I’d like to use the final part of this video game series to get excited about indie games and the important role they have to play in encouraging the next wave of immersive storytelling experiences. As this is the last post, I’ll also be wrapping up with the answer to the question I had in mind when I first started this series: are games a valid medium for storytelling?
Video games started out as the creative hobby of many programmers before ballooning into the massive industry it is today. And it is really massive: the UK games industry netted $5.3 billion in games and console sales; the US hit $10.5 billion (with roughly $5b more if you include downloaded sales, on-sales and trade-ins ); and Australia’s own local industry is going from strength to strength, as shown in a recent ABS release. Throughout this period of exponential growth, the big players in the games industry have been busy snapping up any and all talented programmers and artists who have wanted to join them. This has contributed to the expanse of truly extraordinary games that we gamers have had the privilege to play. Of course, for every Pixar animation of the gaming world, there are the requisite number of Uwe Boll shockers (ironically mostly based on games themselves), but this is to be expected in an entertainment industry.
But that’s not what makes me excited. The thing that gets me really revved up is that over the past few years there’s been a growing trend towards the development of home-grown, or ‘indie’ games. These games are created with small teams of gifted programmers, or by solo artists, and then released into the gaming populace for free and for the enjoyment of all. Whether this trend is due to the supply of educated games programmers having outstripped the demand from the industry, a result of the slightly volatile nature of games development (job security in the industry is an oft-highlighted issue), or some other reason is unclear. But I’d like to think that in addition to the market effects contributing to this new way of creating games, there is a subset of programmers wanting to express themselves in ways that a larger publishing house may not allow them. They want to make the art house films, the risque narratives of the gaming world. They want to experiment and play and create. By remaining outside the mainstream, they retain the ability to explore ideas that they may have been unable to when limited within the margins of a traditional development house. This is a trend that has been seen in many other creative media: self-published novels are gaining credit, as are teams that produce and release movies through services such asYouTube. The artist that is able to ply his or her trade without the help of gateways or promoters has attained an air of plausibility, if not guaranteed eventuality.
But we don’t need to completely disengage indie game developers and huge publishing houses entirely. The results when big games marketing reaches out to the indie community can be incredible. Take the example of Portal, beloved by many for its innovative* gameplay mechanics and astute use of humour. Portal is essentially a much prettier sequel to the indie game Vernacular Drop, developed by students of the DigiPen Institute of Technology. While theirs might be an extraordinary case (I think I saw somewhere that all the students are now employed at Valve–a massive win for them), it does show that with the right approach, larger companies can take on smaller projects and have them be huge successes. The risks that might once have been involved in the form of marketing dollars and printing costs for CDs, cases, product placement, etc., have been mitigated by the online delivery systems that are fast becoming the method of choice for gamers everywhere. To cite a recent personal example, I don’t know a single one of my gamer friends that didn’t drop a couple of dollars on an indie game in the recent Steam sale. I bought half-a-dozen myself, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played of them so far (Ben There, Dan That, for example, is a brilliant throw-back to old-school adventure games). But it’s not just larger companies that are making the most of digital delivery. With some web-site savvy, a PayPal account, word of mouth, and a bit of luck, indie developers can and have made passable amounts of cash for themselves by selling directly to gamers. And of course, there are somewhat more open platforms than Steam such as the iPhone/Pad App Store that have seen the successes of a few enterprising titles such as Trism, Canabalt, and Steambirds.
The current environment is highly exciting for games and game developers. We have content delivery systems such as Steam and Xbox Live that have allowed indie publishers to get picked up and placed into the living rooms and computer dens of players all over the globe. While the big players are mostly still all about establishing franchise lines and trying to land the big blockbuster sales with the hype machine that has been the engine behind sales for years, indie developers are busy pushing the envelope of what is and isn’t a game. An example of this that has stuck in my mind for quite some time after playing it is Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back, which you can play here. Ostensibly a platform game, the game mechanic of the player’s avatar not being able to turn around is incorporated into its thematic content**. And while it doesn’t have the reams of dialogue or expansive world that other games might, it sticks in the back of your head as a powerful message. The fact that gamers are able to recognise this and appreciate it speaks to the intelligence of a group of people that are often maligned by the media and treated with kid gloves (intellectually speaking) by the major games manufacturers. Gamers seem to want games that speak to their ability to discern and appreciate narratives–or at least, the recent embrace of more conceptual games seems to suggest this. This may be due to the ageing gamer population; the average age of a gamer in Australia is approximately 30 years old and they’ve played the standard gaming tropes a million times before. They’ve sliced a guy in half on systems from 8-bit to HD resolution and, let’s face it, it doesn’t get much more compelling with the extra pixels. It may not be the beginnings of an about face in terms of content, but the embrace of indie developers by gamers that are seeking more than just the standard entertainment will fuel the development of more boundary-breaking, storytelling games, and I can’t help but think that’s a good thing.
So now to return to the initial motivation of this series of essays: do video games effectively tell stories and create compelling fictional immersions? To my mind, they absolutely do, and the ways in which they accomplish this are varied and fascinating. I’m sure that anyone who has played and loved video games would agree with me without a second of hesitation. The majority of them may not be works of ultra-high artistic merit, but really, how much of what people appreciate in other mediums is? Generally speaking, even the bigger franchises are getting the hint that gamers want a little more than mindless, autonomous interaction in their games. And they’ll continue to provide the base-level stories (and the occasional superb example), while the ever-present fringe do what they have done in countless other media and ensure that there are a variety of more meaningful interactions available when gamers want to take their entertainment to a deeper level. The games we play, and the ways we play them, will not cease to continue evolving, and I can’t wait to see what the creative minds who adopt video games as their canvas will come up with for us humble gamers next.