The rise and rise of the indies, and why they’re finally a legitimate alternative to the mainstream
A faint stirring on some obscure blogs, and some thought-provoking links emailed around the Deus Ex and Thief teams at Ion Storm in 2003: those are my first associations with the words ‘independent games’. There were a handful of disorganised hobbyists and recent college grads interested in our hallowed industry, standing outside the ivory tower, and making intriguing things by themselves. Within a few years, the movement had picked up momentum and was taking on a character of nonconformity and invention. We saw a steady trickle of games with titles such as Teenage Lawnmower, games about being blind that had no graphics, and heaps of brash pixellation. There was a ‘scene’ with contributors all over the map, and dedicated forums such as TIGSource.
But how much legitimacy was being produced? Indie games of this era often drew me in with a wild premise, but the controls were clumsy, the design unrealised, or they otherwise failed to fulfil their promise. I could feel the personal love and devotion poured into Everyday Shooter, but that didn’t change the fact that it was another entry in the tired spaceship combat genre. Fireflies was a well-conceived and enjoyably meditative game about catching fireflies in a jar, but you only needed to play it for a few minutes. These games were compelling in their refreshing content, creative perspective, and glowing soul, but they weren’t games I would, you know, play.
There seemed to exist a deadly association between ‘indie’ and ‘low-quality gameplay’. It was worrisome to imagine that being arty or personal was antithetical to being playable, or that all the undiscovered innovative ideas remaining were semi-functional. But as the indie scene matured, that deadly association weakened. I started to feel jealous of web games that you could jump right into without the overhead of elaborate configuration and training. The industry had all but retired 2D games such as Zelda, but I was impressed by the approachability of indies that bypassed mom-befuddling firstperson navigation. I was envious that indie creators got to focus on their groundbreaking concept from day one and didn’t have to wait for a crew of technical artists to optimise Unreal reflection mapping shaders. I remember our team at EA standing around The Unfinished Swan (finally released). It was beautiful, evocative, ingenious, so simple, and it seemed like something you might play for fun rather than research.
Rewinding back to 2002, a group of industry veterans introduced the world to the concept of a game jam by cranking out 12 games in four days all based around the concept of having 100,000 characters onscreen at once. Now game jams are a staple of the indie scene, with dozens of them happening every year, and indie heroes such as Cactus notoriously whipping out games in as little as four hours. At the Game Developers Conference in times of yore, Jon Blow hosted the Experimental Gameplay Workshop and showed us a Prince Of Persia-inspired time rewinding concept that would later become his landmark indie hit Braid. I used to attend the EGW religiously, ravenous for the off-kilter ingenuity that was the antidote to designs that started and ended with which unique set of weapons this FPS would feature. But today the line between the EGW and indie games is blurry. The Portal-esque Scale, a stand out at the 2012 EGW, made an appearance in Austin’s Fantastic Arcade, one of several indie game festivals. The stupendous Renga, in which 100 players interact via laser pointers trained on the screen, was featured at IndieCade in LA. The Indie Game Jam and the EGW, once crucial incubation epicentres, now seem on the verge of redundancy, having outlived their usefulness in the best possible way.
Coming back from Fantastic Arcade and IndieCade, it dawned on me that we’re in a new era, at least as evidenced by my own personal habits. When I want gorgeous environments heavily backed by rich, inspired backstory, I’ll play White Whale’s God Of Blades. If I want a tense and stylish survival-horror experience that’s not yet another instalment of a franchise, I’ll get back into Lone Survivor or finally try DayZ. If I want to explore extensive systems, I’ll attempt to graduate out of Easy mode in FTL. For arcade fun, there’s Nidhogg or Super Crate Box. If I want to log more hours in an involved experience, it’s going to be Spelunky or Fez. And I’m absolutely horny to get my hands on Hotline Miami by Dennaton Games, a duo that includes Cactus in his first commercial release.
This is the reality of indie games today. The deadly association has crumbled, and indie games are unquestionably a legitimate alternative to the mainstream. Personally, I’m OK with admitting that I love Beyoncé, and I also enjoy Black Ops when my friends coerce me into it. I thought Bourne Legacy was awesome, and I’m amazed by the passionate design of Dishonored. It’s not that I’m an indie snob, I just follow my tastes. But in music, film, and now, finally, in videogames, my first stop for content that satisfies me isn’t the mainstream, it’s the indies.