Why indie videogaming is so important

Top 10 Simon Gilbert 3 Jun 2014 - 06:17

What indie videogames lack in technical polish, they make up for with imagination. Simon explains why they're so important...

Last year, GTA V became the fastest-selling piece of entertainment in history. Total War: Rome II, SimCity and Tomb Raider also came out last year, and were big hits. Part of me is overjoyed that my favourite entertainment medium is now so hugely popular. Yet another part of me wishes it was still more of a niche pursuit, as it was in the 1980 and 90s.

I cut my gaming teeth on an Amstrad CPC (thank you Lord Sugar). It had a keyboard, a disk drive, and a green screen. Whenever I saw my dad trying to work on this thing I would be amazed, dazzled and aghast at just how ridiculously dull and turgid the beast was. Just lines and numbers on a green screen generating more numbers and lines. I shudder to even think about it now.

Then, one day, dad brought back a strange looking package (unless you were into those Drum and Bass or Jungle tape packs - in which case, it was just like one of those), within which resided a disk. This was a compilation called They Sold A Million, and on its disk were four games: Jet Set Willy, Sabre Wulf, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, and Beach Head. Why am I telling you about a decades-old game compilation?

Because these were all, in essence, indie games. Developed by a small team on a relatively low budget, what these games lacked in polish they more than made up for in creativity and charm. So what are indie games like in the current climate, and why are they so very important to the gaming world as a whole? Moreover, why should we support them over and above mainstream titles?

Here are 10 reasons why indie gaming is so unbelievably important.

1. It's an artform

Forgive me a moment, as I put my pretentious hat on. Making games is an art. It is directly comparable with making movies, whereby you combine several other artforms to create a single narrative or expression.

For a single person or a small team of people to be able to combine such arts as programming, music, script writing, design, production and many other disciplines -into a single concept – shows a level of ambition and commitment that we should all be respectful of. Aside from the talent and effort involved in the process of making indie games, the best examples of them can also transport you to places that you couldn’t dream of, and pose you questions you’ll never have thought of.

A large collection of people, no matter how well they work together or how good their end product is, will necessarily have to co-operate to achieve one vision. But a single person working under their own steam has the free reign to create whatever insanely bizarre idea they want to, and run with it unimpeded. If you scour the internet for Flash games, or look for apps on your phone, you will find hundreds and hundreds of indie games waiting to be discovered, and they will delight and boggle your mind.

Searching for games like these can be real adventure, because you don’t know what to expect. Trudging through any FPS war game for the twentieth time can be enjoyable enough, but it’s also a decidedly predictable experience. But if you pick up and play a game such as Limbo, or Braid, or Super Meat Boy (to name a few) you’re not just gaming. There is a brand new concept which has been delivered to you, a whole new existence to understand and decipher; someone’s artistic expression. It is easy to forget just how important art is to a society such as ours. Look, for example, at how glorious Trine 2 is:

Stunning.

2. Someone bled onto a keyboard

Let me clear something up. There are many small games developers dotted around the world who churn out reasonable puzzle games and plenty of gambling games in order to turn a profit. I’m not talking about these companies. I’m talking about the individuals who have decided off their own backs to create a game, and have had the downright tenacity to do so. They are heroes and legends in their own right and not because they have made a great game, but because they dedicated more time and energy to a project than most of us ever could. They have sacrificed their own health and wellbeing to get this out of their system. Take Phil Fish, who spent a staggering five years perfecting and honing his platforming masterpiece, Fez.

3. Telltale games

Telltale Games is a relatively small developer formed by former employees of LucasArts. Telltale have brought us some fantastic adventure games over the past ten years - Hector: Badge Of Carnage is perhaps their best yet, and thoroughly enjoyable. You can tell from the delivery of the characters, the stories, and the overall quality of the presentation that these guys really care about the content they create.

Their games lack the rather rife cynicism of many mainstream games, and instead they actively involve you in an interesting narrative, with a few puzzles to solve along the way and a decent script. This sounds simple, but so many major developers cannot write a script for love nor money. Hector manages to weave a more engaging narrative than, say such recent hits as Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider or Max Payne 3, and with far fewer words. So does Angry Birds for that matter.

4. More bang for your buck

So far, we've put approximately 300 hours into Kerbal Space Programme. This is a game which costs less than £10. It's also still only in the alpha phase of development, but it really is quite an accomplished piece of work already. Were you to pay full price for a top title from, say, EA you're looking at approximately £40 - and that's just to begin with. Then they attempt to relieve your money bag of all its contents via various means such as downloadable content or special access. Step into the indie world, however, and prices are more reasonable, and in some cases, the games are just as good.

For the same price as Battlefield 3 plus Premium Membership, I could play indie games all year, and still have change left over. I understand they have servers to run and big support teams and so on, but on the flip side, not all of us can afford to play for such expensive titles. Indie games allow a greater amount of people experience gaming, and that can only be a good thing.

5. It’s like going to a ‘before they were famous’ gig

We probably all have a friend who has a tale of when they went to watch a band play at a small venue before they became famous. They think they’re so cool, and truth be told, we’re all sucked in a little by it and think it’s pretty awesome, too.

Well, you can also do the same thing in the gaming world. This is the perfect time to play as many indie titles as possible, because some of the people who made them could one day be among the most famous names in the world -  not just the gaming world, but the wider world, too. Gaming is now the largest entertainment industry on the planet. Many of us are talking daily to each other about games.

Unfortunately, it’s come a bit late for me. Saying, "I was playing Commander Keen before you’d even heard of Doom, Carmack is my god!" usually results in half disgusted looks of concern from most people. But soon, the population will be talking about gaming with the same reverence they hold for Led Zepplin, or Bobby Goldsboro, and you can be the cool kid who gets to say how you’ve played Shingo Takatsuka's games from the start.

6. The public don’t want what the public get

As we said earlier, small developers have a great amount of creative freedom when it comes to making games. Many larger developers can be restricted by the need to satisfy their financiers, and as with the movies, there are only a handful of directors who are granted free reign over the end product. This tends to lead to a situation whereby we’re all sat in one massive, boring feedback loop.

"We’re going to make a World War II shooter as there is a proven market in that area" or "The gravity gun from Half-Life 2 was a huge success, we can entice many people in with a similar device" are the kind of statements I’m talking about. Or: "Multiplayer is a really hot property at the moment, so put multiplayer in the game too.’ "

No one asked for Super Meat Boy or Fez, but the gaming world is richer because of them. They weren’t developed to fulfil people’s expectations; they were built in the hope that players would like their ideas. I certainly enjoyed both immensely, and part of that enjoyment come from the sense of discovery they provided.

While there's nothing wrong with responding to player feedback - particularly if there's an inherent fault in a game - developers should ideally have the latitude to surprise us, not pander to our expectations.

Most small developers create brand new titles with little input from players – the game is created and released, and then we get what we’re given. This is very important to the gaming world. So if you’re going to spend some of your pennies on the games industry, make sure you get a few indie titles so we keep the stream of fresh, unsullied ideas alive.

7. Kerbal Space Programme

I mentioned it earlier, but now I have to talk about this game again before I burst. The

fact of the matter is I bought Kerbal Space Programme on a whim whilst blearily browsing Steam. I played it for a few hours, thought it was alright, and then went back to a bit of Battlefield 4.

About a month later, I was speaking to a chap who enthused so vociferously at me about Kerbal that I was concerned for both our well beings. So I went back and had another dabble. Eight hours later, when my incessant blinking failed to clear the inexplicable blurry spots from my eyes, I decided I had to sleep. Only Shogun 2 has kept me so engrossed in a game recently, and so far Kerbal has even outstripped that in hours played.

Basically, it's a space simulator. You have a finite selection of building equipment available (more available through mods) and you construct rockets or aeroplanes and blast them into space. You can put them into orbit, you can create space stations and you can even venture further out into the solar system. The game engine uses proper physics, so although it's easy enough to send a rocket up, actually visiting moons or planets or building bases is incredibly hard and ridiculously satisfying.

Kerbals are little people who act as your astronauts, and you can send them up in your rockets and land them on planets, too. It’s only in alpha phase (early development), but it combines the best elements of the greatest games: a simple premise, few tools and a world of possibilities. It’s difficult, frustrating, wonderful and charming all in one. There's no intro, no story and no goals to speak of. These, of course, aren't shortcomings – they are major strengths. The developer's concentrated on the game's mechanics rather than a script or cutscenes. Kerbal's not for everyone to be sure, but neither are most good indie titles, because they're so specific in their design. This is wondrous in itself – variety is the spice of life, not conformity.

8. Cutting edge technology does not ensure a great game

Okay, you’ve got the blooms and the high res texture mapping and particle effects and all the trimmings. This doesn’t mean you’ve got a good game. What you’ve got is L.A. Noire, and that had quite a good story and script. It was also famously not a pure videogame, but more of an interactive movie.

Super Meat Boy has almost no cutting edge technology in it at all, but it is a great, simple yet difficult game. Small developers may have access to great technology, but they hardly ever feel the need to rely on it. Infinity Blade is a game developed specifically to showcase the technology it runs on – fair enough – but if you’re making a game then you primary concern needs to be the gameplay. Many, many developers have fallen foul of this mistake. Chess hasn’t survived for so many centuries because it's up to date. It's because it has simple rules, and absorbing gameplay. Football isn’t a great game because we’ve hung a camera on a counterweight in the middle of the pitch – it has simple rules and exciting gameplay. So it’s incredibly important we have indie developers about, reminding us of what gaming is all about – the game.

9. Because Charlie Chaplin says so

If there’s one thing that can’t be said for wading through yet another historical war in gloriously detailed FPS style, it’s that the experience is charming. I have yet to kill an anatomically-correct enemy framed within a historically accurate setting and find myself revelling in just how adorable and endearing the experience was. That is not to say I don’t revel in the obscene level of sadism I’m able to yoink out of a game engine – but that satisfies a very different part of my brain.

It’s important that there is charm in our world, that there is real fun to be had in innocence. Visceral pleasures are all well and good but so many top titles now lack any sort of charm or genuine joy. Nintendo is a company that still cling to charm and are able to execute some really fantastic games that everyone can enjoy, not just children. You don’t need your blood pumping at 300bpm in order to experience fun - there is plenty of room for fun whilst actually enjoying yourself and not just evacuating your bowls through sheer terror.

As Charlie Chaplin states in his Great Dictator speech: “We think too much and feel too little: more than machinery we need humanity; more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.” And this is what I feel separates indie games from those of giant publishers. Mainstream developers are clever, it cannot be denied. But a game like Fez, I feel, is more important to our world than all the Call Of Duties put together. It is really nice. Like Mario is nice. Like Morecambe and Wise were nice. Even in Super Meat Boy, although our protagonist is a boy with no skin, his aim is to rescue to his girlfriend - and the graphics are rather cute. It’s nice.

If we ignore Indie games then our world will just be full of a) large guns and explosions and b) zombies. But with indie games, we get a much richer, more joyful tapestry.

Now, because I'm ever so slightly psychotic, I revel in hacking a corpse to tiny pieces with an axe (in a game). I think there needs to be room for this kind of mindless violence in games too, so long as it doesn’t saturate the industry. But I also think the nice side of things is much more important and much less exploited. If indie developers were crowded out by the bigger companies, the entire world will be a less joyful place.

10. It makes a great movie

Have you seen Indie Game The Movie? I urge you to find it immediately and watch it, because it will say more about the people making these games than I ever could. It is a tense and emotional watch, and it highlights just how much passion goes into making games. Or maybe you know someone who has tried making their own games from scratch – in which case, ask them a little bit about what was involved. I’ve made a couple of very basic games myself, and I can assure you even the simplest of games takes a great deal of work to create. You need so many elements to come together. Sometimes, programmers are even writing half of the game in what is essentially a totally alien language to most people. Actionscript, Java, C#? Very abstract languages to master, and you create half the language as you go.

So watch the movie and you’ll not only glean a small amount of knowledge on how much effort it takes to make an indie game, but also because it is a really good documentary.

So there you have it. Indie games are very important to the gaming world, and now gaming is so large, they're important to the world in general. I play any games I can get my hands on, so I don’t actively despise or ignore the bigger titles being thrown at us, and some of them are magnificent. But the heart of gaming, as with most arts, is at the lower level, where real passion and vision is being painstakingly applied by individuals with scant resources. It is here you can discover new and amazing concepts, and where you can have the most wonderful new adventures.

It’s entirely possible I have been a little excessive and more than slightly hyperbolic in my championing of small developers, but they deserve every bit of it. Put down Assassin’s Creed, and load up Limbo. You owe it to the world. 

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