Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 8, 2011
Now that being “indie” has gone from being an almost unknown term to something of a badge of honor (with all the annoying pretension that sometimes accompanies it), there have been some accusations – not entirely unjustified – that gamers and reviewers both have a double standard when it comes to indie games, heaping praise on an indie game merely for the virtue of being indie where a mainstream, traditional game would earn little but derision.
On the one hand, I bristle at this. In a sense, it’s like people heaping praise on their kid brother’s efforts at writing a story, simply because “he’s trying.” It indicates greatly reduced expectations. I don’t want to expect less of indie games. In many ways, I shouldn’t have to. ‘Cause there are a lot of places where indie games are breaking new ground, doing what mainstream games are no longer willing to do, and accomplishing some pretty impressive things. And if you want to talk “fun factor” – the pure entertainment value provided for your dollar – my favorite indie games compare favorably to all but the most addictive mainstream games in my library.
But let’s face it: If I truly wanted to erase those distinctions, I wouldn’t be calling them “indie games,” now, would I? Just… games.
But on the other hand, there are no two ways around this fact: Indie games can’t keep up with the production values of the big games. The so-called triple-A development approach has been escalating for three decades now, and the big studio thing is a natural evolution from this. There’s a direct, causal relationship there – perhaps a positive feedback loop between methodology and marketing. Indie is pretty much by definition an abandonment of that runaway train.
The “biz” game has been rigged in favor of the big studio / big game approach. I’ve spent some time reading old game reviews in archived issues of Computer Gaming World from the late 80′s and early 90′s, and those reviewers gushed as much over the graphics and the pushing of the technology envelope back then as they do today. It’s been pretty consistent, reinforcing the message that better graphics, better tech = better game.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is an unnatural development manipulated by shady industry giants conspiring in smoke-filled back rooms conspiring to program the minds of gamers to only respond to the best visuals money can buy. I think to a large degree, they are simply responding to the demands of the market the best they can.
And the demands of going with that particular flow have gotten pretty insane. Or to use a popular (or unpopular) term these days, “unsustainable.” We’re past the point of diminishing returns, but there are still some pretty huge rewards for the behemoths who win those expensive battles. But even Nintendo has bowed out to choose different fights.
The indies are doing the same. The “indie” distinction really is there to change expectations and to draw a different battlefield. You don’t hold a pickup truck to the same standards and requirements you would a sports car, even though the primary purpose of either vehicle might be to take you to and from work each day. The two automobiles address different secondary purposes.
The problem is that “indie” isn’t really a category unto itself. A lot of poorly-informed industry and journalist personalities have made some assumptions about what the “indie” category is, semi-defining it alternately as casual games, free-to-play Flash games, retro-style shooters, social games, “art games,” or … uh, Minecraft. When you are talking about indie games, you can only really talk about what it isn’t, because what it is is “everything else.”
So in the end, I feel like indie games should be judged differently. But though the criteria might change, I don’t know that it should be a lesser standard. Indie games are still about providing a satisfying interactive experience – they just aren’t (usually) attempting to do so by a brute-force pushing of the technological barriers, or even coming close. Their success – or failure (and believe me, though I don’t talk much about ‘em, there are LOTS of failures) – aren’t quite so simple to judge.
Was The Path, by Tale of Tales, successful as a game? It pretty much threw all video game conventions out the window. My first time playing through it, I followed the instructions, avoided harm to my character… and by doing so, effectively “lost.” Achieving the objective of getting to grandma’s house safely was not the real goal. The goal was to experience the game. The jury’s still out on the game for me — it didn’t really hook me, but it was an intriguing experience. And unique. I do like unique, sometimes.
So to me, it’s not so much a double standard so much as being willing to suspend the traditional standards a little bit and take a closer look at what a game is offering without directly comparing it to the most recent best-seller that approximates its category. Sure, comparisons between Din’s Curse and Torchlight and Diablo are inevitable, but the “indie” label is there to remind the player that it’s okay for a game not to contain every single feature of its category peers, and twice the production values to boot. Planet Stronghold is not Mass Effect 2, nor does it try to be.
Let the games stand on their own, and judge them based upon what they are and what they are trying to be — not on what they aren’t. That, to me, is the real purpose behind the “indie” label.
Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 14 Comments to Read