Innovation is a stock-phrase tossed around a lot in the gaming industry. While more often associated with the action-blockbusters of E3 and the like, sometimes it’s the little things it does that makes its mark. As the indie market continues to lead the charge towards smaller, crowd-funded gaming, there’s something to be said for simplicity. In an era of Hollywood action shooters and increasingly competitive online gamers, it can often be the most subtle attention to detail and characterization that appeals to our train of thought.
Though having been a staple in the industry longer than most would grant them, the allure of indies has seemingly occurred only recently. Maybe it was only after 2012’s indie smash-hits of Journey and FEZ that first encouraged most gamers’ more serious exploration of the genre, including this writer’s. The utterly surreal nature of game’s abstract plot and atmosphere garnered a kind of euphoria many could never explain and it’s harder do describe the even less explainable attachment to indie gaming that its cult of followers have developed. Games like Gone Home or Minecraft are amazingly simple to describe them to a peer. The former’s gameplay can be summed up as merely pointing and clicking your way through a house and the latter jumping around and stacking pixelated blocks on top of one another.
They’re deceivingly simplistic, in theory painfully so. They are, however, nonetheless endearing because of that. Maybe they’re the infectiously adorable toddlers to their grown-up, blockbuster gaming cousins that we can’t keep our eyes off of. They have such smaller moving parts than their siblings, yet all the while using them to such curious and more eccentric ways that entrance us just as much as the “higher production” values we see in our triple A experiences.
Artistically, indies are a riddle wrapped up in an enigma as Churchill’s historic phrase could so accurately put it. Small in production, yet large in vision, indies are a diverse breed that share little more than an experimental attitude if nothing else, boasting a rule of no rules to appeal to their acquired tastes. Akin to a play or skit, they have few props and actors to their credit. They don’t require an enormous backdrop nor hefty effects to garner your attention. Yet they intensify their few focuses on the particular elements relevant to the scene. If The Stanley Parable was an expansive improv comedy, and at times a charmingly bizarre one, then Limbo’s nightmarish world of spiders and shadows was a short story written in a stream of consciousness haunting and imaginative all at once.To indies, the uses of narrative and atmosphere come first and the gameplay second. Perhaps that’s in stark opposition to what games traditionally seek to accomplish, but it’s that rebellion to status quo that’s inviting and mesmerizing to the indie fan.
That’s not to say indies don’t appeal to a more familiar soft spot in most of us: nostalgia. For the majority of gamers from the 1990s and onwards that have grown up into their late teens and early adulthoods long experienced with gaming’s standard genre conventions, it’s difficult not to get excited over an indie game that sports something sparking your inner child. Retro graphics, old school gameplay, or both, make us remember the games that we fell in love with originally, from side-scrolling goodness of Guacamelee’s Metroidvania style gameplay to Super Meat Boy’s arcade-era pixelated challenges. It’s why, as cynical as we are and as trite as the visual style has become, games with eight or sixteen-bit graphics still make us feel all happy inside.
More straightforwardly, there is the evident accessibility in most indie games. Games are characterized by notoriously short attention spans in the age of the Internet and social networking and devoting your time to a single time-sink like League of Legends and Grand Theft Auto V is intimidating. Indies are more often than not an experience completed in a mere two or three hours. Finishing a game in a single sitting not only makes a difference in maintaining an immersion not the same in a 50+ hr. game over weeks or months. The suspense is fresh in your mind in that instance and never lets up until the screen fades to black. Others like Minecraft don’t have a finish so much as they do when you put the game down at your pace. In that regard, it’s a play as you want, not a timed in the least, and only limited to your single block of time. Short and sweet can amount to more than you think.
In many ways, indies can further lend their success to their consumer base. Unlike their enormously budgeted and marketed industry counterparts, indie games are quite often made by on the backs of fans alone. From the get-go, most indies are named after their method of development for a reason. Most are Kickstarted through the nickels and dimes of the average fan who see what the game’s about, like it, and fund it with whatever they have in their pockets to give. While many blockbusters are forced to analyze their market of fans and estimate fan appeal with great risk, indies are trusted to be what their fans wanted, if anything like the massive fan response for Keiji Inafune’s still in production Mighty Number 9 and Tim Schafer’s upcoming Broken Age are any examples. Independently securing the capital to develop a game at your own pace and from those most devoted to it is a match made in heaven more comfortable to the artists involved rather than the business itself.
That’s not to say that the indie game making process can’t be gamble because of that fact. While indies are successful simply because of their high profit margin thanks to small budgets and in spite of big budgets creating beautiful games, they can easily bankrupt a small studio like Thatgamecompany incapable of suffering those losses in the case of its exorbitant losses with Journey in spite of its record-setting PSN sales. Unlike large studios, indies lack the ability to roll with the financial punches and a good game with poor sales can easily break an aspiring developer akin to the case of Shadow of the Eternals’ failure at funding. That pitfall alone can bring up the concern that indies are at the same dilemma of the major retail market. Creativity versus fiscal discipline is a tight rope to walk on and many are becoming so tied to big name publishers like Sony and Microsoft that their beloved essence may become subtracted in the process. In the face of a more competitive gaming market than ever though, indies are encouraged more than ever and that fear, while valid, may be as uncertain as the defeat of video-games themselves.
Apart from simple nostalgia or their high accessibility, there’s another reason why indie games are able to please so frequently. It’s the same reason why almost anybody can happily play Tetris and Pacman today, and why Super Mario Bros. remains as charming as it was before. Simplicity is hard to fail with, and most indie titles have a very clear and single vision. Unlike their triple A counterparts that throw a ton of features and intricate designs at you, there’s a purity to the vast majority of indie titles that makes it very hard for them to fail. The high scores that often follow games like Minecraft and Gone Home is that they had one goal in mind and achieved it. While the former focuses on puzzles, the latter focused on story. Both achieved such brilliantly and there’s very little to criticize in a game that kept its vision pure, and did what it set out to do, assuming that it was a noble one to begin with. To get an A+ is fantastic, but that didn’t mean you did so balancing four other classes at once.
Indie games may be as delightful as they can be, but at the same time, the average critic might question whether they’re as good as they should be as well. Limbo intended to be a morbid puzzle/platformer with a striking, monochrome art style. Hotline Miami was planned as the murderous, top-down slasher fest it was. Papers Please was designed as a border-crossing simulator with a surprisingly deep, choice-driven narrative. Indie games may indeed have fewer chances to fail because their options are far more restricted. Nevertheless, any player should accept that indie games aren’t as complex as AAA games. Maybe it’s the appreciation of the obvious that they champion. True, you can get a lot more praise by doing something small and doing it well than you can by reaching for the stars and falling short. Yet that shouldn’t stop you from earning the praise you deserve.