A day or two ago I went on one of those great, all-morning voyages, starting at one blog then skipping from link to link, reading new articles and presentations I hadn't been exposed to before, downloading new games and demos to try, and just generally soaking in a flow of information that organically led from one node to the next. I started at Clint Hocking's blog, which led to Jonathan Blow's blog, which led to a great rundown of interesting indie games, the transcript of a Raph Koster talk on the spectrum of subject matter in current games, actionbutton.net which is a kind of nauseous Tim Rogers endeavor but had interesting game reviewing from other writers at least, the Realtime Art Manifesto by the team behind The Endless Forest, and more. A good day.

So, via that list above, I downloaded some indie games I hadn't tried before, including Knytt, which is a legitimately lovely, atmospheric little platformer in the vein of Metroid, but with a completely different tone. It's about a dumb little cat who gets abducted by aliens, then must explore all different parts of a surreal planet to collect missing spaceship parts and return home. I played through it in a couple of hours and it made me feel good.

But, all this made me think: Koster is right when he says that mainstream (hereafter referred to as "big") games currently draw from an extremely narrow set of influences 95% of the time (Jake and Chris and I went and saw a double feature of Total Recall and Terminator 2 the other night at the Castro, and we were noting how almost every big action game in the last 20 years has been trying to recreate the experience of these movies.) And I'm sure that Blow would champion indie games as one avenue that consistently explores new and innovative territory in game design. I've talked with friends in the industry about how we wish games could portray some interaction besides gun violence with the attention usually afforded combat, and certainly non-violent, or at least differently-violent, interaction is one trademark of indie games. I want games that do new and different things. I want games to progress, to convey a wider and more nuanced range of experiences. So even though I appreciate them in the brief time I give them, why aren't indie games what drive me?

Over my years of playing video games, I believe that I've come to a sharper and sharper understanding of what specific elements about all the games I've played most interest me. Playing a wide range of games over time is an ongoing process of exploration--exploring systems, exploring your own reactions to the overall productions--one which eventually allows you to delineate just what it is about games that makes you keep playing, keep paying attention. In my case, I can sum up what I want to do in a game this way:

I want to fully inhabit a single, human character within a believable and functional playable space, to express a complete and satisfying narrative arc by affecting change in the gameworld itself through my own meaningful decisions.

And the above, taken in sum total, I believe lies outside the scope of the indie game sphere. Not that I don't appreciate indie games at all, but in my experience their strengths lie in a number of specific areas-- expression of meaning strictly through inventive mechanics; conveying atmosphere via primitive visuals and sound; trying out new kinds of interaction that haven't been explored before, through highly abstract means-- that don't address the above. Indie games can be groundbreaking, freed from enormous financial investment and publisher demands, but they can't, as far as I've seen, provide me the fully-realized gameworld and inhabitable player character that a big game is capable of.

Which is to say that I can still enjoy indie games, but only briefly, or from afar, at least in their current state. But with the technology available today, indie games could also encompass my ideal core experience that I describe above, given the right approach. Tools are available, relatively cheaply or freely, to construct fully-realized functional worlds in true 3D, but low fidelity (outdated big game engines like the Unreal Engine 2, the Half-Life engine, old versions of Lithtech, etc. as well as open source 3D engines like Ogre.) The form of big games hasn't progressed in exceptionally significant ways since the turn of the millennium; there is nothing being done today, mechanically, that can't be accomplished with the engine technology of 2001. A small, dedicated team, with just the slightest amount of backing, could create a complete game on the scale of, say, System Shock 2, but with an indie outlook-- a setting and cast of characters that expressed an entirely different experience than what is usually encountered in a big game, an open-structure, believable world that exists unto itself, a unique set of mechanics leading to new, progressive dynamics, new forms of interaction, and so forth. By utilizing the technology of yesterday, but the forward-thinking design sense of today, indie teams could convey the "big experience" in ways that conservative, high-fidelity big games aren't allowed.

Beside an arbitrary adherence to exploring the "old-school" space, there's no reason for all indie games to remain 2D, or tile-based, or side-scrolling, or shoot-em-upping, or any other standards of that realm. And with digital distribution gone from a reality to practically the standard on PC, there's no reason for an indie team not to build something amazing that goes beyond the miniature scale of most indie games, and deliver it directly to an audience that would stand up and take notice. I want to love indie games. But I guess I want to love what they could be, not quite what they are.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

I've been blissfully sailing around the so-called blogosphere unaware of your excellent Fullbright. What a mistake! You consistently post thoughtful, articulate essays that invariably illuminate the issues you discuss. It's been a real pleasure for me to make my way through some of them today.

Your manifesto of sorts, "Inhabit," goes right to the heart of what I hope will be the evolution of video games. It's reassuring to know that you are one of the designers pushing us closer to that future.

Thanks for your terrific blog, and best of luck with your work. Thanks, also, for including The Brainy Gamer among your blog links. I appreciate it very much.

Michael Abbott

Steve gaynor said...

Thanks for your kind words, and the work you put into Brainy Gamer. As for the evolution of video games, we'll see what the future holds.