Indie Games Can’t Move Forward If They’re Always Looking Back

Written 08/11/2011. First posted here.

Some would say that opening your career by taking a pot-shot at gaming’s darling is unwise, and those people would be right. That said; if something’s worth doing, it’s worth screwing up and there are issues with the indie market that need to be talked about.

Before we can start, ‘indie’ needs to be defined as a genre. Do we count titles that came out as indie but were later picked up by publishers (Mount and Blade, The Ball), or are they disqualified and stripped of their Indie Status? More controversially, where do we put the multitude of wildly popular games which started as mods, only to be picked up and nurtured by Valve: the Patron Saint of Modders? For the purposes of this article, ‘indie’ will be used to refer to games produced entirely by independent developers, and those that were bought up after completion. This is purely for the sake of clear communication and there are indie games which fall outside these rough parameters.

Unambitious indie developers have three bad habits. One is to try and imitate the indie games which have been successful (hence the preponderance of stark horror games), another is targeting nostalgia: see the vast array of games that describe themselves as ‘retro’, ‘classical’ or ‘harking back to the…’. The final is simple laziness. Why develop a distinct world and plot when you can make a standard dungeon-crawler, stick some funny names in it and smear a watery veneer of parody over the whole thing[¹]?

Despite what many writers would have you believe, this does not actually lead to a laugh-a-minute ironic thrill-ride, but merely treads the same barren ground as the other five wacky fantasy games which came out that month. Similarly, throwing coin noises into your sidescrolling platformer to try and trigger a Pavlovian nostalgic reaction is far less charming than you think.

This isn’t to say that indie games are bad – the genre’s produced some of my favourite games, I’m not going to bite the hand that programs – just that there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential. A good horror game is a thing of sublime joylessness, but too many developers seem to be reaching for the success of Amnesia and Limbo instead of experimenting.

For a genre that should be all about innovation its output is remarkably homogenous and low-risk. Developers tend to make games because making games is their ambition (or, more often, having made games), rather than to get something in their heads onto the screen and it shows through in the writing and design. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but unless the developer becomes interested in the game as its own entity that lack of passion will be a noticeable weak point. This is especially glaring when it comes to horror, where a lack of imagination doesn’t just cripple a game: it hamstrings it and leaves the bleeding victim for the wolves.

Horror is a genre that should be approached with caution, delicacy and a finely-tuned sense of masochism. If you, the developer, aren’t looking nervously over your shoulder mid-writing there’s a fair chance your prospective player won’t either. While it’s never a good idea to imitate rather than create, this is a particularly poor choice of genre to play silly buggers in. Everyone expects humorous games to be a little weak – really, the writing standards in this industry are appalling – but an atmospheric horror game can’t coast by on low standards. Write the horror game that’s in your head. If it isn’t there? Don’t write it. The successful titles of other indie developers are not your template.

That maxim would hold true for parody if anyone wanted to copy it, but let’s not kid ourselves. Bog-standard wacky fantasy games (and their sci-fi and steampunk cousins) proliferate like slime on slick stone because they’re easy, not because they have boundless artistic merit. There’s plenty that can be done with the genre, but no-one seems to be doing it. Instead gamers are treated to yet another adorably bobble-headed protagonist in a hack ‘n slash world.

No hate, Dungeon Defenders, but your heads are magnificent in their rotundity.

Comedic is not synonymous with shallow but a quick browse through the indie section would have you think otherwise. This is not the place to go if you want clever stories or developed settings, it’s for clichés wrapped up in an ironic bow. It doesn’t just approve of the half-arsed joke, it revels in it. Calling your dungeon-crawler Sword and Saucery and setting it on a giant table…would actually make you slightly more creative than most developers, which is a thing of exquisite agony. The climax would involve climbing a tower of dirty crockery to retrieve a sugar cube.

(Hold on, I’m writing this idea down.)

None of this would be as infuriating if I didn’t actually like humorous fantasy, and it’s not like I’m hard to please. Kobolds Ate My Baby can keep me entertained while sober, for crying out loud, this is not a high bar to hurdle. It has the advantage of other players. You have the advantage of pre-scripting. Unlike the horror-clones, the ‘ironic’ fantasy developers can’t fear risk because they’re not creative enough to find it. Pushing the boundaries would require nudging the middle first.

By contrast, the nostalgia market is terrified of risk. Not to absolve them of laziness, mind you; if the best thing you can say about your game is that it’s out of date you’re not weaving wonders here, but many developers seem more comfortable borrowing from the past then betting on the future. These can, for the most part, be divided into two camps: Retro and Nostalgic. Nostalgic games are your basic platformers, side-scrollers, etc., while Retro involves flogging Space Invaders to people who are young enough to find old-school cred in monotony. Retro has its own appeal, but there are far more of them than the genre deserves – especially when you can play the originals for free on half a dozen websites. The problem with both isn’t an appreciation for the old, it’s the neglect of anything new, with many games preferring to substitute arcade sounds for charm or style.

Indie developers have an advantage that the big companies don’t. Lower costs, no over head, and no pushy publisher dictating design should lead to atypical, daring and quirky games – and in many cases it does – so why is it surrounded by a horde of safe non-entities? When the consequences of innovation are so low, why aren’t standards higher?

Earlier I said that indie developers have three bad habits. I lied.

Or, with artful weasel-wording, I didn’t, as this flaw is one that spreads its necrotic tentacles across tiny and towering alike: writing is still devalued in gaming culture.

It’s the core problem behind every nostalgia-grasping mediocrity and clownish hack ‘n slash. The games industry can’t improve until it sees writing as more than the paper around the gift, because no-one will have a story they care about enough to work for. And for all their protestations of art, your average indie developer is no better.

¹ And just stop with the hilarious monsters. The Gelatinous Cube’s been around since 1977. That ship ain’t just late – it’s been sunk, lost, rediscovered and restored.

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