop from his rucksack, as well as a fight stick and some headphones. But what comes on screen is no brawler—it's Double Kick Heroes, a rhythm-action shooter in which you hit buttons to beat bass drums in time with rollicking hard-rock instrumentals, to keep hordes of beastly creatures from the back of a careening classic convertible.
It's a little like Pop Sandbox's LOUD on Planet X, albeit with greater movement and minus a licensed soundtrack. The chap who politely invites me to play it (and really, really like it, as it happens) is one of four people at France's Headbang Club, who are working on a way for players to play in time with their own favorite metal tracks. Do I like the ides of blasting zombies to the strains of System of a Down's "Chop Suey"? You might as well be asking: do I like pizza?
Lichtspeer offers a different approach to monster slaying en masse, out now on Steam and PlayStation 4. From Poland's Lichthund, it's a simple-to-explain, tough-to-master crowd-control affair in which the hero character, a "Germonaut", must clear waves of inventive enemies using a javelin of pure, deadly light. The 8-bit-style music bores its way into your head, and hitting level-preceding targets—achieve so many headshots, avoid being speared by a mutant penguin, the usual—becomes an obsession. I'm itching to play it at home, when the opportunity arises.
Co-operative games are abundant at IndieCade, too. My personal standouts include German studio Firepunchd's Chicken Jump, in which up to four players must physically leap over oncoming traffic on-screen, using DIY Wii Fit balance boards. (This video might help with your mental image.) It's perfect for gaming parties with plenty of space, (and places where sweat isn't an issue).
Also a lot of fun is Clapper, by Bridgeside Interactive of Sweden. Two players must clap hands, pat-a-cake-style, over an iPad in time with the music, with palm-to-palm contact registered by the device's camera. Again, it's incredibly easy to understand, and just have fun with. Which is really what we all need sometimes: turn on, get some, smile a lot.
I take a fairly pitiful stab at My Mom Is a Witch, a fantasy roguelike from Serbian husband-and-wife team Bigosaur, which supports up to four players and "might be ready in the middle of 2017", and have a laugh with the color-switching runner Chameleon Run, from Czech studio Hyperbolic Magnetism. The latter sports a pretty basic premise—ensure your avatar's the same color as the platform they're on, while dashing through obstacle courses of increasing challenge—but soon proves enticingly punishing in practice. It's out now for mobile devices.
Between them, I sit down with a graduate from CNAM-Enjmin, a school in the west of France dedicated to the interactive arts, to play the ten-minute curio Commedia dell'Arte, which casts you as a performer in a masked improvised play (hence the title). The aim: keep your audience amused, often by booting your co-star in his behind. I manage to keep the punters laughing, and am rewarded with a shower of flowers and, more importantly, food. The graduate in question, a young man by the name of Bastien, is looking for design work in the industry. He's in the right place.
Elsewhere, in one of the venue's lecture theatre-like spaces, I participate in a crowd-enlivened read/playthrough of Veve Jaffa's Twine game Which Passover Plague Are You. Despite a slow start, it turns into a riotous highlight of the event, attendees taking turns to stand beside the (fake-beard-wearing, God role-playing) game's maker and read out each screen's options for progress.
By the time we're deciding on a soundtrack for the potential end of the world, complete strangers are laughing with each other, amusingly arguing over the merits of Nicki Minaj's verse in "Monster". It's a wonderful example of how even the least likely video games can become wonderful shared experiences.
In the same room, later that first day, Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail delivers a keynote. His final slide reaffirms how vital it is that games makers and players alike step outside of comfort zones, and that we all try experiences that we've not before.
"Search for games from other places," he stresses. Western events like this one, and many more beside, offer a window onto some of these other places. But it's arguably only a surface-layer scratching of what's out there, being made in territories we never think about, sold to players who we'll never connect with.
There's nothing I play at IndieCade, over a day and a half, which is completely without precedent. But that can't be said for one game that Rami chooses to highlight, Farsh, an Iranian puzzler using a unique carpet-rolling mechanic that I'd never seen before. Which is a little embarrassing for me, since it came out in 2013. But that prior ignorance illustrates just how unusual it is for a game from a country that doesn't work in English primarily, to reach a truly international audience. (Check it out here, if you, too, haven't before.)
Everyone at IndieCade is hungry to make something compelling: be that a game for solo play, or something that brings people together, to share in person or online. They're all attempting, at least, to produce something significantly standalone in a sea of familiar options.
I leave Paris wondering if the drop-off in sales for series like Watch Dogs, Dishonored and Call of Duty has anything to do with how those games are, whatever the strong singular qualities of their latest iterations, ultimately performing tried-and-tested tricks with brighter, more bamboozling packaging.
Somewhere, probably amid an event like this, but perhaps one held far further afield, that next great something in gaming is waiting. It's up to us all, those of us who love this medium and want to see it continue to grow, to seek it out, however we can.
Disclaimer: accommodation and transport for IndieCade Europe was provided by the event's UK-based PR company, ICO Partners. This is because the author was invited to participate, alongside three other British games journalists, in a workshop advising independent developers on how to best their projects noticed by the press. But it would have been a shame to not play some games too, wouldn't it?