Indie, Beating The Mainstream At Its Own Game

By Lee on June 28, 2010, 9:57AM EDT

This is the golden age of indie. The past few years has seen an explosion of astounding independently developed games. Around the world, bedroom coders and small teams of devs are producing some of the most exciting, innovative and just plain fun experiences available. And what's more, with the maturation of digital distribution on consoles, PC and handheld devices, they're reaching ever larger audiences.

It's never been easier to make them either. Tools such as Flash, the Unreal Development Kit, Game Maker, Unity and Microsoft XNA have made development ultra-accessible. The creation of videogames has been democratised. Now anyone with an idea and a little skill can realise their dreams in videogame form.

And what dreams they are. The indie scene is awash with interesting, challenging, charming and joyful games. While the mainstream seems intent on either playing it safe with endless franchise sequels or going after the Wii buck with motion-controlled casual titles, indie games are taking more and more risks and reaping the rewards.

It's a notion that has been echoed elsewhere, but the current state of videogames echoes that of Hollywood in the '60s and '70s. At that time the major studios - the likes of MGM and Universal - were a factory, pumping out film after film, sticking to tried and tested genres in order to recoup the huge expense of production. It was filmaking as industry, not as an art.

However, the rise of a group of independent directors and producers revolutionised the system. The likes of Scorsese, DePalma, Altman and Peckinpah rejected or subverted the established norms, creating relatively cheap, experimental films that rejuvenated cinema. The boundaries had been destroyed and it had a trickle-up effect on the entire medium. The big studios couldn't help but take notice.

Independent developers are beginning to do the same thing for videogames.

Speak to any indie outfit and they will repeat the same sentiment; Mainstream titles are designed by committee and focus grouped to such an extent that the individuality is squeezed from them. While the games they produce can be good, great even, they take few chances, rounding the sharp edges of an experience into a slick, homogenised sheen. There is plenty to like, but little to truly love.

Many indie games, meanwhile, are unique and recognisably authored, at their best reflecting the personalities and beliefs of those that created them.

Take Jason Rohrer. The designer of Passage and Sleep is Death lives largely from handouts and donations. He has only few clothes and leaves his fridge - filled with vegan pulses and lentils - unplugged to reduce his family's reliance on electricity. He doesn't use deodorant and washes his hair just twice a month. Steven Spielberg consults him for ideas, yet many of his games are available for free. He is the poster boy for art game development.

Rohrer's work explores themes of loss and marriage, storytelling and community. His games exist beyond the confines of gameplay and graphics, creating thought-provoking games that exploit the qualities of the medium like no other. He is a singular talent.

At the other end of the spectrum are devs like Hello Games. A small team of 4 exiles from large studios, Hello Game's debut Joe Danger is full of childlike, joyous exuberance. It's an accessible but challenging racing/platforming-hybrid, a throwback to a simpler, happier time. And it mirrors the devs characters. In person, Hello Games' effervescent personalities are hugely infectious.

Yet even this game, with its cartoonish charm, clashed with the industry machine. While the team were looking for a publisher, they received positive feedback, but there was one sticking point; the pubs wanted the replace the game's eponymous hero. "I'm just not sure how other people feel about it," Hello Games were told. "It's a cute game, so marketing are thinking maybe a cuter character... like a monkey. We're loving monkeys."

Unsurprisingly, they decided to self-publish and release the game they had envisioned all along. It was the right decision. Joe's paunchy, shop-worn charm is at the very heart of the experience. It's been hugely successful.

Between these two contrasting examples sits a vast panoply of bedroom coders and indie development teams striving to bring their vision to the screen. From Rob Fearon's wonderfully named retro shooters (War Twat, Squid Yes Not so Octopus 2: Squid Harder), to Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya's 5-years-in-the-making after-work hobby Cave Story, Amanita Design's gorgeous point-and-click adventures (Samorost 1 & 2, Machinarium), molleindustria's heartbreaking Every Day the Same Dream, the ridiculously prolific Cactus and cross-over indie superstar Jonathan Blow (Braid) - the sheer breadth of fantastic titles being made is jaw-dropping.

These are just a tiny, minuscule fraction of the notable indie games released in recent years. There's plenty more we could mention, and even more just waiting to be discovered. It's dizzying.

So, as broad and as ill-defined as the current indie scene is, fresh, exciting experiences are the unifying factor. This is a period of creativity not matched since the emergence of the medium, one that many disenfranchised gamers bored with the endless shooty machismo and patronising boobs 'n bazookas waft of AAA titles are turning to for refreshment. It is an exciting, invigorating movement, bursting with ideas, constrained only by the limits of its own imagination. And even more exciting than that? This is still just the beginning.

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