Indie Games: Forgetting the gaming part

by onApril 28, 2013

Let’s be clear on something. I love indie games. I love the idea of designers coming up with concepts for games they want to make and then putting them out. I think it’s great to see the creative control in the hands of these designers and not in the hands of their bosses. But I also understand it can lead to some shoddy work.

There’s this assumption the indie games are somehow the antithesis of the AAA gaming industry, or even its enemy

There’s this assumption that indie games are somehow the antithesis of the AAA gaming industry, or even its enemy. As a result, some people feel that the indie world provides something that the AAA world does not. Since the most popular games in the so called high quality section now are modern shooters, these people tend to see the indie community as a place for games that are the opposite: cute, colorful and light-hearted. One example would be a piece on Journey, which boasted that it ‘is a unique game in that it does not feature guns or violence.’

Now first of all, I think that’s total nonsense. People play the fuck out of Fifa and they haven’t included violence (and I keep sending them letters asking them to give the players assault rifles). Of course violence is over-played in the AAA industry, and it’s always good to see games that understand that you don’t have to kill something to have fun.

Super Meat Boy

Secondly, there’s still plenty of room for violence, we just might have to rethink how it comes across. So what do you do? Well, you can compromise: violence AND cuteness. Hence Super Meat Boy, Offspring Fling and Cute Things Dying Violently. A new take on violence, and one that’s definitely more original than the ‘horrors of war’ vibe many modern shooters are going for (ironic how that’s their theme and the sole objective is murder).

And of course, it’s terrific to see games that amuse and entertain us with very little violence, such as Osmos, World of Goo, Shatter and others. There’s more than one way to have fun, nobody’s denying that.

But the problem happens when games decide they want to be go three for three: cute, non-violent and lacking in game elements. They end up relying too much on this cuteness and wonder and providing very little in the way of actual gameplay.

Now, I’m stumbling onto a pretty big debate that comes up every so often in the indie community here: Is there just one definition of a game? Does a game have to follow one specific way of doing things in order to qualify?

Not to be too traditional about it, but I’d say yes. If I’m just in there for no reason, why am I doing this? What’s the point here? I remember recently getting Blueberry Garden, a game I’ve heard tons of buzz about. I started it up and I was playing as this deformed-looking bird person and I was going around a set of drawings collecting random objects. It was pretty basic, the design wasn’t that impressive, and I was pretty bored throughout. And this is something that won the Independent Games Festival Grand Prize in 2009. Someone looked at this thing in a year where quite a few Indies were released and figured: This is the best thing to come out in the indie community this year? I did Google search for the top indie games of 2009 and this is what I came up with: Enviro-bear 2000, Super Meat Boy, Cogs, RunMan, Canabalt, VVVVVV and Machinarium. Plenty of fun, addictive and even quirky games and people still applaud this bland thing.


This shows that the indie community values this sort of thing for some reason. The game’s gotten a lot of good press, it’s been reviewed well, but I’m fairly sure if you were to get it on Steam and load it up, you’d probably want your money back. I saw one review for it where the reviewer was like ‘it’s the first time someone makes a game where there’s no shooting or anything, you just go around’.Well yeah, the reason nobody made that before was because they were fairly sure nobody wanted that. I haven’t seen a vending machine that spews acid at customers either, but I’m not getting on it.

I don’t know why some reviewers thought this game was interesting. I don’t know why the biggest authority on indie games saw fit to give it a high honor. I especially don’t know why Blueberry Garden got it and Machinarium didn’t. Machinarium is about a little robot exploring a strange world, so it’s also a fairly cutesy experience. In a way it’s also a bit of an indie cliché. The difference is it’s a game with puzzles that you have to wrap your head around and challenges you have to overcome. It manages to have this really pleasant aesthetic (it blows Blueberry Garden right out of the water in terms of style) and still be a compelling, fun title.

I don’t want indie studios to conform to any kind of traditional values in the gaming world; that’s what makes them cool. But I do want them to realize that they’re still making games. Now look, as I said, it’s a big debate. I’d like to explore the idea further and I hope to keep this up in a series. But the main point for now is, you should focus on making a game.


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  • May 26, 2013 at 5:01 AM

    Beware anyone who makes objective statements about subjective qualities.

    We should be exploring what the medium can be, not laying down synthetic boundaries declaring what it can’t.

    • Mazen Abdallah
      May 26, 2013 at 1:04 PM

      I totally understand that art appreciation is subjective, and I believe that much is clear throughout my piece (i often use the personal pronoun ‘I’). While one can’t make objective statements about game quality I believe I do have enough to back up my opinion. I’ve played my fair share of experimental and unconventional games and I’ve enjoyed quite a few, so I have a frame of reference.

      Regarding exploration of the medium, I also indicate that I’m not out to curb design spirit (in the final paragraph) . I just think if they’re advertising themselves as game designers they should still be putting out something that can be considered a game (and a good one). Otherwise, it should have a remarkable story driving it (To the Moon), amazing visual work (Proteus, FEZ) or an unconventional game mechanic (Vesper.5). “Game’ is a definition that can stretch immensely, so I think it still allows them quite a bit of freedom. Just make something that looks like it took you some effort

  • May 26, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    Kudos on recognising your subjective POV, but the problem is mostly this sentence:

    “But the main point for now is, you should focus on making a game.”

    1. Define “game”. Okay, so we both agree it’s a broad term that’s difficult to nail down. Without objective semantic definitions to help us, it comes down to subjective expectations. Therefore, it’s going to be difficult to prove an individual authority on what is, and is not, a game.

    2. Even if they aren’t making games: So what? The vernacular is a problem if it requires all of us in this industry to adhere to a set of arbitrary rules when creating our art (be it fine, or consumer). I’ve heard enough people challenge the right of Proteus to call itself a game, but if someone had demanded that the developers meet different expectations other than their own, Proteus would not exist and my profoundly personal experience with it wouldn’t have happened.

    You’re obviously free to hate Proteus (or any other game, or non-game, interactive experience, whatever) and only a fool would judge you for it. But asking those developers to meet your personal benchmarks is asking them to limit themselves.

    I don’t think that’s a good thing for our incredibly young industry in seeking its potential.

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