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In 2013 French electronic musician Kavinsky released a 13-track album of squelchy synths and triumphant lead lines called OutRun. It reveled in the forgotten sounds of 1980s movie scores, and the Ferrari Testarossa and palm trees on its cover referenced the 1986 arcade game the album took its title from. It’s an impeccably composed image so stylized it doesn't really resemble the game it's named after.
That’s the synthwave ethos: taking elements of a period of '80s excess millennials find irresistibly evocative, and modernizing them so they're just barely recognizable. As Robert Parker (a Swedish producer responsible for albums like Drive Sweat Play) told Time Out, "Synthwave is nostalgia with selective memory loss... [Synthwave artists] don’t really try to imitate the sounds 100 per cent, but rather take out some of the essential parts and put it in a modern context."
Kavinsky's OutRun proved so popular in the synthwave scene that it spawned its own subgenre. Quite how the music relates back to Sega’s 31-year-old racer isn’t clear, and perhaps isn’t important. What’s important is that the music inspired by a racing game went on to inspire a new wave of indie racing games.
Games like Fraoula’s Neon Drive, Denver Productions’ OutDrive, and the ill-fated Power Drive 2000 (Kickstarted in 2015 but without a developer update since February of this year) all seem to agree on the tenets of the genre: angular concept cars screeching along retrofuturist highways through a miasma of purple and pink. Tron's neon lines often appear, as do Blade Runner's cityscapes. It's an unquestionably '80s vision, but the specifics of the decade often aren't in sharp enough focus to be recognizable—least of all the games they’re homaging.
Perhaps synthwave fans couldn’t find satisfaction in revisiting the actual games of the ‘80s, so instead they created a new and imaginary vision of what games like OutRun were. Neon Drive achieves a heightened sense of 'eightiesness' by making the music an essential part of the drive. Rather than pulsing away at the periphery of the experience, the beats in Neon Drive propel the whole world forward, creating a rhythm-action racer in which you’re not so much driving the car as dancing with it—perfect synergy between sound and visuals.
The same could be said of the game that started it all: Hotline Miami. To players of a certain age it’s the kind of gratuitous and dark entity you imagined when your parents talked about violent videogames many years ago. But even at the height of that moral panic the reality was so much tamer than Hotline Miami. Doom’s blood-specked sprites have nothing on Hotline Miami’s eye-gougings or spurting arteries, or its utterly amoral characters.
By setting itself so firmly in the 16-bit era with its visuals, Hotline Miami managed to attach itself to those original gaming boogeymen without playing anything like them. The score multipliers have at least half an eye on arcade gaming admittedly, and the top-down violence owes plenty to the original Grand Theft Auto. Yet Hotline Miami feels completely disconnected from gaming in the '80s or '90s on a mechanical level. Its quick restarts turn it into a hazy, endless dream, something that feels completely modern.
Hotline Miami's soundtrack, however, seems to gel with the pace and attitude of the game perfectly. Those 22 songs from the likes of Perturbator, Jasper Byrne, and Scattle have persistent beats matching your stubborn restarts while their glassy synth pads seem to implicitly reinforce the nihilism of the setting and dialogue. In many ways Hotline Miami is a horrible place to find yourself in, one you only stay in because you’re enjoying the violence so much. And as its creators have frequently pointed out, that was always the point.
Despite the obvious craftsmanship of both game and soundtrack, Hotline Miami was lucky to find the success that it did. Released in 2012, it found an audience who’d seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive in theaters just a few months prior. With a hyper-stylized period setting, violence depicted with passivity, and a soundtrack full of Kavinsky, College, and Desire, Drive put synthwave in front of a mainstream cinema audience. Its poster, with a typeface inspired by 1983's Risky Business in hot pink contrasted against its dark blues, seems to have set out an indelible vision of that aesthetic.
If Hotline Miami represents the high point for synthwave-influenced games, the following year would see its low point. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon ticked all the boxes of the aesthetic: late '80s typography, that familiar colour palette, and an ironic repurposing of period elements (in this case the voice of Terminator and Aliens actor Michael Biehn). On paper it was primed to rewrite videogaming past like its synthwave-soundtracked brethren and offer the kind of heightened nostalgia hit you can’t get from genuinely old titles, never quite as stylish or ‘of their time’ as you remember.
The reality of Blood Dragon was a thoroughly modern open-world game with retrofuturist elements sellotaped onto it. If you were being unkind, you’d say it was Far Cry 3 with a palette swap squeezed out of Drive’s poster.
Instead of finding harmony between those elements, Blood Dragon pit them against each other. What made Far Cry 3 great was that it perfected a burgeoning frontier of open-world game design—it was an impossible task to ask a game so focused on the to new evoke something historical or nostalgic simply by changing its appearance and getting Hicks from Aliens in to record some gravelly quips.
Blood Dragon might be the first example of a game co-opting the synthwave ethos simply because it was in vogue, but it’s by no means the last. The danger with a genre of gaming and music as narrow and hard to define as this is that its output becomes reductive, simply hitting the recognizable trappings in order to give the 'come hither' finger to a hungry audience, without offering the chance to explore a remixed past that audience is really looking for.
Games under the ‘synthwave’ tag on Itch.io, for example, offer lots of stylish branding, but few seem to expand the retrofuturism concept further than that. 2D RPG Mistlurk is one exception to that rule: in Mistlurk you’re not just driving through the ubiquitous uncaring city, you’re actively trying to investigate and ultimately escape it. There’s an effort made to elaborate on the familiar tenets of the aesthetic, and give them deeper meaning. A meaning that’s underpinned, naturally, by gated snares and John Carpenter movie synths.
Five years after Hotline Miami and six years after Drive, synthwave and indie games still enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and are still responsible for the occasional gem. Last year’s Furi found a new kind of atmosphere and excitement by pairing the aesthetic with incredibly demanding boss battles in a less urban and more fantastical setting. A certain kind of listener will tell you that technically the soundtrack is 'darksynth', but the atmosphere’s very much a part of this broader movement. A steady evolution of it maybe, in which the rules are relaxed a bit.
Where that movement heads next is open to debate. It’s already had its breakthrough indie hit, and it’s already been absorbed into the mainstream. In music industry terms that means it's in trouble. To pick an example from a musical genre that's probably the antithesis of synthwave, we've had the moment where Limp Bizkit's chart success began the downfall of nu-metal. But right now at least, this little corner of gaming and music endures. As time drags us further away from the decade these games hark back to, game designers keep creating more ways to get back to it—or at least a hot pink version of it we can race through at top speed.
The ever-outlandish Devolver Digital has teamed up with The Humble Store this week to give us the aptly named Devolver Digital week—a sale period which sees up to 85 percent off a selection of the publisher's games.
Big hitters such as Hotline Miami, its equally brutal and stylish sequel Wrong Number, and philosophy puzzler The Talos Principle are all worth a punt if you're yet to play them—going for £1.39, £2.99 and £7.49 (or your regional equivalent) respectively, with 75-80 percent discounts.
Not a Hero and Broforce are another two of my favourites listed, both of which are subject to 75 percent reductions at £2.49 and £2.99 in turn; while the gun-tastic bullet-hell shooter Enter the Gungeon is half price at £5.49.
The "point and click hugventure" Dropsy is another good shout at just £1.74, and, if you're extra tight for cash this week, I'd recommend gamified Tinder-like Reigns at £0.84, or the wonderful Downwell for £0.99.
The Humble Store's Devolver Digital Week will run this week—the full list of discounted Devolver games can be found over here, with five percent of each purchase going to charity as per Humble's standard. As always, let us know your favourite deals in the comments south of here.
GOG Connect launched earlier this year as a means to allow users to transfer select DRM-free Steam games to their GOG libraries. Assuming said games exist in the CD Projekt Red-owned distribution platform s catalogue, and the relevant developer has agreed to take part in the process, Connect scans your Steam collection before permanently making the switch, free of Steam s copyright protection.
The initiative premiered in June with resounding success , thus GOG has returned to announce the second major batch of GOG Connect titles 17 in total. These include:
In other GOG-related news, the platform has just launched a Back To School Sale which houses individual discounts and bargain bundles on a range of games. Deals change daily, however today s include Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines for 5.19/$6.66, Day of the Tentacle Remastered for 5.49/$6.99, Dragon Age: Origins Ultimate Edition for 5.99/$7.69, and Dying Light: The Following Enhanced Edition for 19.99/$25.79.
The Back to School sale is on now until 11pm BST/3pm PT Sunday, October 2. The list of discounts in its entirety can be perused this-a-way.
Devolver digital isn t your average videogame publisher. I realise this in a basement, fifteen minutes away from San Francisco s Game Developers Conference, watching colourful penises slither across the screen. Next to me is Mike Wilson, one of Devolver Digital s five founders. We both watch as two dicks circle one another like professional wrestlers, each trying to penetrate the other s asshole. Cheers erupt from those around us as one succeeds, then rise even higher when the other also penetrates, forming a swirling genital ouroboros. Mike turns to me and smiles. Welcome to the Devolver Bunker.
Calling it a bunker might be too dramatic unless you think several dozen game developers, a keg, and a karaoke machine are what s worth saving in the apocalypse. But this bunker, now a time-honoured tradition during the Game Developers Conference, perfectly represents everything Mike wants Devolver Digital to be: a place on the outer fringe where creators are free to create. In here it s just you, a selection of likeminded individuals, and the mutual desire to make something interesting.
For Evan Greenwood, one of the people behind the explosive shoot- em-up Broforce, interesting meant Genital Jousting. It s a game where anywhere from two to eight penises can face off in an effort to engage in mutually beneficial and consensual coitus. The way these flopping, flaccid penises are animated is both slightly disturbing and hilarious, the Mount Your Friends sweet spot of party games. From the sounds of it, it s going to be one of Devolver Digital s next games.
Devolver Digital is more than just a publishing company for weird indie games about cocks, however. It s pioneering a new way of thinking about the relationship between developer and publisher. It s been a very weird fucking journey, Mike says when I ask him about his past. It s hard not to see him as a kind of father with a dozen bastard children. Across two decades working in the industry, there s no denying how central his marketing and business development has been to the growth of PC gaming. Quake, Doom, Deus Ex, Mafia, Max Payne, Tropico over the years, Mike s had his fingers in a lot of videogame pies.
Being at ground zero of the PC gaming explosion wasn t quite the incredible experience you might imagine. Sure, he was once allowed to commission a giant vagina archway for a Microsoft Windows 95 launch event, but that doesn t seem to be much of what he remembers from that time. Instead, much of Mike s past is marked by battles against the corporate need to control game developers in every way possible that ever-present tension between business and art. He s watched as many naive developers, often barely more than teenagers, fell victim to exploitative contracts, empty promises, and delusions of grandeur. He s seen egos ballooned to unmanageable sizes, friendships torn apart by avarice, and careers ended to preserve corporate secrets.
He s also seen what happens when developers wise up and start making a fuss. The traditional method of dealing with difficult talent is to buy them, Mike explains. The publishers then own their intellectual property and can continue to crank out sequels with less uppity game developers. That s the point of owning the developer, you never have to listen to them.
Distaste for that kind of business practice is what led Mike to found Devolver Digital, along with business partners Harry Miller, Rick Stults, Nigel Lowrie, and Graeme Struthers. They wanted to create a videogame publisher that would cultivate a different kind of relationship with developers. Devolver Digital s contracts grant the developer of the game the lion s share of the royalties, and it s the developer who has the final say on every major decision, too. In the end, Devolver Digital is merely an enabler, giving scrappy indie studios the resources they need to build great games.
He who has the gold makes the rules, that s just the way that business goes, Mike says, but we saw that this industry hadn t really realised that the developers are the talent, and eventually they re going to be recognised as who s important in these relationships. It s one of the things at the heart of Devolver.
When I ask what else makes up Devolver s heart, Mike laughs. Have you met Nigel yet?
Nigel Lowrie is, at first glance, a wonderful kind of contrast to Mike Wilson. He s tall, well-dressed, and looks like he s never been to Burning Man. He s also the most important voice an indie developer might ever hear. I m a people person, he says. Most of the things that I do involve looking for games we might want to publish, talking to developers, and then, once a game has come into our warm, loving embrace, working on the marketing aspect with them.
Nigel s involvement with Devolver goes back further than the company itself. In 2008, Mike and other Devolver founders, Harry and Rick, were trying to bring their publishing vision to life under the name Gamecock Media Group. I was working in advertising in Dallas at the time, Nigel recalls, for companies like Seven-Eleven and Hot Pockets. We got to do cool things now and again, but after a while I wanted to put my head in a microwave oven. I wanted to do marketing for something I liked, so I sent Mike a blind email telling him I loved videogames with my whole body including my pee pee. That got his attention.
The year 2008 had other plans. Gamecock, like many of Mike s previous companies, had only been possible with investment from a third party, but getting help from the outside was beginning to feel like it caused more problems than it solved. When Gamecock s sole investor pulled out during the height of the 2008 financial crisis, Gamecock crumbled to dust, and Mike, Harry, Rick and Nigel weren t about to make the same mistake again. We decided to start our own thing under our own control and not beholden to someone else, Nigel says, and that s how Devolver Digital was born.
Devolver didn t immediately become the recognised name it is now. Its first four years of life were spent working as the publisher for Croteam and its famous shooter, Serious Sam. Devolver was bringing Sam back from the grave thanks to a series of popular HD remakes, but they also wanted to experiment with publishing their own small-scale, high-concept games, and Serious Sam was the perfect test subject.
In late 2011, Devolver contracted developers Mommy s Best Games, Be-Rad Entertainment and Vlambeer the studio that would go on to make hits such as Nuclear Throne to create small indie game spin-offs set in the Serious Sam universe. While none of these contracted games set the world on fire, this did inspire a close relationship between Devolver and Vlambeer, who had just come across a group of Swedish developers whose game would.
In a rundown apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, Jonatan Cactus S derstr m and Dennis Wedin had a common problem for indie developers: no money. The two had been designing games together since meeting through Dennis s band, but if they were going to keep the lights on, they needed to create something more substantial than the bizarre freeware creations Jonatan had been pumping out since he was a teenager. Digging through the refuse of half-finished and abandoned projects, the two happened upon the remains of Super Carnage, the soul of which would go on to create one of the most successful indie games ever.
I d always been a fan of Jonatan s games, Nigel explains. They were very peculiar and weird. One day Rami Ismail from Vlambeer emailed me and said, hey, Jonatan is working on a game he wants to turn into something bigger. He introduced me to Jonatan and then he sent me a build to play. It was one of those things where it was rough, but you instantly understood why it s going to be special.
Nigel believed that this game could be something different. At that time, indie videogames were just growing into the massive phenomenon they are today, and this project between Jonatan and Dennis was going to be a huge help. Trusting his gut, Nigel showed the game to the rest of the founders at Devolver. We had no track record, we d only worked with Croteam and Vlambeer, Nigel explains. I took it to the team and everyone dug it, but, at the time, we really didn t have a lot of money, we had all been working for free to this point we didn t pay ourselves. We all had back pay, so a few of us went in and said, hey, to make this game I will forfeit some of my back pay because this is how much we believe this could work. We really put our money where our mouths were.
The prototype transformed into Hotline Miami, an eye-catching and idiosyncratic top-down shooter that demanded attention with its bloody, neon punk aesthetic. It became one of the biggest indie success stories ever, taking the world by storm with its violence and pumping electronic beats. Between the first game and the sequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, the series would sell over five million copies.
The success of Hotline Miami changed Jonatan S derstr m and Dennis Wedin s lives as much as it changed everyone s at Devolver Digital. The company found its groove and began seeking more indie titles that it could help bring to life going on to publish hits such as Luftrausers, OlliOlli and The Talos Principle. As indie games exploded across PC and consoles, Devolver Digital was there, fanning the flames. To me, it boils down to one thing, Mike says. People are remembering that games are supposed to be fun rather than impressive.
Hotline Miami brought Devolver to a place where it wasn t just capitalising on a trend in videogames, but a cultural one too. Mike explains to me that indie developers aren t the same breed he worked with all those years ago when he first got into the industry. They re leaner, more collaborative, and less interested in rolling in piles of money. I love that people aren t trying to use their game as a stepping stone to make a bigger one, he says. And you really see that when someone makes it, they cannot wait to help others succeed too.
That lack of ambition for the hollow trappings of success couldn t be a better fit for Devolver. Despite their success, the founders are adamant on not turning their company into anything more than it is. They don t need an extravagant office or a pushy marketing team, Mike says, and they certainly don t need to sell out to a bigger company. In fact, the founders of Devolver Digital are so opposed to becoming the stereotypical publisher, they even invented their own fictional persona to be the face of the company.
His name is Fork Parker, and his bizarre wit allows the members of Devolver to do their work without the sweating from the heat of the spotlight. As Mike and I sit outside, taking a breather from the bunker below, he tells me something I want to always remember: There s freedom in being small.
That freedom is the foundation of a new kind of relationship between publisher and developer, one built on trust and respect rather than profit margins and value propositions. When we return to the Devolver bunker, we find it packed with people. Developers chat excitedly, people flail around wearing VR headsets, and Genital Jousting has been replaced by a new game where you play a grizzly bear trying to buck off what looks like a naked Danny DeVito. There s an undeniable sense of community here and at the centre of it stand just five people.
I don t have too much time to think about it because as soon as we step back inside Mike turns to me and smiles. I hope you like tequila.
When I saw the release trailer for Half-Line Miami, I assumed it was a gag whipped up by somebody bored with the wait for Half-Life 3, or a set of skinned levels built in Hotline Miami's level editor. It is neither. Half-Line Miami is a free, fully playable mash-up of Hotline Miami and Half-Life 2, complete with the G-Man introduction, and it's really good.
The actual gameplay is straight out of Hotline Miami, but the maps, enemies, and sound effects are taken from Half-Life 2. And instead of the usual assortment of blunt objects and firearms, you're equipped with the gravity gun, which works exactly like it does in HL2: Pick something up—explosive barrels included—and then fire it at your enemies to turn them into pulp.
There are eight levels in all, one for each area in Half-Life 2. For players who are into the DIY thing, it comes with a level editor as well. The soundtrack by Sung is pretty fantastic too. And it's free!
"I made this game as a declaration of my love for these 2 games, and as an experiment in game design," creator Thomas Kole explained.
Grab it—trust me, it's worth your time—at Itch.io.