At Microsoft’s Gamescom press conference, amidst all the spectacle and showmanship, one game caught many off guard. Press, consumers and attendees of the show alike couldn’t help but be captivated by The Escapists.
Presented in nostalgic pixel art and crafted by a one-person microstudio in Derby, UK, it etched itself onto the brains of numerous observers.
It wasn’t The Escapists’ true debut – the game is already in Early Access for PC on Steam– but it was the moment it thrust itself into the forefront of the collective gamer conscience. In the preceding days, the game’s single Xbox One demo pod at Gamescom also drew an inquisitive crowd.
And as Gamescom’s industry element closed, The Escapists was awarded the UK Game of the Show accolade by UKIE, fighting off competition from the likes of Playground, Telltale and The Creative Assembly.
“Watching a stream of the show at the time was surreal,” says Chris Davis, sole developer at The Escapists studio Mouldy Toof, unable to make Gamescom as he was committed to remaining at home polishing his project.
“Seeing that ‘little game’ you’ve been working on for months get shown on a live stage in front of the world seemed crazy. And then seeing it featured all over social media and game sites in the days after was a real wake up call.”
INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
Mouldy Toof’s journey into the spotlight started after it was picked up by veteran UK studio turned indie publisher Team17, as Davis explains.
“That was all thanks to Debbie Bestwick and the rest of Team17. They’ve been really enthusiastic about the premise and pushing the game out there to the masses. It’s quite a unique, interesting concept and I guess Microsoft saw the same sparkle in it that Team17 and others did. It was a very proud moment for all of us to see it on stage at Gamescom.”
Mouldy Toof didn’t start with The Escapists, however. That happened much earlier, when Davis and school friends built card games from paper and pen. That creative drive never faded – by his late teens, the fledgling developer was coding games.
Much later one of those projects became Spud’s Quest, a platform adventure that Davis feels was his first serious video game, and the one that inspired the founding of Mouldy Toof as an operational studio. And as his ambitions grew, an idea from those pen and paper designs continued to play on Davis’ mind.
“I always had the desire to do a re-imagining of one of my favourite ZX Spectrum games called Back to Skool,” he states.
“It was probably the first ever sandbox game that placed you as a school pupil and you had to follow the school routine and mess about. I took the routine-based structure from that and adapted it to a prison setting, adding the much more interesting objective of pulling off an escape.”
But what of that award for an in-development UK-made game on show at Gamescom 2014? With a nostalgia for the vintage era of UK coders and platforms like the Spectrum, does Davis actually feel his local development community is something to identify with, or that defines Mouldy Toof?
“I’ve always had my head in the clouds regarding what goes on in the indie scene around me; never really been involved in any of these meet-ups and such that others get up to,” Davis admits.
“So on that front I’m not so sure I can identify with the Brit indie scene, but I do feel that both my games have that ‘cheeky chappy’ British charm to them that others in the UK will probably connect with.”
And there is something about Mouldy Toof that is evocative of the early days of famed UK development entrepreneurs from the golden era like Dizzy creators the Oliver twins.
A Fusion coder who does everything solo, Davis is as humble as he is motivated. With ideas that started in boyhood, he creates
character-drenched, simple 2D games with the knack to make their way to greatness, in his case via a platform holder press conference rubbing shoulders with the big league.
It almost sounds like the beginning of a familiar story.