t’s a welcome sunny afternoon in downtown Vancouver as I ask Mike Michalik, an expat indie dev from Poland, about an elusive curry-flavoured gelato I’ve heard rumors about. No luck with that sidequest. Aside from creating his own games, he also makes pizzas during the day at an Italian place that also serves up gelato too. We’re at his apartment’s living room that is without a television and quite bare actually. However, this minimalist decor is not simply an aesthetic choice, but also a functional one. For him and his girlfriend, their application for Canadian Permanent Residency may go one way or the other. If it fails, they can pack their living room into a suitcase (with room to spare) before a pizza delivery arrives.
Michalik and his girlfriend have been living in Vancouver since May of last year. They chose Vancouver based on a plethora of reasons that weren’t all tied to game dev. For instance, he finds the diversity of Vancouver folk to be inspiring as there are many other travelers who’ve made a nest here too. Before moving, he did some preliminary scouting by asking local game devs and even the companies he was interviewing about the city. He mentions the difficulty of moving to the U.S. and that U.K. was a bit too close, thus, Vancouver seemed to walk the line perfectly for being exotic enough for them. His friends and family in Poland were supportive of the move. As someone who’s moved a lot as well, I know what he means when he says, “It’s kinda like they can be a part of it too.” Those reasons are great, but Michalik also knew the city was very welcoming to indie devs as there’s plenty of meetups for travelers like him to trade stories and inspire each other.
On Poland’s gaming scene, he holds a lot of respect for his peers for their unconventional games. He’s very proud of Polish indie games that embody this flavour such as Superhot and This War Is Mine. Though, he can’t quite explain that specific ingredient for this strange secret sauce. He adds that there’s less history of video game development in Poland as they've been cranking out games since the '90s. Thus, their devs would be less likely to adhere to norms around the world. But, make no mistake, Poland is aware of this new industry in their land. Lest we forget 2011 when the country's prime minister at the time, Donald Tusk, presented a visiting Barack Obama with the collector's edition of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings as a representation of Poland’s position in the new global economy. One can only hope that Obama is wielding that edition’s exclusive Roche's Commando Jacket to slay demonic fiends.
Since moving to Vancouver, he’s had to deal with woes tied to that expat life. For him and his girlfriend, the most pressing issue is that daunting P.R. application. It's a lot of paperwork from determining how applicants can contribute in the local workforce to testing their English or French. And, if it falls through? Well, they’re both together in that they’re not worried. The move from Poland has given them enough confidence that they can land on their feet wherever that may be. “I just feel at this point, I really want to work on my own projects,” he says, “I will have to figure out a way to make that happen here or somewhere else.” Of course, their experiences in Vancouver have been more positive than not. When asked if he thought of himself as a Vancouverite, he replies, “That’s the thing about the multicultural-ism here, I don’t think about it at all. Probably, if you ask me, I would say no. But, I don’t think it’s a problem. There’s so many people here, and I don’t feel like I’m on the outside.”
Instead, Michalik’s definition of a game veers slightly outside of normal conventions. While he has a lot of respect for mainstream video games, he feels a tinge of disappointment that far too many games are under a stifling narrow definition. “I think a lot about the people in my personal life that I respect. They can appreciate good movies and books, but not games,” says Michalik. Thus, a lot of Michalik’s game design philosophy revolves around this unnecessary divide as he hopes his work will add to a future where games can be appreciated by non-gamers. Game dev, Brie Code, wrote about this too, “When I talk with my friends about what they would like in an interactive experience, it doesn't fit conventional games industry wisdom about what makes a good game.” Michalik concurs as he knows of many friends that appreciate good art, but video games have a barrier of entry whether it’s difficulty, level grinding, and different control schemes for every game. This barrier is typically unique to the video games medium as a book doesn't stop letting the reader progress if they can't understand what's going on in the page. Therefore, he wants to change this perception along with developers like Code about what a game can be. To be clear, he isn’t seeking to replace the mainstream gaming paradigm, but instead, create another paradigm that can co-exist alongside with it.
As it stands, the indie video game job isn’t currently paying rent for him. When asked if video games creation is a career or passion project, for now he says he is comfortable making pizzas for rent, and not burden his games with financial responsibilities. At the moment, he’s excited to work on leaner games that he can complete once or twice per year. It’s important to note here that Michalik isn’t creating these games for his sole edification, “I make games to connect with people. I don’t make them for myself, just to put them away in a drawer after they’re done.” He believes that games, as all art, are conversations, and he’d rather them not adhere to what’s trending on Steam at the moment.’
His current project, Echoes Guide Me, is a game where you play as the inner monologues in characters’ heads and influence their actions indirectly. He’s been busy creating the game since November last year. It’s a game that spans across eons of time where the main mechanic revolves around choosing dialogue that happens in the minds of characters in various time periods. The initial idea for this mechanic came about when he played Lifeline, a mobile game where the player communicates with the on-screen wayward astronaut. There, your choice of words will save or doom him.
Inspired by that, Michalik wants players to have choice in influencing on-screen characters, but not necessarily making the choices directly. Backing up to that tidbit about multiple times, players will be able to revisit characters they influenced to see if their advice helped them or not. Besides that, each time zone will have the on-screen characters contextualize why they can hear the players’ guiding voice. "So in a Victorian era they would contextualize the voice as coming from a ghost. For example they would have a session in which they would communicate with a dead relative, but in Middle Ages the voice would be interpreted as the voice of God. Somebody during the World War I might address the voice as a loved one who stayed at home etc." Like other smaller game projects, there’s a lot of emphasis on making Echoes Guide Me as a game that doesn’t neatly fit within traditional game genres. Michalik wouldn’t have it any other way.
For now, the game’s development has been put on the back burner while his girlfriend and him finish up that P.R. application. Since moving here, he’s yet to connect with a fellow Polander indie dev, but instead gets to easily meet other devs from a plenty of other cultures. As for those who plan to move here, he feels there's opportunity for those looking for a traditional game studio work experience. “For me, I have this mindset about games one way so I don’t think it matches with the studios here.” In his eyes, Vancouver has enough bandwidth to cater to game devs of all ilk.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.