On Indie Video Games

The surge in popularity and influence of indie video games in roughly the last decade and a half has fundamentally altered the video game landscape, fundamentally bettering it, greatly increasing diversity, the diversity of experiences communicated. It was not too long ago that the experimental attributes which typically characterize indie games were regarded with relative trepidation, hesitancy; as publishers fell into a state of complacency, they developed games with an emphasis upon security; risk-taking in game development was minimized, certainly not by all studios but many. Such safeness persists, though boldly experimental indie games temper and refuse such safety, imbuing them with a certain power which is lacking in larger AAA titles, even with their comparatively massive budgets, their larger development sizes. Thinking historically briefly, indie games’ surging status is partially attributable to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, which cast a spotlight on valuable games which might otherwise be relegated to obscurity, an unjust obscurity, their merits and innovations ignored. An early illustration of this process was of course Braid, with its ample artistry and subtle yet intellectual narrative. Superficially, it is a standard puzzle-platformer, though upon investigation it advances that genre in manifold, drastic ways, and it is perhaps not coincidental that many indie games cling to this precise genre, very well-established yet brimming with opportunities for subversion and further enhancement. Braid’s logical successor, Limbo, belongs to this same genre though featuring vastly different, clashing aesthetics from its predecessor; whereas that former game was characterized by vibrancy and many painterly aspects, this latter game is awash in darkness, whites, blacks, and greys dominating the color pallet, completely deprived of that vibrancy. While clashing in precise presentation, the aesthetics employed here were absolutely revolutionary, and the poignancy present within both narratives served to illustrate the fact that compelling, immensely resonant experiences can be crafted outside of a AAA game studio; a bit of heart, ambition, and dedication, when paired alongside game design aptitude and swelling passion, permits a development team – or a single developer, in some rare cases – to make much of little; financial constraints needn’t stifle creativity. Indeed, in a very positive trend, once indie developers have displayed that creativity, many receive industry support, and are able to remain dedicated to the craft, to create follow-up works of greater grandeur while still remaining autonomous. And that autonomy is crucial: it is largely the burden of indie studios to push back against the increasingly trope-heavy, uninspired nature of much AAA game design, stagnant in many ways.

Indeed, it is largely the proclivity for experimentation which distinguishes indie game studios from their far larger competitors. The direct result of experimentation is innovation, though inevitably some aspects of experimentation result in failure. Thus if a AAA studio never experiments, then they will rarely fail, and will thus lack the knowledge instilled by that failure – therein lies the stagnation, and while it is easy to bemoan failures, especially if they are immense and glaring, negatively altering the entire experience, failures are an important component of the learning process. In the AAA studio of the present moment, meanwhile, fears of audience alienation run rampant. If it follows that the industry values money, or that at least industry executives value money over the sheer joys of the creative process, it follows that all decisions would be centered around continued audience engagement. Many indie games, meanwhile, are centered around expression for expressions sake; artistic or intellectual statements are of considerable import to many of these smaller developers – consider again Limbo, Braid. Clearly, a certain warfare is in place between AAA studios and indie ones, and this warfareis particularly profound within the horror genre, specifically first-person horror. Amongst the most acclaimed indie games of that genre is of course Amnesia: The Dark Descent, an interesting case study in the sense that much of its early success was attributable to its virality, just as much as its sound mechanics; given its refreshing nature, it is only natural it should thrive as it did upon launch. Upon release, the YouTuber or content creator here was serving the indirect role of publisher, a critical statement; indie games have not the budget to promote their titles in the conventional manner that a AAA studio might, employing online ads, or, though fading somewhat, television ads. In this precise scenario, then, a sort of symbiotic relationship is in place, games benefiting from the Internet broadly and YouTube specifically as a platform. This trend is observable in countless other instances, too: consider only the Five Nights at Freddy’s series, or the rise of Kickstarter pages, the monetary model there enabling the creation of experiences which would likely never be made outside of that platform.

Just as Braid was influential, then, the first Amnesia has exerted a massive influence on the industry, even its gameplay systems being notable. Today, the notion of a completely vulnerable protagonist is not anomalous as it was back then, the increasing frequency of this model only highlighting Amnesia’s influential status; the game was released at a time when regenerating health was growing increasingly commonplace, trivializing player death, diminishing its consequences and dismantling tension. Subsequent games developed by Frictional Games would embrace this novel defenselessness, like their more recent work, Soma. But while total vulnerability has gained some traction in game design, that traction is most observable within the indie scene; AAA developers seem to approach this design decision with some weariness, seeing in complete vulnerability potential player frustration, which causes them to pull back; an empowered player and protagonist, they think, results in an enjoyable experience. Resident Evil VII, which breathed new life into the franchise by nature of its perspective shift, is abounding in atmosphere as palpable as Amnesia’s Castle Brennenburg, perhaps even being more palpable; the antagonistic family is frightful, their cannibalism and visual frightfulness distressing. But that frightfulness is diminished when Capcom clings to convention, design safety – the player has access to an ever increasing arsenal of weaponry; the studio couldn’t fully embrace the helplessness inherent to Amnesia. This results in a vastly different gameplay experience, certainly, in that Resident Evil more sharply embraces the tropes of the survival horror genre – the weapons provided the player must be used conservatively – but the inclusion of these weapons results in a destruction of terror; frightfulness persists by nature of environmental storytelling, though the Baker family’s more threatening attributes are minimized, while Castle Brennenburg’s distorted inhabitants remain threatening and menacing throughout, a direct extension of player helplessness.     

The true successor to Amnesia lay not in the hands of Capcom, but expectantly in the hands of an indie studio, in this instance Red Barrels, developers of the Outlast series. Not only did the developers embrace Amnesia’s player vulnerability, they also seized upon the potentialities for terror inherent to the horror genre, embracing a grounded narrative of psychological distress; uneasiness is perpetual whenever exploring derelict Mount Massive Asylum, its exploited patients, their mental state almost completely disintegrated, moving to and fro, literal embodiments of tragedy owing to the exploitation and experimentation they were subject to; violence is not skirted but is instead regarded as foundational to the entire experience. The sheer bleakness on display here is massively influential, seeing some adoption in Resident Evil VII, and Red Barrels as studio is in a relatively unique position; in addition to adopting various design strategies like those which define traditional indie studios, Red Barrels had access to a major game engine, that ever ubiquitous Unreal Engine, employed countless times over. They have a larger budget, likely a larger staff, though despite this largeness the developers focused on niche themes, niche precisely because of their darkness; few are the players who would show eagerness in observing the acts of violence dominating Outlast; such acts are never elicitors of joy. But the examination of these acts raises many poignant questions about the human existence, questions which absolutely must be regarded. Many conventional AAA studios would approach these questions with a fearful weariness, a weariness Red Barrels discarded in their work. Crucially, they experiment, and the sequel they crafted some years afterwards reflects industry trends; once an indie studio has received acclaim and recognition, some studios see considerable expansion, permitted to build upon their original ideas in a more refined fashion, with far greater budgets and technological freedoms; the developers of Limbo would promptly develop Inside, for instance. Outlast 2 is characterized by more open-ended environments, rather than transpiring exclusively within the claustrophobic walls of an asylum. Sound design saw an elevation, while various quality of life updates were implemented; the developers were wielding the increased budgets and freedoms wisely. But an indie studio at heart, these advances were ultimately subservient to the message being communicated, and the message here, one of frequent infanticide and death, is a perpetually tragic one. In many fundamental ways, it is an improvement over its predecessor, with AAA studio production values and a message and objective which are decidedly not AAA in nature; this admixture of technology and ambition helps explain the immense influence of the series, indie in its foundations.   

Moving away from first-person horror and returning to the 2-D platformer genre, it is unfair and inaccurate to state that that genre has fallen victim to complete stagnation, to state that innovation has largely disappeared and that the same experiences are crafted and recrafted. But whatever stagnation was in place has been boldly upset by indie studios, who disdain safety and desire innovation. This precise genre has been immensely popular for a fair span of time – consider only Mario, Nintendo’s figurehead and mascot, whose presence directly contributed to their initial and lasting successes; just as the FPS genre thrives now, the 2-D platformer thrived then. But the design decisions studios make here are largely characterized by iteration: many recent Mario titles are excessively similar, being divided only by the inclusion of considerable gimmicks, though absolutely each game has different world-building ambitions, which visually distinguish one title from another. Still, Mario – and 2-D platformers in general – seem rather stalled, showing a relative poverty of ambition and innovation. When considering this genre broadly, one highly compelling indie video game instantly springs to mind: Super Meat Boy. An Xbox Live Arcade Title just as Braid, it refines to perfection the tropes of the genre, the controls being precise and empowering, crucial when considering the highly challenging nature of the entire experience, a challenge which only enhances the joys accompanying eventual success. It is incredibly frenetic and demanding gameplay, though the instantaneous respawn time reduces potential frustration. Useful comparisons between AAA studios and indie studios are observable even here, when considering difficulty level. Certain players play solely for a game’s narrative, indifferent to the challenge level, solely desirous of experiencing the narrative. Other players, though, absolutely thrive on difficulty, deriving great enjoyment from a challenge. This type of player, then, would be overjoyed while playing Super Meat Boy. Blanket statements are generally dangerous statements, though it is fairly easy to say that recent Mario games – specifically those of the 2-D perspective – are devoid of commanding difficulty, and it is largely the role of the creative player, the outsider, to implement such difficulty, namely by way of ROM hacks or custom levels in Super Mario Maker. The market for highly difficult games does indeed exist – consider these creations – and for a protracted span of time now, Nintendo have mostly left that market unfulfilled. In search of such satisfaction, players should absolutely turn towards indie titles, like the aforementioned Super Meat Boy, a truly fantastic experience, with its precise controls and engrossing gameplay. Indeed, entire genres in the indie scene center around excessive difficulty, roguelikes especially lending themselves to such challenge – consider The Binding of Isaac. A very curious game and experience, its appeal is selective, as is expected in certain indie games. But if any given player greatly identifies with that genre, then they can derive immense enjoyment from The Binding of Issaac, which belongs to a genre mostly underrepresented within the AAA side of the industry. Still, most questions have explanations, and again it is easy to understand why Nintendo would reject the excessive difficulty defining Super Meat Boy or The Binding of Issacc. The audience for Mario games is partially composed of youthful players, who may feel alienated by such elevated difficulty, while even older players may grow frustrated when meeting with repeated deaths; in order to avert player alienation, then, Nintendo – a company with an appeal which widely cuts across multiple demographics – greatly reduced overall difficulty level; they clung to mainstream expectations, in the process creating a gap which was solvable and fillable only by indie studios.   

Some indie studios suffer from a considerable failing: repetition, in the sense that each studio establishes one distinct visual style and mostly clings to that style all throughout their crafted games; Play Dead studios is a perfect illustration. Despite a span of some years between their first work, Limbo, and their later work, Inside, the games are linked in many fundamental ways, logical when considering the developers regarded that later work as a spiritual successor to the former. Still, once these stylistic familiarities have been established, it grows difficult to subvert them. Play Dead’s work is characterized by much visual beauty, meaning this repetition is not some monumental failing, though it does point towards a certain predictability; one can anticipate the aesthetics of a title even before release because they have knowledge of the design decisions defining any given developer. This is certainly applicable to Play Dead, but is even more applicable to Klei Entertainment, who greatly embrace one aesthetical style and employ it in all their works. Shank, for instance, is a traditional beat-em-up, and while the genre of Mark of The Ninja (a stealth game and an overall immensely rewarding experience) is a vast departure from that earlier title, still they are linked aesthetically. This trend is greatly countered within AAA studios, who can embrace wildly different aesthetics in their projects, embracing also wildly different genres – consider Ubisoft Montreal, one of the largest developers in the world. True, they can devote themselves to the enjoyable yet unremarkable Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry titles, though simultaneously developing such profound works as Child of Light, a visual masterpiece clashing with the realism characterizing those earlier mentioned works. In a manner, then, the AAA studio, particularly a very well-established one, can experiment, those experiments bolstered by sometimes massive budgets. Indie games do not have massive budgets, and are thus placed into a difficult situation, which almost demands experimentation; if they merely mimicked AAA game conventions, they would fail spectacularly, owing to the financial imbalances. Hence, genre subversion, the embracing of mature themes and ample challenges within indie games. True, some more acclaimed indie developers – like Play Dead – may embrace a certain consistency in presentation, while also employing and reemploying the same gameplay tropes, but the execution is oftentimes flawless, and indie games exist at the vanguard of the industry, advancing it wonderfully and with great rapidity. Indeed, just as Play Dead clings to visual or thematic sameness, developers like the justly lauded Super Giant Games subvert expectation with every individual creation, crafting works of considerable aesthetic grandeur and beauty, though shaping that beauty around wildly different gameplay mechanics, refusing to be defined by any one distinct genre, but instead embracing many; boldly embracing many. Ubisoft Montreal may cut across genre with its work, but Super Giant Games, the literal embodiment of indie greatness, take sometimes tired genres and inject them with life and whimsicality, a reminder that love and heart are central to the crafting of any emotionally resonant experience; it is not enough merely to be motivated by money, to cling to expectation because such safety is characterized by reliability, a reliable influx of capital. It is difficult to overvalue, then, indie games’ position within the industry at the present moment, such games rejecting tired reliability. It is difficult also to communicate the wonderful nature of the experiences many of these experimental games create for any given player; indie games are like the panacea for the various failings characterizing much AAA game design. Inevitably, that panacea is not palatable for each individual player: certain genres are alienating, while a justified frustration can be directed towards games which mostly lack that critical dimension: interactivity. Walking simulators – a stable of the indie game catalogue just as much as the typical 2-D platformer – lack widespread appeal; but realizing the existence of that appeal, however small, indie game studios have answered the call, and have accordingly crafted a more inclusive community, industry, and for that they must be praised; they – indie developers generally – are constantly expanding gaming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: