What makes a Devolver Digital game? I can’t answer that question. Nobody can. Few publishers have managed to score so many miraculous hits while remaining thoroughly un-betrothed to any genre, tone, or trend. Just look at its 2021 catalogue. Last January, Devolver released Loop Hero, a lo-fi sword-and-sorcery spatial puzzle in which players craft progressively more difficult dungeons for their lonely hero to conquer. (It was an early Vulture favorite.) The following July, Devolver returned with Death’s Door, which took a classic Legend of Zelda saga and dusted it with some gothic, Miyazaki-ish charm. (We called it our seventh-best game of the year.) In October, Devolver unveiled Inscryption, which is both an airtight card game and a grand, fourth-wall-piercing detective saga — all centered on the haunted video-game cartridge we’re unlucky enough to be playing. (It has already being touted as a modern classic.) At the end of the month, Devolver will release Weird West, an inky horse opera set in an American frontier beset by ghouls, cultists, and a variety of other prairie nightmares. (It’s one of the most anticipated games of the year.)
I could go on. Devolver Digital published the Day-Glo battle royal Fall Guys, the rhapsodically melancholic platformer Gris, and the retrograde, Quake-worshipping first-person shooter Strafe. These games have nothing in common aesthetically or mechanically, and yet they’re all somehow united in the same uncanny breed. In an era of mass consolidation in the games industry — in which publishers like Ubisoft crank out an endless supply of waypoint-laden open-world adventures, and every Activision product is sandbagged by a network of prickly microtransactions — Devolver has found success with a proudly obsolescent formula: Identify a gifted developer who is maniacally consumed by a singular vision, bless them with plenty of funding and promotion, and watch with pride as a game pours out of their soul.
Video: Devolver Digital
“My sole concern is that we get the best game possible. If we do a good enough job, [our partners] will never have to stack a shelf or do some coding work for someone else,” says Andrew Parsons, head of production at Devolver. “When we are excited about something, it comes from the developer … An agent saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this roster of indie games — which one do you want?’ is not the same as a developer saying, ‘I have to make this game — otherwise I’ll die.’”
Devolver Digital was founded in 2009 by three lifers in the independent-games scene just as the market was drifting away from retail boutiques like GameStop and toward those ethereal, online-only marketplaces like Steam (hence the digital in the company’s name). From the outset, Devolver aimed to elevate promising projects with developer-friendly contracts, which was particularly challenging when small publishers were burdened by the expensive manufacturing costs of discs and cartridges — an anxiety that is almost nonexistent today. Devolver’s first few years were focused on rebooting the beloved PC shooter Serious Sam, but by 2012, the company was beginning to take risks with unknown indie game-makers. Its …….