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Pushing Buttons: Big studios are making big cuts – but indie gems like Animal Well are still out there
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Pushing Buttons: Big studios are making big cuts – but indie gems like Animal Well are still out there

It’s a deeply unhappy time for game developers, as anyone paying attention to the games industry this year will know. Thousands of jobs have fallen victim to corporate cost-cutting, as in-progress games have been cancelled and award-winning studios closed. The mood is furious and despondent.

“I feel such despair for the medium I love,” a reader wrote in response to last week’s newsletter. “The layoffs have been so disheartening from the potential that’s being squandered in the name of even more grotesque levels of profit taking, let alone the impact this is having on the people who actually make the games.” He asked: “Do you see a way forward for developers to make great games on a decent budget and pay their staff a living wage? Some hope would be appreciated.”

One of the many tragic ironies about the year in games so far is that at the same time as all these cuts, closures and layoffs, we are also seeing an extraordinary number of breakout successes. Nobody expected much from satirically militaristic squad shooter Helldivers 2 but it has sold 12m copies since February. Palworld might have left me feeling vaguely gross, but it has raked in money. Balatro, the poker roguelike that stole a whole week of my free time, had a million sales, and that was made by one person. In early access on Steam, we’ve had medieval township-simulator Manor Lords and Supergiant’s incredible Hades II racking up huge player numbers.

We have had so many brilliant and interesting indie (or indie-ish) games this year that it’s been hard to keep up. Off the top of my head, there was the PlayStation-1-styled horror game Crow Country, cartoonish underwater soulslike Another Crab’s Treasure, sci-fi survival road trip Pacific Drive, stop-motion puppet adventure Harold Halibut, chilled-out period puzzle game Botany Manor … and we’re not even halfway through the year. As the corporate, blockbuster-end of game development seems to be getting harder and harder to survive, we are at least seeing more small to mid-size releases find success. That should offer some hope, at least.

Incredible … Hades II.View image in fullscreen

This week I’ve been playing Animal Well, which I’ve been looking forward to for a while, and it’s yet another top-tier example of a smaller game that gets everything right. If you yearn for a pre-internet time when games felt mysterious and unknowable, it is made for you, though naturally a squadron of unfathomably dedicated players on Discord are hard at work trying to uncover its every hidden secret. It has the lo-fi look and limited colour palette of a forgotten game once played on school computers, but with exquisite lighting, sound and visual detail far beyond what any game of a bygone era could achieve.

You play a blob with eyes, birthed into a subterranean labyrinth full of creatures that mostly want to eat you, but you don’t fight them – you have to either hide from them or outsmart them. One of the first creatures I found was a terrifying bandy-legged ostrich that lurched towards me, emitting unacceptably distorted squawks. I screamed at the TV, then jumped down a hole to hide from it, only for its beak to follow me into the crevice I was cowering within. It was the perfect combination of hilarious and disturbing.

I am loathe to share any more details from my time with Animal Well in case they ruin an “ah-ha!” moment for anyone else. It is superb, and so far I am successfully resisting the urge to get sucked into Reddit threads about all of its hidden facets, so my discoveries are all my own.

Animal Well is one of many reminders this year that even at the worst times for the games industry at large, there is always, always something interesting to play – because people will always be driven to create. When that is the goal, rather than maximising of profit, there is always room to succeed.

What to play

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes.View image in fullscreen

If you thought I’d already covered all the great indie games of the past few weeks, surprise: arthouse studio Annapurna is just about to release another, called Lorelei and the Laser Eyes. It’s a Lynchian, mostly monochrome detective puzzle game of interconnected riddles, set in a haunted mansion where time folds in on itself and the architecture has no interest in following the laws of physics. Atmospherically, it reminds me a bit of 2002’s Eternal Darkness, the GameCube psychological horror game. The kind of game that will have you filling a real-life notebook with insane-looking looping thoughts and theories.

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch from 16 May
Estimated playtime: Around 12-15 hours

What to read

Psychonauts 2.View image in fullscreen
  • There has been plenty of reporting in the past week about Microsoft’s Xbox division after the reported closure of Tango Gameworks and Arkane Austin. The Verge reports increased scrutiny from Microsoft’s highest bosses on the Xbox division, after the $7bn Activision merger, causing it to “prioritise high-impact titles”. Worrying words for all the formerly independent studios that Xbox has bought in recent years, such as Double Fine (Psychonauts, pictured) and Ninja Theory (Hellblade). As Kotaku put it in its report on a town-hall meeting held at the company: after buying up studios, Xbox leadership says it doesn’t have the resources to run them.

  • After the PS5-only release of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, Square Enix has cancelled a few in-progress games and suggested that it will be making all of its games multiplatform in future. This would end decades of a close relationship between Final Fantasy and PlayStation.

  • Our games correspondent Keith Stuart couldn’t resist stirring the pot with a list of the 15 greatest UK video game magazines. I won’t spoil the ranking, but it was heartening to see GamesTM in there, the magazine where I got my start as a staff writer in 2005. RIP to a real one.

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What to click

  • ‘I don’t see the point of me without the politics’: video game writer Meghna Jayanth on the benefits of staying indie

  • Hades II’s audacious, invigorating spin on Greek myth makes it worth playing right now

  • Five of the best books about video games

  • Crow Country review – breathtaking survival horror game that harks back to Silent Hill

  • What is Manor Lords? The medieval city-building game that sold a million copies in a single day

  • Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes review – rip-roaring adventure from the late Yoshitaka Murayama | Simon Parkin

Question Block

Shenmue III.View image in fullscreen

Loads of you wrote in to respond to last week’s question about video games set in believable real-world places, so rather than answer a new one, I’m going to hand over the floor.

Reader Ethan highlights an underrated British game: “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was really the first time I’d felt an uncanny impression of normality represented in a game; unremarkable pavements and telegraph poles, a beer garden picnic table, correct fonts on road signs, and unmown lawns were all well-observed details which combined to evoke a quiet village that I felt I might have actually passed through at some point.”

There was an outpouring of appreciation for 1999’s Shenmue and its sequels (a special game for me as a teenager; I think of it as the spiritual predecessor to Yakuza). “From real life weather data taken from Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan in 1986 when the game is set, to day/night cycles in real time, footsteps changing sounds depending on the terrain, hundreds of characters that have full biographies and in-game schedules that may not ever even interact with the player … this game has it all,” wrote Nathan. “The original is set in Yokosuka in 1986 and as a 15-year-old at the time, the game made me fall in love with Japan,” says Benji. “When I met my (now) wife in Japan a few years ago, she took me to Yokosuka and even today there are places I recognise in real life that I digitally walked down all those years ago. There’s a sense of place in Shenmue that is almost unrivalled to this day.”

Jeanne, meanwhile, admires Insomniac’s version of New York in Spider-Man. “Insomniac’s Spider-Man games absolutely get the feeling of Manhattan correctly! According to friends of mine, the only thing they didn’t get right is the subway.” Mark agrees: “The biggest uncanny valley for me has to be the various iterations of New York in games, particularly Grand Theft Auto and the increasingly detailed Spider-Man games. When I went there on holiday, I got a weird sense of already having been to the city. Equally, when playing the games afterwards, I would find specific places reminding me of the holiday. …

“Even more bizarre was the incredible re-creation of the school in Hogwarts Legacy. As I child, I was an extra in the films, and watching my friend fly into a courtyard in the game I was filled with an overwhelming sense of, ‘Wow, I’ve been to that exact place …’ Quite the experience for a virtual world to remind me in the real world of being in a … fictional world.”

Kenny writes: “I thought I’d just pass on what a Polish colleague recently told me. She said the wedding in The Witcher 3’s Hearts of Stone expansion perfectly captured those she’d attended as a girl. She’s a fan of the game in general, but when I mentioned that I’d recently picked it up again, her eyes lit up, and it was this one detail that she couldn’t wait to share.”

I will answer a new question next week. If you’ve got something to ask for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on [email protected].

Source: theguardian.com