Independent Streak

Indie games are a rising trend in modern gaming, once again invoking the days when games were handled entirely by tiny teams of a few developers, just like in “the good old days”. A stark contrast with most of today’s mainstream AAA offerings, with bloated teams of hundreds (sometimes even thousands) of staff members, leaving the games more homogenized and lacking any sort of single vision as a result. Of course, the big console manufacturers have decided to put more effort than ever before into courting the indie market: Sony, Nintendo and even Microsoft are in the process of creating a far more hospitable market for small indie teams to bring their titles to entirely new audiences. Still, there is a great deal of hostility towards indie games, when Sony recently announced a deluge of upcoming titles for the Vita, leaving slack-jawed troglodytes across multiple gaming forums decrying the majority of them as lackluster due to their indie status. Then again, I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on these individuals. It wasn’t all that long ago when I myself hated indie games.

Why did I hate indie games, you ask? How could I possibly write off entire swathes of games simply because they had smaller budgets? How could anyone maintain such a blind hatred of something as innocuous as a small labor of love, cooked up by random people with a passion for gaming? Well, while anyone who knows me personally can attest to my ability to cast my hatred for entirely irrational reasons (to this day, I still demand Sony apologize for murdering my beloved Dreamcast and relegating Sega to the shameful stance of third-party developer), perhaps “blind” is the most suitable word for the hatred I had for indie games. After all, years later I can attest that it was entirely unjustifiable. You see, I made the all-too common mistake of conflating “indie games” with “art games”. Whoops.

Of course, to this day, I still find myself moaning and groaning at art games, despite proponents of them arguing that my definition of art games is far too narrow and that, in fact, some of the games I hold in high regard should be rightfully considered art games. Alas, the term has been irredeemably poisoned in my eyes. I will always consider an “art game” to be a pretentious “game” (scare quotes intended) seeking to put forth some kind of a message that should only be considered deep by anyone under the age of 16. Games like “Dear Esther” and all those stupid side-scrolling games I used to see on Newgrounds where you would just hold right (or D, depending on the controls) and read through “poetic” text until your character committed suicide and the game was over. One could probably argue that a “true” art game would likely use the gameplay mechanics to achieve its artistic message, but so far, I’ve yet to see anything considered an “art game” even try to achieve anything like that. They’re more like student films than anything else, except they rely on a hollow form of interactivity for reasons I will never be able to fully understand.

So, where did this flawed conflation between indie and art games stem from? It’s actually quite simple, really. See, the first game I had ever heard referred to as an “indie” was Braid. Braid was, of course, a take on platformers that borrows gameplay from earlier games in the genre, but was considered hip and edgy because of the twist ending where (spoiler alert!) it turns out you were playing as the bad guy all along. The game’s creator, one Johnathan Blow, did not help matters, as he was just as pretentious as his game, perhaps moreso. Needless to say, in my eyes, this painted indie developers less as people working on games without the resources of a publisher at their disposal and more as a bunch of pretentious hipster douchebags. My bad.

From that point on, I had sworn never to support any kind of indie games, as they were the cancer that was killing “the one true gaming”. Around that time, I was starting to consider getting into PC gaming and so I had jumped on the Steam bandwagon, due in large part to the promise of Steam sales offering loads of games for a small cost. One such game that had caught my eye was a little title by the name of “The Wonderful End of the World”, which I would ham-fistedly summarize as “Katamari Damacy if it were made by Westerners”. Sure, I had never heard of the developer before, but the gameplay looked solid in the trailer and it was just a couple of bucks, no big deal, right? Imagine my surprise when I found out that this was an indie game. Or when I found out the same about VVVVVV (or V6, as I like to call it)?

I was devastated: had I become an obnoxious hipster douchenozzle who would praise video games for some hackneyed story twist or having music from some obscure techno-folk-reggaeton band no one had ever heard of rather than for their solid gameplay? Turns out the answer to that was no. Because around that time, I began to realize that all indie meant was that the game didn’t have big publisher money backing its creation. They didn’t revel in being counterculture for its own sake, many indie devs would probably jump at the chance to make their games under a big publisher’s banner. Once I understood that, I had another revelation: I had technically been playing indie games for a long time already. All those flash games I had played on Newgrounds and other sites of the like? Indie. At that point, I realized that while many art games were indie, not all indie games were art games. By extension, I also stopped seeing indie games as a tumorous growth on the fringes of the video game market and more as just an alternative to big-budget titles that had been losing my interest at that point anyway.

That’s probably the biggest thing I had taken from learning what an indie game really is. In many ways, it allowed for a much more varied marketplace than what AAA games had been offering me at some point. Don’t get me wrong, I still fall for the appeal of 8/16-bit-style games hook, line and sucker most of the time, but due to most indie developers’ inability to keep up with the graphical prowess of games with bigger budgets, they’ve been forced to rely on more abstact artstyles, rather than the “photorealistic” brown-and-grey sludge most companies push on their releases even to this day. They experiment with genres that had otherwise been abandoned while big publishers try to ape whatever sold like gangbusters 3 to 5 years earlier.

Now would probably be a good time to list off a few examples of some indie games I thought were awesome. This list is definitely not going to be complete by any means, and perhaps you’ve heard of some of the games I’m going to mention, but maybe you haven’t and I’ll be introducing you to something new. First off, there’s Oniken (which was recently greenlit on Steam), an 8-bit romp that I think would be best described as a cross between the old NES Ninja Gaidens and Strider. Undertaie (which I mentioned in an earlier article) is a unique take on JRPG-style gameplay and while it’s incomplete at the moment, the demo’s definitely worth a try. Yatagarasu, which currently exists as a Japanese language only beta, but has a more significant build in the works (and the current build is coming to the PS Vita in the future). And then there’s McPixel, a unique cross between point-and-click adventure games and WarioWare-style minigames.

Another thing about falling in love with indie games is that it’s lead me into a sort of love-hate relationship with Kickstarter and other similar platforms (Indiegogo is the only other one that really comes to mind). On one hand, being able to have a tangible effect on turning a game concept into an actual functional game is pretty invigorating. But on the other hand, sometimes there are just too many interesting ideas up for fund-raising for me to handle. That and it becomes hard to tell what is legitimate and what’s a scam at times. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard thus far, but who knows if my luck with crowdfunding will run out at some point?

The way I framed my story about how my feelings about indie games have changed over the years may sound a bit unique, but really, it isn’t. I felt the same kind of blind hatred toward all games with a first-person perspective (decrying them all as “braindead CoD knockoffs”), sandbox games (“braindead GTA knockoffs”) and even the Zelda series (“boring and confusing”) until I decided to try them again later down the line. I guess if there’s any lesson to be learned there, it’s that you shouldn’t judge an entire body of work based on a single bad experience. Maybe one day, I’ll find something that qualifies as an art game that simultaneously succeeds as both art AND a game and I’ll learn to re-evaluate that specific type of game. But I don’t see that happening for years.

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