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Press Day: Zero Degrees of Separation on the Swedish Indie Scene

We attended an event called Press Day in Stockholm where a selection of local indies showcased their games.

The Gamereactor crew are veterans of many a gaming event. Some big, some small. Some grand, some intimate. Last week we visited an event in Stockholm, Sweden, called Press Day. The idea was to bring together a bunch of local independent developers with members of the media, such as ourselves. A modest event where the participating devs shared the costs of the catering at a restaurant in a park a few miles outside of the city centre. A place most likely a lot more inviting in July than in February, but then again gaming was on the menu so no need for greenery or daylight.

We caught up with Andreas Zecher from Spaces of Play, one of the organisers of the event, who said the inspiration for the event was in part the MIX (Media Indie Exchange) - a very popular event that is part of the GDC and E3 weeks and allows indies and press to mingle - and in part it was inspired by the many "meet ups" in Stockholm where indies check out each other's games and network. It's easy to tell many of the developers know each other well. Although journalists and developers shouldn't mix... or should they? We have to admit we know both some of the visitors and exhibitors from previous encounters. Working the room we come to realise we've interviewed a majority of the developers present at least once before.

We last met Zecher a couple of years back when he was demoing Future Unfolding, a game that is roughly a year out from release at this point and that's heading to PC and PS4. An exploration and puzzle-focused game seen from a topdown perspective with a procedurally generated world where each play-through offers slightly different "rooms" in an altered order. It's the kind of game that's beautiful to look at even if you're completely unaware of what's going on, it's got an almost hypnotic quality.

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Future Unfolding looks like it could be something very special...

Zecher whose Spaces of Play is one example of a type of indie developer, a small group of developers who may or may not be located in the same place, who work as much and as hard as they can afford to on a game of their dreams, for years and years. Others work by themselves and/or finish projects quickly. And then there are veterans who want to break free of traditional publisher models, or people coming in from other fields to try their hand at development. While there are commonalities among the exhibitors at Press Day, the differences are perhaps more apparent.

Some developers, like That Brain who are making a steam-punk airship RPG where you nagivate floating islands among the clouds (funnily enough none of the developers had played Skies of Arcadia), have to take on contract work in order to make ends meet, which naturally affects the timeline of the development. Closing in on its fourth year in the works, That Brain's 20,000 Leagues Above the Clouds still has some ways to go until release.

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As is our usual methodology at events of this nature we decide where to go next by a mix of some basic factors. Does the game look exciting? Is the station close to our current location? And most importantly, is there a line or can we get immediate access to the game and the developer in question.

And so the first game we checked out was Visiontrick Media's Pavilion - a beautiful puzzle game that's heading to PC, PS4 and PS Vita (not quite dead yet) later this year that we first tried a couple of years back at a different event. The game has a simple premise, you guide the on-screen character by interacting with various objects or bells in each scene helping the character along while not directly controlling him. One part of our crew (the camera-wielding Icelandic one) grabbed the controller and didn't put it down until he finished the demo, which made for an extended chat with Visiontrick's Rickard Westman for the remaining crew member.

Pavillion looked a lot more polished than last we saw it and should just be a few months out from release.

Turns out that much like many other indie devs, Visiontrick had spent a lot of time exhibiting at events to gain player feedback in order to improve their user experience. This is something that many developers do, as when you're a small team outside voices can be vital as it's easy to focus on the wrong things during development. There is a risk in listening too much as well, of course, and there aren't many indies who can travel the world like Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, but still the more people you expose to your work, the better your chances are to craft something more people will enjoy at the end of the day.

Often times this highly scientific method is interrupted by people wanting our attention. It can be someone wanting to show us a trailer of their funky forklift simulation on an iPhone, or it can be Beard from Hotline Miami commenting on my colleague Dóri wearing a Hotline Miami 2 t-shirt. Did that really happen? We're not exactly sure, but there was some mini pizza nearby so that may have been playing tricks on our minds.

Next we run into Vic Bassey, currently a "business guy" and writer at Might & Delight, makers of Shelter and Pid. Longtime GRTV viewers may recall Vic from a few videos from maybe 6-7 years back as he helped us out quite a bit in the early years of our English language site. The indie studio has recently expanded into publishing and is finding its place in the Stockholm development scene as an "arthouse collective" where members come and go, while the leadership remains. Their next game is a Shelter 2 spin-off called Paws, and soon they'll announce some exciting things - presumably their first third-party releases that should be similar to Might & Delight's own work in terms of aesthetics. In a refreshingly honest move, Vic also showed us a game he cancelled as one of his first decisions in his role as "business guy" - a VR project called Child of Cooper. We really liked what we saw, of course, a massive change of direction for the studio and a great risk that Vic felt was wrong at the time. Post cancellation the project has garnered more attention so perhaps there's a chance it may get resurrected at some point.

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Child of Cooper is cancelled, at least for the time being.

Another well known name on the Swedish indie scene is Grapefrukt (yes, that means grapefruit) or Martin Jonasson, who recently launched the addictive puzzler Twofold, Inc. on mobile devices and who's also well known for Rymdkapsel (Swedish for spacepod). The game itself has been quite successful, especially considering that it carries what many would consider an insane price tag for a puzzle game on mobile (don't worry, it's just a few quid). Grapefrukt, who develops games by himself, is mainly concerned with being able to sustain himself and keep on making games, and so far the success of the game is surely such that he can continue on without much worry. It's a luxury among indies, and one only a few lucky ones achieve.

A game that stood out a little bit from the crowd was Rain of Reflections. Developed by new outfit called Lionbite Games. We know the head of the studio well, Victor Lionhead - a staple of the Swedish games journalism scene for the last couple of decades or so. While many games at the event opted for understated narratives, where players mainly picked up on the story through the environment, there were some notable exception like Kathy Rain, Rymdresa and 20,000 Leagues Above the Clouds. But even if Rain of Reflections was in a very early state (we only got to see a few small vertical slices), there was a great deal of promise there and the level of ambition was high throughout. It's an RPG with a heavy emphasis on story with a branching narrative where the three playable characters will cross paths and influence each other's journeys. It may be a year out, and it is quite possible it will need even more time than that, but what piqued our interest was the level of ambition on display. Will it be brilliant? That's really hard to tell at this point, but it's one to keep an eye on for sure.

Rain of Reflections offers a rather bleak vision of the future.

There were other games on display, roguelike co-op action title Kill to Collect from Pieces Interactive, a physics-based party game called Wrassling, and a game we're not sure was actually game called Hypnopolis were you travel on a gondola through an endless city that is being procedurally generated as you move. And then there was The Solus Project from Teotl Studios and Grip Games that just recently launched on Steam Early Access. The indie scene is maturing in some ways (devs are more experienced, there are more marketplace opportunities), but clearly the diversity and variation is still very much there.

Kill to Collect (left) and The Solus Project (right).

Video interviews covering most of, if not all the games mentioned or alluded to in the article, will be published on GRTV in the coming weeks.

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