Indie Games & The Changing State of Game Enthusiasm

Once upon a time, I was vested heavily in counting down the days until a major game’s launch. Said games often belonged to one of the old guard: it was a Sony first-party title or it was a full-blown Nintendo experience (sorry Sega and Xbox; I did look forward to your games, but not with similar heights of enthusiasm,). Back in the days of magazine circulations, SCART cables and physical manuals, the games I personally crossed off calendar days over were often the big-hitters. The recognized characters, the trusted company names, the knowledge you needn’t look far to get your money’s worth.

To balance out my previous comment, the one thing that Xbox 360 did — both in its infrastructure and messaging — was to give the less-established developers some room to shine. What we now come to identify as ‘indie’ once started as a branching-off from the regular schedule and line-up of releases. Fast-forward to 2015 to an age of Xbox Arcade, PS Store, Nintendo eShop, and of course, Valve’s hugely successful Steam platform, where indie games have grown tremendously from out their over-shadowed abode and, one can argue, now stand toe-to-toe with the elite profiteers of today’s market.

Something else has surfaced; though alarming, it can’t in anyway be reared as a negative within this multi-billion dollar/pound industry. Last Friday saw the release of Untame’s Mushroom 11 and safe to say, we were treated to a fine fine platformer with plenty of unique twists and ideas to make it feel fresh, exciting and well-worth your time [and money]. Now comes the confession: Mushroom 11 has been one of my most ‘eagerly looking-forward to’ games throughout all of this year. For all the hype I showed for Metal Gear Solid V, Bloodborne, Splatoon…and still exert for the upcoming Just Cause 3 or Xenoblade Chronicles X for 2015 alone, the truth is…it’s the indie titles I’ve had a huge f***ing grin plastered to my face over. First it was Axiom Verge; then came the star of Nintendio’s recent Nindies assemble, 13AM Games’ Runbow (despite Mr Ella’s thoughts)…and last but not least, we have a game about controlling a giant blob of green suminorother. But that’s my point! These games aren’t trying to force a carefully worded message about reinventing the wheel or introducing change for the sake of change, through to us. There’s no big hoo-ha; no mass marketing or [God forbid] enticement to ‘continue the experience’ or expand one’s content, regardless of the themes or the concepts being undertook.

Runbow Screenshot

Sure there will be instances whereby Sony present a varied cast of titles on stage to garner amazement – which, I must admit, worked really well back in 2013 – or Microsoft will give Kickstarter-supported projects like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night time during their Gamescom conference this year. But if anything, that’s doubleplus good in a rather verbally limited culture of press conferences, presentations and speeches housing more cliches and buzzwords than the latest entry to TV Tropes. It shows the big publishers recognize and accept indie games have such prominence now. It’s not just a fad or a flavour-of-the-month ‘thing’, but a great big, almighty thing. An opportunity, a means to reward those who want to create, want to share their ideas and are a part of this industry for all the right reasons.

As I mentioned in my brief EGX write-up, this was what stood out to me the most and ended up dominating my time last month. Is this perhaps why last-year’s much-beloved Shovel Knight was honoured at The Game Awards in 2014 and why the likes of Limbo & Braid – before that – are spoken highly of? Because they represent – despite their 2D, platform-orientated minimalism and simplicity – how/what video games should communicate across? That they’re not simple placeholders or, God forbid, money-spinners aimed at squeezing every last penny out of our pockets? I’m not suggesting anything non-indie doesn’t merit acclaim in its own right, but looking at it as both a consumer and an enthusiast, it’s great to see small teams shining through – mitigating the weight of bigger budgets and greater air-time AAA exclusives often lavish themselves with, for better or worse. That a product, be it a blast from the past or a possible premonition of future standards, can warrant far more intrigue than your umpteenth open-World extravaganza or the like.

Shovel Knight Screenshot

What’s more, with the growing relevance of community-based platforms like Steam Greenlight and indeed Kickstarter – despite its bad press and [justified] controversy/criticism – independent games have a greater breadth to let their voices be heard. Yes you get the less pleasant bad apples amid the bunch, but there are always benefits to reap from out this. The market is now much more broader, yet the consumer still gets a say in what they would like to see out there, and that’s great. I’d much rather let one vast brainstorm emerge than simply read that [insert franchise here] is getting another title, whether you want it or not. Even social media platform Twitter and its frequent Screenshot Saturday assembly of users more than keen to share what they’re currently working on signals not just promise in the industry, but confidence too. Confidence that consumers are interested, but confidence more so that you needn’t require sturdy backing or millions of dollars of promotion to stir up some healthy buzz.

Not only that but I too find confidence in the notion that perhaps I’m not so alone in saying indie games have taken up much more of my time this year than they have any other year before it. For such a [still] young industry, compared to film or television or even music, video games have undergone a remarkable change in the past decade. And just like the 90’s, we have developers to thank for this incredible upheaval in the norm. I wouldn’t go as far as to state this as some great[er] echelon of gaming (the past few years have shown we’re way off ‘ushering in a new golden age‘); there are still far too many questionable decisions for that term to be flogged so easily.

But I’m veering off-course here. What I can say — to make claim to a rather optimistic and personally out-of-character belief — is that it’s a new breed of entertainment that’s helping to readdress the relation between creator and consumer. The independent variety, the indies, are crafting a model the industry sorely needs. It’s through this palette of interesting ideas, human communication and yes nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ where I find my focus shifting towards. It’s a certainty we will have our rough patches, the good and the bad in equal measure, but where exactly the current will take us in the coming decade though uncertain, I won’t doubt is an interesting premise. There’s a benefit to take from all of this then: indie games – acclaimed titles or not – will continue to engage and keep this particular form of entertainment fresh and as lively as ever. Here’s hoping this little tale will get its happily ever after. Somehow.