Some months ago, I wrote about how indie games have finally come of age and become a viable alternative to the offerings of triple-A studios after many years of being an intriguing, but not reliably entertaining, sideline. There is another half to this dynamic, which is that mainstream games have increasingly abandoned an entire approach to using the interactive medium, a style of game design that can be exceptional.
Which is not to say that mainstream games are never great, just that they’ve limited themselves in what types of great they offer. Imagine you just bought a game for $60. You bring it home, pop it into the console, settle onto your couch, and what do you expect? Installation. Logo splash screens. A building sense of anticipation. A fancy animated main menu. An orchestral soundtrack. A breathtaking intro cinematic that launches you into an interactive storytelling scene training you in its gameplay. Another cutscene, with a twist, then you’re finally ready for level one. It takes, what, ten to 30 minutes before you’re really playing the game? It’s all been sensational, so no worries. Special effects, explosions, facial animation, and subsurface scattering shaders. Let’s term this a ‘big spectacle’ game.
But remember games like the original Legend Of Zelda? Or the first Super Mario Bros? They were also made by huge companies, also bore full price tags, but were released before there was such an emphasis on spectacle. These games had thin, short introductory phases: after 15 seconds you were playing an actual game, just as fully as you would be two hours later. There were no game modes, multiplayer or cinematics to speak of, elaborate inventory screens or skill menus, just an emphasis on pure, distilled gameplay. And I’m not waxing nostalgic for Nintendo characters or 8bit graphics, the thing that appeals to me is the sense of immediacy and the emphasis on player experience. These games feature uninterrupted engagement by the player with controls and mechanics, and the presentation facilitates an instantaneous understanding of the environment and situation. It’s like a direct IV of nothing but interactivity straight into your veins. Let’s call this an ‘immediate’ game.
Now imagine that there are still new immediate games out there to be discovered, and a big company in 2013 stumbles upon something like Zelda or Mario that it believes will set the world on fire and become the next big thing. Can it release this game and charge $60? What will it look like if it does? It won’t look like the original Mario any more; it’s definitely going to be in a heavy 3D engine and take at least ten minutes to start properly. It’ll probably interrupt gameplay over and over with invasive story elements. It’s likely to have hefty piles of extraneous features, each with a tutorial you have to muddle through, only to have that power-up not get used that much. It’s not going to play like a stripped-down immediate game at all. It’s going to feel more like a big spectacle game, because for some reason that’s what we consumers associate with big price tags. Ironically, by shoving a square peg in a round hole, the game quality would suffer for it.
And here’s the flip side: if it did happen that a previously unknown immediate game was released today, who would you expect to see in the credits? An indie team. That’s what indies are doing, among other things – they’re returning to the roots of what made this approach to gaming great. In fact, such games come out all the time from indie teams (see: Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Don’t Starve, Binding Of Isaac, Fez, and so on).
I should have started this column by saying “brace yourself for painful and rampant over-generalising”. There are so many exceptions that this can hardly be called a rule. Steam’s Indie Top Seller lists are packed with FPS mods and survival-horror games that look a lot like budget versions of triple-A games, not immediate games at all, at least not by choice. Of course, the actual Zelda and Mario franchises haven’t exactly been retired, although they aren’t as stripped-down as they used to be. There are big spectacle games that impress us by defying these trends, managing to keep the huge, elaborate machinery of their production quality from taking away from player experience. Take Dead Rising, Dishonored, GTAIII, or the various Lego games. In these games, the designers seem to do their best to stay out of the player’s way, each fictional element balanced for brevity and interactivity, each feature adding a player-driven dimension to the gameplay, each menu as simple as it can be, and environments and scenarios tuned for readability despite the 3D cameras that view them.
Regardless of ample exceptions, there is a real phenomenon here, and it’s not one of quality but of niches. Indie games don’t have the budgets to compete with console games on spectacle. And triple-A games are forced to prove they are worth their large price tag, which pushes them away from raw playability and leaves behind a satisfying and popular niche I’ve called the immediate game, which indie games have demonstrated they are perfectly positioned to fill.