After years of pandemic-mandated absence, indie games have finally returned to their spiritual home – Shadwell’s Tobacco Docks. While it may be a venue better known to Hospitality’s gurning ravers or LCBF’s’ craft beer connoisseurs, as the throng of indie developers gather from across the globe, the sun is shining on Shadwell’s slickest event space. Despite the size of the venue hosting it, you’d be forgiven for not knowing your W.A.S.D from your PAX. Why? This is its first year.
The spiritual successor to the sadly canned EGX Rezzed festival, this is a trial run of sorts – and the event’s inaugural year is a notably smaller affair than Rezzed. Still, size isn’t everything, and the delighted grins plastered on both the patrons and exhibitors tell another story. For many gamers, this is something of a homecoming. As developers and journalists greet each other in warm embraces and streamers and Twitter pals exchange awkward introductions, for the first time since 2019, it feels like the games industry is back.
Mercifully, W.A.S.D offers a fairly gentle re-introduction to the weird and wonderful world of events. Where Excel Centre’s EGX or Cologne Gamescom can often feel like an overwhelming onslaught of the gamer masses, the Thursday at W.A.S.D is comfortingly serene. Curating a vibe that’s essentially a farmer’s market for video games, the beauty of W.A.S.D is that you’ll wander into a room and suddenly find yourself playing the most bizarrely charming creation you’ve ever seen. Thanks to the lack of big-name publishers – NBA and Borderlands creator 2K, and Sonic makers Sega are notable exceptions – you rarely have to queue to play anything, jumping into digital delights as their nervous creator watches beside you.
For years, gaming’s punk rock revolution of indie dev has seen game development become a delightfully democratic pursuit, and nowhere is that clearer than here. Much like Rezzed before it, ‘Indie’ darling Devolver arguably steals the show. Demoing a bunch of triple I hitters; from the Happy Tree Friends-esque cult sim, Cult of Lamb, to the gore-soaked samurai epic Trek To Yomi and even breakout 18th century card swindler sim, CardShark, the Devolver booth is a beacon of originality in an often predictable medium. As I slice and sacrifice my way through a litany of lambs and hustle my way through a renaissance France, it’s hard not to feel like these Devolver gems justify the ticket price alone.
Another highlight is the eclectic Fireshine stand, showcasing everything from creepy underwater curio, Silt, to KeyWe – a multiplayer game where a bunch of Kiwi’s attempt to peck and chirp their way around a mailroom. While it may not be the biggest gaming event going, W.A.S.D’s scant size reveals a D.I.Y dev scene in rude health. Sure, the £9.50 burgers may betray W.A.S.D’s scrappy underdog vibe, but that’s what you get for enjoying things in England’s capital.
Speaking of health, this is of course, still an event in the age of covid – and unlike our partying PM, the virus isn’t something W.A.S.D’s organisers have forgotten. As you sit down and prepare to pick up a grubby controller and sweat-filled headset, wipes and hand sanitizer adorns every demo station. Covid or no, sitting down to a clean controller is the stuff of gaming event dreams.
Hard West 2 is another highlight, combining XCOM-like strategy with a captivatingly occult take on the Western. Featuring a new bravado system that sees your favourite murdering highwayperson powered up for a turn, it’s a fun and captivating little turn-based strategy – one that quickly sees me hijacking a speeding steam train, the excitable chatter of the show floor long left behind.
It’s one of the few events where you can buy a giant anime sword, discover the next indie gaming sensation and then pop to the bar afterwards – plastic blade in tow. If you find yourself feeling all gamed-out, you can always step away from the keyboard and attend one of the show’s many panels. From numerous talks aimed at helping the public break into the games industry, to surprise announcements by YouTubers like Ali-A, these carefully curated chats remain a highlight throughout the festival. If these sound far too dry and serious for your taste, there are sillier panels knocking about across the weekend. From live role-playing sessions with YouTubers Johnny Chiodini and Gav Murphy to panels with the creators of Disco Elysium, there is a fair amount crammed into W.A.S.D’s two main stages on any given day.
We caught up with @OMGitsAliA about the importance of inspiring the next generation of gaming content creators and how he's helping to give them their big break with @utureshow#WASD pic.twitter.com/cHHPP1ICEu
— WASD (@WASDlive_) April 9, 2022
It may lack the big names of an E3 or even a PAX, but W.A.S.D is a refreshingly chill way to discover the latest gaming curio. Sure, the grinning faces of those working the stands looked a little less enthusiastic come Saturday, but as patient parents wait for their kids to finish demos and middle-aged men happily collect bags of branded swag, all feels right with the world.
You can catch up on several panels from W.A.S.D via the event’s Twitch channel.