Last Thursday I had the pleasure of travelling from Cardiff to London’s Tobacco Dock in order to cover W.A.S.D., a new event that offered the opportunity to play a ton of upcoming indie games, chat with developers and attend panels covering all aspects of the industry. Unlike my most recent trip to the bustling capital (which was to attend the Final Fantasy fan event Kupocon) I took the train instead of the coach — perhaps imbued with the confidence of applying for and receiving, my first-ever press pass. I’ve got nothing against National Express but shaving almost three hours off the journey was worth the extra twenty quid, that is, if you can accept supporting the overpriced, privatised British rail system. Also, I wasn’t in a hotel this time, choosing to take the chance to visit some close friends based in Stockwell and make use of their sofa (thanks guys!). It was a clean 35-minute journey from their apartment to the event location, plenty of platform-hopping but minimum fuss in the long run. So, equipped with a sore back, my audio recorder and an incomprehensible set of scribbled notes, I went about experiencing all W.A.S.D. had to offer.
Tobacco Dock is a pleasant, welcoming venue. I had only visited it once before way back in my university days for the J-culture event HYPER JAPAN, but the layout was immediately familiar. There are two tiers to Tobacco Dock, with W.A.S.D. only really covering the ground level (the basement level being reserved for industry meetings and the press lounge). As you entered from the front, most of the established publishers including Team17, Devolver Digital, 2K and Sega had spaces set up over on the right-hand side. Also present in this area were the conference halls and a chill-out space filled with beanbags, the perfect location for attendees to take a break and play some board games. While I didn’t spend a whole lot of here, I did manage to pop along to a couple of interesting conferences; my favourites taking place on Friday and including ‘Trends in game development: Nostalgia panel’ and ‘How to get into games journalism’, both of which took place in the PCGamesN Theatre. The former was fascinating in its exploration of current design trends and the industry’s recent obsession with nostalgia, asking questions about how you balance retro and modern design philosophies in throw-back games. The latter was helpful on a professional level, only marred by the fact that I asked the first question during the Q&A portion of the talk; gracing the audience with a level of nervous and awkward energy akin to Droopy after five shots of espresso.
Games-wise, I had a lot of fun with Massive Monsters’ upcoming Cult of the Lamb (published by Devolver Digital), which is an achingly cute cross between management sim and action rogue-like. The twenty-minute demo I got to play guided me through the opening of the game and set up the story. Our titular hero (the lamb) is about to be sacrificed but is suddenly saved by an ominous individual. This strange, omnipotent figure then asks the lamb to go out and build a loyal following in their name — a cult, in other words. While the gameplay itself is the relatively standard overhead slash, dash and dodge, the entire game is brought to life by a truly charming, expressive aesthetic. Demonic doings truly never looked so adorable. Speaking of demonic, Sluggerfly’s Hell Pie (due to be published by Headup) was another standout, serving up an 18+ slice of gross-out 3D platforming goodness. Think a cross between Hat in Time and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, undoubtedly a match made in heaven (or hell) for some. Finally, I really dug Cardshark, another title set to be published by Devolver Digital created by Nerial. I was immediately hooked by the demo and its unique, immersive art style, as well as the fully realised 18th-century French setting. The demo tasks your mute player character with assisting a rich-looking tavern patron as he cheats his way through a card game. Mechanically, this manifests as a split-screen section in which you must pour wine on the right side of the screen by carefully tilting the thumbstick forward, all while keeping an eye on the left side of the screen and the other player’s cards (as you are peaking over their shoulder). After doing so, the player must then wash the table in a particular motion in order to signify to their accomplice what suite his opponent has most of. This little sequence alone was thrilling, and I loved the fact you had to make sure you poured the wine slowly and deliberately enough to not overfill the glass, while still giving yourself enough time to fully read the player’s hand. From what I saw, there seems to be an awful lot of complex and diverse mechanical sequences as the game progresses, all mixed in with a mature, multiple-choice storyline. Absolutely one to look out for.
While it’s always neat to check out what’s coming next from established publishers, I found that I spent the majority of my time over on the left side of the Tobacco Dock, flitting between the industry lounge and the star of the show — the indies and curios section. I had, in advance of attending, contacted several developers and a few publishers to see if any would be willing to talk to me about their upcoming games. I expected that perhaps two or three would get back to me, understanding how busy it is for devs to attend an event like W.A.S.D. and make time for chatting with everyone who wants to. It was a surprise and a delight then that everyone I reached out to ended up emailing me back. Subsequently, I got to enjoy three days of rich conversation with individuals working on all sorts of wonderful games. I was floored by the depth and breadth of passion on display, each person bringing so much inspired creativity and personal love to their games. I am hoping that over the next few weeks I will be able to do justice to all these titles in dedicated articles and make use of the fascinating conversations I had the privilege of recording. It is so great playing a demo for something and going on to enjoy a discussion with the very person/people who made it. The entire indie experience is truly elevated through this process. The passion, the spark of ingenious creativity running through these games is accentuated when you get to put a face to the project. Perhaps an element of appreciation is lost when sitting behind a screen, that level of separation making it too easy to be cynical, or nit-picky. While it is impossible for devs to engage with every single player on a personal level (I consider myself very lucky to have had the chance myself) it does say something about how some consumers can be unwilling to consider the multi-layered nature of artistic creation. Without getting into the debate of whether you should fully separate the art from the artist, I do believe that watching interviews, understanding the creator’s intentions and immersing yourself in the discourse surrounding the game can be incredibly illuminating regarding indie titles. Every interview I conducted continued to prove to me that every creator puts an awful lot of themselves into their creation — something which, in my opinion, is almost always for the better. Indie games can be so exciting if you let them and, while I may be preaching to the choir on this one, so much more engaging than mainstream content for their personal, artistic ambition and flair. So far, I’ve managed to clumsily skirt around actually naming any of the amazing indie games I played, or any of the awesome people I talked to, this is because, as I already mentioned, I really want to work on some focused content dedicated to these games individually; they truly deserve it.
W.A.S.D., for both industry professionals and fans, was such an amazing opportunity to both meet new people and celebrate gaming at large; a wholly positive event in which everyone could feel good about the future of the medium, filled with diverse, accessible gaming experiences that covered all genres. Interestingly, W.A.S.D. also helped underline how far the term ‘indie’ has come within gaming. Indie no longer means one person working in their attic on a single game for ten years, it can now mean a small team of 40 people all working on multiple titles at once, and I suppose it has meant that for a while. To see that divide physically manifest through the event layout itself, however, was fascinating — the indie curios and smaller publishers on the left, a lot of equally indie (yet budget bearing) games on the right. In-between, downstairs, an industry area in which some of those indie developers had pitch meetings with publishers to help fund their games further. In my heart of hearts, I truly wish that every game shown in that area receives all the monetary support they need to flourish into their full, creator-intended experiences. Even if that doesn’t end up being the case, they can all at least count on me to jump on the nearest crowd-funding platform should the opportunity arise. I may end up a very poor man, but at least there will be a ton of great games to play.