Daily Think: Problems I Have With Indie Games

I have not one but THREE blog posts in the works. School’s beating me down pretty hard right now, though, so don’t expect much for a while. Here’s an (edited) post I made on a comment thread somewhere.

I mean you do have to give the player some kind of hope, but unlike almost every genre you don’t want to empower them much at all.

Which is why, in Penumbra, you had a couple rocks and a dog that could take you out in one or two hits. You had the chance to kill it, but its power over you made you want to run and hide.

In CoC:DCOE [Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth], you have the power to kill the Shoggoth, but to do so, you have to run like mad, unbolting doors as it flows after you, not daring to look back at it lest you go insane. It’s all about racing the creature to the plunger and blowing it up. You have a hope, there–the hope to get to the plunger, but that’s it.
That’s where their power as horror games come from.

If there’s no hope, there’s no point. I found Amnesia to be more tedious than anything. The game’s best scares were more the result of its sound design (try playing it with the sound turned off and you’ll find that it’s not scary at all, which means that there’s a fundamental problem with the rest of the game) and occasionally using monster closets (but minus the monsters) to startle you.

I don’t really feel indie games suck, if you’re looking for a strong story in those kind of games it’s more difficult to pull off. You need to have a good writer on the team, spend time and budget with your small team on delivering that story AND delivering gameplay.

Saying they sucked was probably harsher of me than I meant.

You know me, and you know I value story, but you should also know that I absolutely love titles like STALKER, which aren’t really about their story at all so much as they are about getting lost in the world.

Sure, you have a few really solid titles, like Braid or Super Meat Boy, but those games are just evolutions of the sidescroller, and while they can be absorbing to play (if you’re that kind of person, and I’m definitely not), they don’t really offer a world you can get lost in. The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike. There are a ton of tower defense indies out there. Zeboyd’s spending its times making NES-style RPGs.

While a lot of these do things to be unique, I can’t say I’m seeing a lot of gameplay innovations–or rather, sustainable ones. You might see one or two gameplay elements that work nicely in an indie game, but they rarely work in other games. I guess the core of my problem is that for all the praise they receive for innovation, indie games aren’t pushing the medium forward the way that titles like Thief (making the 3D stealth genre actually viable and inspiring all the major stealth franchises that came after), Doom/Wolfenstein 3D (all first person games), Ultima/Wizardry (creating every permutation of the RPG in existence today) and so many other games did. They have unique gimmicks that don’t really matter outside their own scope.

BONUS PARAGRAPH: [In fact, one could say that the indie games that don’t really innovate, of which there are many (and they tend to be the most well-known indies too, like Braid, Machinarium, and what have you), are basically doing exactly what most AAA games out there are doing. They’re taking existing mechanics and putting their own twist on them. I mean, why is Braid somehow more special or intelligent than Arkham City? Is it? Is it really? Arkham City’s an evolution of old-school Zelda design. Braid’s just a stylized 2D platformer. Likewise, Amnesia is little more than a not-very-good Dark Corners of the Earth with a steadfast, incorrect belief that not having any weapons is somehow scarier. So what makes indies special? That they’re not made by The Man? This seems to be the case for a lot of people. In fact, in an article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun where Davey Wreden was interviewed by Robert Yang, they kinda discuss the point, and Yang says “Then I talked to an indie dev who questioned the “personal value” angle, as if to say, “You had privilege and could afford to mod instead of work. You didn’t earn your voice.” I feel guilty. That’s what I’m facing now, that I’m not authentic.” Who cares what you go through to make a game? Just make something good. That should be all that matters, not some stupid determination of whether you’re “worthy” of making a game because you fit the definitions of some indie dev who is stickin’ it to The Man.]

They do things well–Amnesia has effective horror sound design, Limbo and Super Meat Boy have great art aesthetics, Cthulhu Saves The World has a great sense of humor, and so forth–but it’s not like they’re inventing mechanics that really change gaming. Nobody’s adopting Zeno Clash’s first person melee, for instance.

The people who tend to praise them are the same people who get really bitchy about how they miss the days when everyone was being innovative (failing, of course, to see that innovation in a given field slows down as the “Wild West” of that medium is settled, which is what has happened in gaming in a lot of ways; it’s the same reason that graphics are making less of a leap every year–the more polygons we use, the harder it is to see just how detailed things really are). They’re praising innovation for innovation’s sake, when what they claim to really want are mechanics that can be used across the field–[mechanics that really change the way we play games].

I’ve always been frustrated with this mindset, which is part of the reason I want to do something about it, as you well know. I’ve just never been able to air it properly, and homework’s giving me a headache, so I thought I’d do it now.

You know what we’re working on, and how it’s… well, ideally, the best implementation of its type. It’s intended to be an evolution of the way people look at this particular mechanic in games. It’s definitely going to be a step up. Part of the reason I’m aggressively targeting this as an integral part of the game is because I want people to look at it and go “oh. Yeah. We can do better than we’re currently doing.”

A lot of the indies I come across tend to be just doing unique things within their own little spheres of influence, and that’s it.
So when you say:

Usually its slight tweaks to an established formula with some good polish, which is fine to a point, but doesn’t push things forward like I want in that area.

I get that, but I feel like Indies are failing to do this too.

ANOTHER BONUS PARAGRAPH: [If anything, I’d say I feel that a lot of indies are basically just doing slight tweaks to an established formula (Limbo, The Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy, Braid, Cave Story…) as well. The main areas that indies do things differently in are in aesthetics or turning out games like World of Goo and Minecraft, which are evolutionary branches of gaming that kind of go their own way. They don’t really… add anything to gaming the way that a lot of early “AAA” titles did).

Some indie games lack polish on the mechanics they design, but many squeeze the most they can from 1 or 2 innovative mechanics to drive the game, and for the money I have fun with them.

And that’s good! You should have fun with them!

I guess I feel like people are treating indie games as though they’re like the gaming industry when it was younger, striving to push the medium forward, but the truth is that indie designers are more like Keita Takahashi, doing things that only work in their specific games.

Where I see mechanical progress in games is on iteration of the way characters interact with worlds. Instead of trying to create the next radical paradigm shift in gaming like the Ocarina of Time or Half-Life or something, I think it’s time to focus on radically improving existing concepts (e.g. character interaction through AI, consequences through choice, in-game training).

In a way, that’s what a lot of indies already do (such as the earlier platforming example).

Heh, maybe I’m just angry that people are praising indies (including the indie designers themselves) for being like something that they’re really not.

For a filmic parallel, a lot of people perceive the gaming industry now as they perceived Hollywood in the 1960s and early 1970s. They’re demanding gaming’s equivalent of the level and variety of innovation found in the 30s and 40s–stuff like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane. Then they’re looking at indies, the French New Wave Cinema of gaming, and acting as if it’s the cure. That’s not the cure and it never was.

As valuable as they were, gaming doesn’t need a Godard or Truffaut right now–it needs the Spielbergs, the Kubricks, and the Coppolas, the kind of people who don’t so much invent the wheel as reinvent it.

I hope that makes sense.

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