Last week’s vast Gamescom expo in Cologne saw all the biggest video games of the coming year presented to 400,000 visitors, over five chaotic days.
But it wasn’t all about the blockbuster titles set to dominate the charts this Christmas. The event also gave dozens of small independent studios the chance to show off their more offbeat and idiosyncratic projects.
Here, in no particular order, are nine of those games, taking in a range of themes and genres – none of them involving space marines or realistically modelled Second World War firearms.
1. Fugl (Team Fugl; PC, Mac mobile)
There are no goals in this lovely meditative bird flying experience, apart from to soar over the gradually changing voxel landscape. Get close to the animals inhabiting the strange world and your bird will shapeshift, absorbing their characteristics.Like a video game palate cleanser, Fugl lets you focus your mind on a pleasant flight experience without demanding too much.
2. Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (Landfall Games; PC Mac)
This physics-based tactics game has already developed a following online thanks in part to its madcap humour. Through the campaign and sandbox modes you place a variety of battle units – from pikemen to mammoths – and then see how your fantasy battles play out. Yes, it’s a digital version of playing toy soldiers, and yes it’s enormous fun.
3. Russian Subway Dogs (Spooky Squid Games; PC Mac)
Inspired by the real life stray dogs of the Moscow Metro, this fast-paced action game has you stealing food from commuters and earning points by dodging ferocious Subway Bears and flying bottles of volatile vodka. The retro pixel art matches the amusingly daft concept, and it deserves a mention purely for featuring a character named The Proletaricat.
4. Apocalipsis: Harry at the end of the world (Punch Punk Games; PC)
Your eyes can’t help but be drawn to this point-and-click puzzle adventure from Punch Drunk, which features hand-drawn graphics inspired by Dürer’s engravings and the danse macabre artistic genre. The protagonist, Harry, is dealing with his own personal apocalypse after losing a loved one, and the morbid abstract scenes work perfectly with the strange puzzles to accentuate his despair. It takes multiple playthroughs to gradually reveal the true story.
5. Panoptic (Team Panoptes; PC)
Panoptic is an asymmetrical local multiplayer game of cat and mouse, between a PC player and someone wearing a VR headset. The VR player takes the role of the Overseer who must try to find the other participant, often by physically crouching down and peering through maze-like structures. The PC controls the tiny Challenger who has to reach the goal without being spotted, often by hiding among identical AIs. It’s smart, panic-inducing and beautifully executed.
This unusual VR artistic experience was inspired by the developer’s love of the manga series One Piece. The user has two abilities – teleport and create hands – which they utilise in a sparse desert landscape. It’s a bizarre experience that hovers between introspection and eeriness, the simple mechanic providing a sort of a surrealist playground to experiment in. Watching hands sprout and unfurl like flowers is oddly beautiful.
7. Keyboard Sports: Saving QWERTY (Triband; PC, Mac Linux)
Copenhagen developer Triband claims to have designed this game as a tribute to the humble computer keyboard before it dies out – and subsequently every key is used. The environments are packed with charm and humour and provide a deceptively difficult challenge, and it certainly has you utilising a tool you think you know well in entirely new ways.
8. DERU: The Art of Cooperation (INK KIT Studios; PC, consoles)
Two players work together to solve minimalist and increasingly complex levels, a feat requiring communication, timing and forward thinking. The white icon can block black streams and the black blocks white, a simple mechanic creatively used to craft an intriguing puzzle game. If you really want a challenge you can attempt to control both players – but as the title suggests, this game is really about teamwork.
9. Descenders (RageSquid; PC, consoles)
Descenders really makes you feel the speed as you perform stunts and freeride downhill through procedurally generated worlds. Unlike with most extreme sports sims there’s a genuine sense of physical jeopardy: too many bloodcurdling crashes will result in the death of your rider. As a result, careering down the steep tracks becomes a balancing act between survival and point-scoring, and you’ll wince every time you end up flying over the handlebars.