In his final piece, Smith reflects on five years of columns and industry progress.
Mainstream console games have to justify their pricetag, and that opens up opportunities for istantly-playable games, says Randy Smith.
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?
On the quest to combine truth with entertainment, the ability to compress, expand and abstract reality is crucial. We bumped up against this while developing Waking Mars. Growing an alien seed to see what emerges would be amazing in real life, but when it comes to entertainment, you don’t want to wait weeks just to see vine tentacles poking up from the soil. Our solution was to present, without comment, the dubious vision that Martian flora grows in mere seconds.
I am writing dialogue, which makes me feel shame. Are cutscenes any way to tell a story
in the interactive medium? Though previously convinced they should be banned, I’ve considered movies with voiceovers, text establishing “Berlin, 1945”, and so on. It can be
a crutch, but it’s not necessarily morally wrong. Still I wince when our new project, Waking Mars, opens with text instead of gameplay. WTF.
So we’d decided to make a combat-free platformer set in an alien ecosystem of exotic, interactive lifeforms. We coined the term ‘action gardening’ and now had to invent the corresponding gameplay. What might
it be? Immediately we took to plants. Plants have the kinds of restrictions that motivate goal-driven behaviour. You must collect their seeds. They grow only in special chunks of fertile terrain. And since each chunk has room for one plant, you must decide which to grow where.
Liang Qi, biologist, mineralogist, expert cave diver and celebrated spokesperson of the Global Space Initiative, twisted his torso
and wriggled downward through the tiny opening. Grabbing the rope, he slid the final metres to the floor below, the impact producing hazy spheres of microscopic particulate matter. His headlamp scanned the tunnel ahead. Yet another lava tube, immense, the curved walls meeting overhead and submerging into blackness.
Recently, I tried to replay GTAIV, but it felt too dated. Not the graphics, which are fine. Some of it is the controls, which are bizarrely maximal (hold A on foot to run, tap A to sprint? Hold X while driving to toggle high beams? You couldn’t ship anything more elegant than that?). Mostly it is badly directed, and given its success, it would seem direction isn’t a thing our medium cares much about yet.
Independent developer Jason Rohrer has said that Project LMNO, the cancelled collaboration between Electronic Arts and Steven Spielberg, suffered from a lack of leadership, with the revered Hollywood director taking a limited role in the game's development.
The first thing you learn is that you should keep moving. You can’t kill them all, and bullying hordes of weaker, dumber enemies is a tempting indulgence that only slows you down. Next you learn to avoid becoming surrounded by upright, alert ones, lest they claw you to the floor in a vicious pigpile. These observations quickly lead to the most recurring conundrum: what to do about the milling crowd blocking your way? Personally, I try to end-run them, giving myself a mobility advantage by smashing through store windows or climbing on to separators.